In a National League Championship Series game that will go down as one of an ever-growing list of dramatic St. Louis October victories, the Cardinals suffered a brutal loss.
Yadier Molina, one of the best all-around ballplayers in Major League Baseball, grimaced after a second-inning single while running down to first. Thereafter, he met with the training staff, according to Erin Andrews of Fox Sports, but stayed in the game. After laying down a curious sacrifice bunt in his second plate appearance of the game, Molina grounded into a double play in the sixth. But he barely made it out of the batter’s box. Instead of running out the play, he hunched over, plainly in pain. Manager Mike Matheny and trainers tended to the Cardinals’ all-world catcher, who the manager pulled due to injury. The Cardinals announced that Molina had suffered an oblique strain, that most tricky of injuries and one that typically carries with it a sidelining of at least a few weeks but sometimes more.
Matheny confessed ignorance on the Cardinals’ part regarding the extent of Molina’s injury after the Cardinals’ dramatic NLCS Game 2 victory, per Corey Brock of MLB.com, and then added a rather foreboding observation:
"We don't know much more about it right now," said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. "But [it] didn't look real good."
For what it’s worth, the announced diagnosis of an oblique strain didn’t pass the sniff test for non-doctor and self-branded @injuryexpert Will Carroll, who made a name for himself writing for Baseball Prospectus before moving to Bleacher Report.
Word from St. Louis is strained left oblique for Molina. I'll be honest he didn't act like that at all. Was not taking stress off one side.
— Will Carroll (@injuryexpert) October 13, 2014
Did not grab at his side. Did not bend. Bent straight forward. Not saying it's wrong, saying he gave none of normal signs.
— Will Carroll (@injuryexpert) October 13, 2014
Regardless of the exact nature of Molina’s injury and whether the Cardinals are being forthright, it appears that Molina will be out for the entirety of the NLCS and beyond—if there is a beyond for St. Louis.
This isn’t the first time that injury has rendered the Cards Yadi-less. It happened earlier this season when thumb ligaments torn while sliding required surgical repair. The injury and post-surgery rehab caused Molina to miss 40 games. During that span, the Cardinals were forced to go with a Plan B at catcher that took the form of intra-organization backup Tony Cruz and George Kottaras, who St. Louis plucked off the waiver wire. The Cardinals didn’t stick to Plan B very long, though, opting for an audible in the form of veteran A.J. Pierzynski.
The Cards wound up winning more games than they lost with Molina shelved due to injury, but it wasn’t due to his replacements’ offensive production. Pierzynski got off to a hot start and Matheny installed him in the primary catcher role, but his hitting fell off as his time in the birds on the bat lengthened. By season’s end, Pierzynski’s line with St. Louis of .244/.295/.305 (.273 wOBA, 72 wRC+) was all but indistinguishable from the .254/.286/.348 (.278 wOBA, 71 wRC+) he posted with the Red Sox before Boston cut him loose. As for Cruz, well, it wasn’t pretty: .200/.270/.259 (.242 wOBA, 51 wRC+).
There’s going to be a drop-off in production at catcher for the Cards, but perhaps not as steep a one as you might think. Before undergoing corrective surgery on his right hand, Molina hit a healthy though somewhat disappointing .287/.341/.409 (.329 wOBA, 110 wRC+). After the Cardinals activated Molina from the disabled list, he returned and batted .267/.309/.317 (.281 wOBA, 78 wRC+)—better than Pierzynski, but not by much.
In addition to the batting gap, there is a fielding gap. ESPN’s Marc Simon’s tweet regarding the defensive runs saved for Molina and the combination of Cruz and Pierzynski as Cards this season is illustrative if not all-encompassing.
Yadier Molina: 8 Defensive Runs Saved in 931 2/3 innings in 2014 Cruz and Pierzynski -9 Defensive Runs Saved in 506 innings for Cardinals
— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) October 13, 2014
That's a yawning Defensive Runs Saved gap.
On top of the measureable defensive contributions Molina makes in the running game, blocking balls in the dirt, and fielding, there is the much harder to define performance of handling a pitching staff. Molina has always received rave reviews in this area, from Tony La Russa to Dave Duncan to Mike Matheny to Shelby Miller, who openly mused that it seems as if Yadi looks into a hitter’s soul when discerning what pitch to call next.
At Grantland, Ben Lindbergh penned an excellent piece, "Yadi’s Secret Sauces," that delves deeply into the ways in which Molina helps the Cardinals win. In the article, Lindbergh digs into the metrics for measuring catcher defense. He consults Mitchel Lichtman, who once consulted for the Cardinals, on the value of Molina’s pitch-calling. Lindbergh breaks it down as follows:
The standard deviation of fielding skill is small, which makes sense: Because catchers receive so few opportunities to field batted balls relative to players at other positions, and because most catchers aren’t especially mobile — say someone has a "catcher’s body" and everyone will know what you mean — there isn’t much separation between the best- and worst-fielding catchers over the course of a season. Framing, however, has a large standard deviation, which is also intuitive: Catchers have thousands of opportunities to turn borderline balls into strikes, and we know that some are notably better at doing so than others.
Game calling slots in below framing but above everything else, which suggests there’s a fairly wide variation in catchers’ game-calling skill. It’s important to note that in this case, "game calling" encompasses everything we don’t know how to quantify about catchers: the ability to soothe a pitcher’s psyche, to know when to make a mound visit, to spot mechanical problems and recommend fixes, or even to position other defenders, another area in which Molina reportedly excels. That 5.2-run standard deviation is almost certainly baking in factors beyond the basic decisions about how many fingers to put down and where to set up relative to the strike zone.
Still, this framework allows us to answer the key question posed earlier in the piece: What does losing Molina’s game calling cost the Cardinals? Lichtman estimates Molina’s game-calling talent at 8.6 runs per 150 games, which tells us that Molina is 1.7 standard deviations from the mean. If game-calling skill is normally distributed (i.e., described by a bell curve), being 1.7 standard deviations above the mean would put Molina in the top 5 percent of catchers. The stats support the popular perception.
Per Brock’s MLB.com article, some Cardinals pitchers were sanguine about their chances without Molina because of Cruz filling in for the injured multiple-time Platinum Glove winner:
"It's a big loss, but with Cruz, he's like Yadi Jr.," said Cardinals reliever Pat Neshek. "It's going to be a loss, but I don't think we'll miss him as much because of Cruz."
That's the sentiment that another reliever, Seth Maness, shared after the game.
"It's going to be huge, but we were in this position halfway through the year [when Molina was injured] … but Cruz stepped in and we didn't miss a beat," Maness said.
Then there’s controlling the opposition’s running game. Molina is excellent at this. For his career, Molina has thrown out 45% of would-be basestealers compared to a league-wide rate over his career of just 28%. In 2014, Pierzynski threw out 18% of would-be basestealers (14% with St. Louis); Cruz, 25%. The thought of facing, say, the Royals with a Pierzynski/Cruz combination instead of Molina is pretty unsettling; thankfully, there’s the matter of attempting to best the Giants in the NLCS to distract us from such a potential World Series matchup.
Can the Cardinals win the pennant and World Series without their backstop lynchpin? Of course they can. It’s October and anything is possible. The Yadi the Cards are replacing is not the Molina of 2013 or even June 2014; he’s not his former self after his injury and corrective surgery. But that doesn’t mean that their chances of winning seven more October games didn’t take a hit when Molina strained his oblique. For the 2014 Cardinals, nothing has come easily. The grind continues.