The St. Louis Cardinals confirmed Thursday that Yadier Molina will be the franchise’s catcher for at least the next five seasons, marking the second time the team has kept the best defensive player in the game.
The Cardinals signed Molina to a $75 million contract extension that will keep him in St. Louis until at least 2017. However, unlike most big-money contracts dished out around the league these days, Molina will receive the bulk of that money because of his glove, not his bat.
Molina’s deal also harkens back to the 1980s when the Cardinals paid a shortstop named Ozzie Smith to often-miraculously cover the middle of the infield. Smith never made more than $3.5 million in a single year, but that is more because of the different eras than because of talent. From 1978 to 1996, $3.5 million was still considered a lot of money, especially for someone with a .262 career batting average.
During his career, Smith reshaped how defensive players were valued. He averaged just two homeruns during his 19-year career, but he saved countless runs with his dazzling glovework.
Sure, other eras also had terrific defensive players, but Smith made defense exciting to watch. The crowd at Busch Stadium would actually cheer when a ball was hit toward Smith’s shortstop position because there was a pretty good chance it might be the most memorable moment of the game.
Molina is the same way behind the plate. He’s not the first catcher to receive a big contract. Catchers such as Joe Mauer, Jorge Posada and Mike Piazza also received huge paydays, but the difference between those catchers and Molina is how well they hit. Each of the three previously mentioned players were paid because of what they could do standing next to the plate more than what they could do behind it.
That’s not the case with Molina. He has a .274 career batting average and hits about nine homeruns each season. But, he leads a pitching staff as well as anybody and has gunned down 44 percent of the baserunners who dare to try and steal second base when Molina is in the game.
Molina gets a similar reaction at Busch Stadium III when he throws out a baserunner as Smith did at Busch Stadium II for making a diving play or leaping grab.
Defense is often undervalued in Major League Baseball. Teams pay more for homerun hitters because the stats are more black and white. A batting average will show how good a hitter is, but fielding percentage is much more subjective and misses a large part of the defensive game. Sure, there are new defensive sabermetrics coming out each year, but defense is still tougher to value than offense.
Given the holes in the statistics, defensive prowess must be defined by observation. Regardless of how many baserunners Molina throws out, the intangibles he brings to the field are vital to the success of the team. He is the lynchpin that holds the team together, even more so than Pujols when he was a Cardinal.
Smith was the same way. He played on all three of the Cardinals World Series teams in the 1980s and provided stability at one of the most important positions on the field.
Cardinals fans should appreciate watching Molina play defense. It is an art form that is often overlooked until it is gone.
Defense will likely never be valued as much as offense, but players such as Molina and Smith show that terrific defense wins a lot of ballgames, and quite a few championships, as well.