The Cardinals will be countering the Red Sox as they vie for their twelfth World Championship, and the player who has been the constant leader and heart of the team is their catcher Yadier Molina. As we saw in the National League Championship Series, Molina is an integral part of the Cardinals, and he has earned his name amongst those mentioned as a M.V.P. candidate after performing solidly behind the plate as well as at the plate with the bat. Molina is one of the best catchers of this generation, and we can learn a lot from his leadership and fortitude as the Dodgers prepare this offseason for 2014.
While I have always been a big fan of A.J. Ellis, it became glaringly evident which
backstop was the more fundamentally in tune during this NLCS between the Dodgers and the Cards. A.J., who had a breakout season in 2012, saw his batting average drop this season from .270 to a disappointing .238 in the regular season. His OBP, which was one of his trademark strengths in 2012, also fell from .373 to .318. He did strike out a lot less (107 times in 2012 and 78 times in 2013), but he also played in 18 less games this season as Tim Federowicz and Ramon Hernandez each got some time behind the plate. He also walked 20 less times, which is something that falls in line with his lower OBP. He hit 3 less homeruns, yet he had the exact same number of RBIs (52) in 2012 and 2013.
It is unclear whether the workload affected A.J.’s offensive production, whether 2012 was a flukish year for the 32-year old who spent parts of 9 seasons in the minors, or if an unknown plaguing injury was the cause. Last offseason A.J. underwent knee surgery, and it was an injury which wasn’t revealed during the regular season. While we shouldn’t directly compare the two catchers, if we look at Yadier Molina’s 2013 it tells a much different story. Molina, who is one year younger than Ellis, batted .319/.359/.477 which was a career-high batting average for the Puerto Rican catcher and led the league amongst qualifying catchers. Molina hit less homeruns than the year prior (10 less), but he struck out just 55 times in 505 at bats. His 80 RBIs was a career-high.
In the NLCS Yadier Molina did struggle at the plate, and he only hit .227 in 6 games with 5 hits. A.J. Ellis actually hit very well during this year’s postseason for the Dodgers. In the NLDS versus the Braves, Ellis hit .333 with 4 hits including 2 doubles. In the NLCS he also turned on the heat, and he batted .316 with 6 hits including two doubles, a triple, and a homerun. Ellis’s double in Game 6 was just one of two Dodger hits during the entire game against the Cardinals.
What really stood out for me was the way Yadier Molina handled the young pitching staff for the Cardinals. With rookie Michael Wacha and young Joe Kelly, Molina was instrumental in preparing the pitching staff for this postseason. Clearly the Cardinals were primed in their strategies against the Dodger hitters. Some of the credit should certainly go to Mike Matheny and his coaching staff, but it is apparent that Yadi knows the hitters in the league very well, and he was able to choose better pitch selections and sequences against the Dodgers than A.J. Ellis and the Dodger pitching staff were able to against the Cardinals especially in Game 6.
As far as defensively, Yadier Molina is very skilled and is one of the best in the league. He threw out potential base runners at a 43% clip, and he made just 4 errors (3 passed balls) during the regular season. There were 22 wild pitches for the Cards while on Yadi’s catching clock. Molina has garnered the Gold Glove award 5 times in his career. If you don’t care for those types of awards, Molina’s WAR was 5.6 and his Def was 17.8 for the 2013 season. In comparison, A.J.’s advanced stats were a 2.2 WAR and 10.1 Def.
I realize that Molina and A.J. are drastically different players, but A.J. made some big mistakes during this NLCS that had me admiring Molina’s catching expertise even more than I already had. The catcher is my favorite position, so comparing the league’s catchers is something I regularly do. A.J. no doubt works with the Dodgers pitching staff very well, and he especially enjoys catching his buddy Clayton Kershaw. That’s why Game 6’s disastrous outcome was so glaringly frustrating.
There was one point during that fateful 48-pitch third inning when Clayton Kershaw signaled to A.J. Ellis that he was having trouble seeing his signs. Kershaw pointed to his eyes. Ellis did not go out to the mound to talk things over with his battery mate, and from there it only got worse. Of course it wasn’t all A.J.’s fault, and Kershaw was still pitching poorly, yet I often feel that a pitcher and a catcher are supposed to work in synch like a well-oiled machine. A.J. and Kersh were out of balance in Game 6 for some reason, and they were never able to get back in a groove. The Cardinals hitters jumped on Kershaw early, and any preplanned strategies by A.J. had to be thrown out the window.
Defensively A.J. threw out base runners at a career-high 44% clip which was 1% better
than Molina. He made 3 errors and allowed 6 passed balls. The eye-catching stat is the number of wild pitches for the Dodgers with A.J. catching- 45. Kershaw had 12 wild pitches (a career-high) during the regular season. Plus there were two consecutive wild pitches in the second inning of Game 6 of the NLCS by Kershaw.
The most detrimental mistake by Ellis during the LCS was during the fifth inning of Game 2. After David Freese doubled, a costly passed ball allowed him to advance to third which ultimately led to the lone run and winning run of the game to come home on a sacrifice fly by Jon Jay. The Dodgers lost Game 2 on that unearned run, and it may have been one of the most damaging mistakes during the series.
With all due respect to A.J., he has been a pillar of consistency and inspiration for the Dodgers since 2012. After suffering through the likes of countless Dodger catcher which were far inferior like Matt Treanor, Rod Barajas, Ramon Hernandez, Dioner Navarro (twice), Jason Phillips, Brad Ausmus, and anyone remember Hector Gimenez who started one game at catcher in 2011?
A.J. Ellis will be back as the Dodgers primary catcher in 2014, but I wouldn’t hesitate to say that the Dodgers will feel out the free agents for the position this winter (as long as they never sign Brian McCann!). Tim Federowicz, who only played in 56 games for the Dodgers this season after being pushed to the backburner briefly for the useless Ramon Hernandez, should get more time behind the plate in 2014. FedEx has been viewed as the Dodgers potential future catcher, and with some more seasoning and work with the bat he probably will gradually take over duties from Ellis. The Dodgers are lacking in depth in the catching department, so this offseason will be interesting as far as adding versatility to the catching stock in the minors.
Yadier Molina has taught us some important lessons this offseason. The crucial job of the catcher defensively is sometimes more important than his offensive contributions. Working with the pitching staff, calling a good game, framing borderline pitches, blocking the plate and not allowing balls in the dirt to pass, and most importantly lending leadership are all skills which Yadier Molina brings to the Cardinals. Molina has been instrumental in St. Louis’s success, and Dodger catchers as well as all other catchers whether in the Majors or at any other level of baseball can learn from Yadi’s spirit and tenacity behind the plate.