Sunday, April 13, 2008

praise of Yadier Molina

La Russa, pitchers effusive in praise of Yadier Molina 
By Joe Strauss 
St. Louis Post-Dispatch ST. LOUIS -- 

On a good day, the process repeats 120 times, maybe less. A tough day might require it 150 times or more. Yadier Molina will mentally scan a checklist before each pitch, considering a hitter’s weaknesses as well as the strengths and weaknesses of that day’s pitcher. He notes if the batter has crept closer to the plate or deeper into the box.

He decides if his pitcher has begun to slow his rhythm, suggesting fatigue or uncertainty, or started to rush, which may signal panic. On rare occasion, Molina will steal a glance to his dugout for a suggestion from Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, but those instances are far less frequent now than during his first full season in 2005. If baseball can be called a game of nuance, few things incorporate more subtleties than a catcher’s handling of a game. Or more precisely, his handling of a pitcher. Molina has been known for The Arm ever since he reached St. Louis as Mike Matheny’s precocious backup in June 2004. However, as the Cardinals’ unveiling of a renovated starting rotation remains in its first month, Molina’s grasp of the less obvious has become equally apparent. 

“He had it when he was 20 years old,” manager Tony La Russa says. “His feel for what was going on in that day’s game really stood out. That’s why we didn’t hesitate to make him the backup behind Mike, and when we lost Mike, why we didn’t hesitate to make him the No. 1 guy. “He’s still demonstrating it. He’s getting to know hitters better the longer he’s in the league. But he’s really special that way, as special as he is with his other gifts.” 

Molina, who turns 25 in July, no longer catches for a veteran rotation. When Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis vacated as free agents last winter, Adam Wainwright and Anthony Reyes became staples. A relative graybeard, Braden Looper, became a starting pitcher after spending eight major-league seasons exclusively in the bullpen. Kip Wells, another veteran, signed after making only nine starts for two teams last season and immediately set out to become a more efficient, more aggressive pitcher. 

“ ‘Soup’ and Marquis had more experience,” La Russa says. “With Adam and Braden, it’s a big asset to have a guy behind the plate who can help you through it. There aren’t too many pitchers who control their game and control it well.” 

“A lot of times, if a guy has pitched for a while he’s not going to stray from what he’s used to doing,” veteran backup catcher Gary Bennett says. “Guys who are new to start, or are younger, tend to shake (you off) less. That puts it more in your hands.” 

The Cardinals enter tonight’s series opener against the Milwaukee Brewers with a 3.04 ERA and seven quality starts from the rotation in nine games. The six pitchers who have started sport a combined 2.54 ERA. What some expected to be a traumatic transition has so far been seamless except for Chris Carpenter’s tumble to the disabled list. The turnover has thrust Molina into a position of even greater responsibility. Duncan, a catcher for 10 major-league seasons, is regarded as blunt and demanding. He sees strengths without weakness from Molina. Duncan notes Molina’s impressive recall of hitter’s tendencies as well as what he calls creativity with pitch calling. 

“He goes in with a lot of credibility,” Duncan says. “Yadi has the right approach with the pitcher. He understands strengths and weaknesses, what he can do and can’t do during the course of a game. He can apply it to what he knows about the opposition. He does it the right way.” 

“I always try to catch the same way no matter whose out there,” Molina says. “I just try to make them comfortable and just try to help them.” 

After two regular season starts, Wells also speaks of Molina’s credibility. “He does everything well as a catcher,” Wells says. “He receives well. He blocks balls. Everyone knows about his arm. He seems to have a good sense for calling a game. Some catchers can be a minus if they’re not into what they’re doing. It’s obvious that Yadi is into it.” 

“A guy out there shaking (off the catcher) a lot probably isn’t very confident in what he’s getting,” Bennett says. “You don’t want that. When that happens, something’s not right. You don’t see that very often with Yadi.” 

From the moment he uses his cleats to carve a cross behind the righthanded batters’ box, Molina’s priority is about the wellbeing of his pitcher. The trait was passed on by his catcher brothers, Jose and Bengie, and ingrained by Matheny. 

“I do it for them. I do it for everybody,” Molina says. “I’m just trying to get a win.” 

“You have some variations of aptitude, how much a priority it is and who pays attention,” La Russa says. “Yadier pays attention the whole time and evidently he’s been studying for years before he got with us. “He’s got this feel for what’s going on. It’s very natural for him to determine if a pitcher needs to be more aggressive or needs to slow down. He just pays attention. He’s really gifted. That’s why I think he’s the best catcher in baseball.” 

While with the Florida Marlins, Looper threw to future Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez. He considers Molina the superior receiver and at least an equal arm. “He’s very smooth and very confident in what he’s doing,” Looper says. “And as a pitcher that gives you confidence.” 

New to navigating a lineup three or more times, Looper welcomes whatever assistance he gets. “I don’t think anybody can do it by themselves,” Looper says. You can’t go out there in an uncomfortable situation, where you’re shaking all the time. Put the sign down and let’s go. That means a lot.”