This not being a Yankee blog, it's probably fitting that the passing of Yogi Berra has not merited a ton of discussion, or at least not a ton of front page space. Yogi Berra, for all his St. Louis ties, was a legend in pinstripes, and never once in all his long life, so far as I know, donned the Birds on the Bat.
But I am not only a Cardinal fan; I am a St. Louisan. And the passing of Yogi has not filled me with the kind of delicate, warm, and ever so slightly existential grief the passing of Stan Musial did, but nonetheless the game has lost an icon, and my city has lost one of its favourite sons. I'm planning on heading over to Gioia's deli today for lunch if I can at all swing it. It's one of the oldest of old-school Italian delis in the city, located at the corner of Macklind and Daggett, only a short walk from the block of Elizabeth Avenue that produced both Yogi and Joe Garagiola. Considering it's Italian as hell, right on The Hill, and actually predates Berra himself -- Gioia's was founded in 1918; Yogi was founded, so to speak, in 1925 -- it seems to me a fair, if tiny, tribute to the man himself. Sure, a hot salami sandwich may not seem like much, but, well, I don't really know how to finish that sentence. It feels appropriate to me. Also, I'm very hungry.
I also thought I might pay a short bit of tribute to a legend of St. Louis and baseball, but sadly not of St. Louis baseball, by comparing him to our own current legend-in-the-making catcher, Yadier Molina. There will be plenty of debate when the time comes about whether or not Yadi is, in fact, a Hall of Famer, but that's a conversation for another day. For now, we know that Yadier Molina is one of the best catchers in baseball, has been for quite some time, and is quite possibly already the greatest catcher in the history of the Cardinal franchise. I might still go with Ted Simmons, personally, for his remarkable offensive abilities, but still, Yadi is as good as it gets in general. He will almost certainly be the last player to ever wear number 4 for the Cardinals, and has been one of the defining players of perhaps the most sustained run of success the franchise has ever had. In other words, Yadier Molina is awesome. And he should serve as a fine example of just how amazing Yogi Berra was, which is somewhat easy to forget in light of the various malapropisms that came to define his public persona, not to mention a managerial career which may have actually overshadowed the player he was once upon a time.
Yadi is currently completing his twelfth big league season, at the age of 33. He's been pretty much the gold standard for durability among catchers, with Sal Perez perhaps having inherited the crown the past few years as Yadi has moved into his thirties. If we take out his first year in the majors (2004), when he was still serving as understudy for Mike Matheny, Molina has played eleven seasons, and appeared in 1413 games. That's an average of 128 games per season, and if he manages to get back on the field this year that number might just roll up to 129. To see a catcher play so many years, at such an impressive workload, is a feat in itself. It also always brings up the question of how much longer Yadi can possibly do it.
Yogi Berra got a cup of coffee in 1946, appearing in seven games. We're just going to lop that off. From 1947 through 1963, his last season with the Yankees (there was a sad denouement with the Mets in '64, but we're going to pretend those nine plate appearances as a sideshow attraction don't exist either), Yogi averaged 124 games per season. Over seventeen seasons. From 1950-'56, he never appeared in fewer than 137 games, and never took fewer than 557 plate appearances. Late in his tenure with the Yankees, Berra did play the outfield a fair amount, trying to spare his aged knees while still keeping his bat in the lineup, but in that 1950s run of Yankee titles, Yogi was squatting behind the plate for nearly every game.
Yadier Molina has justifiably acquired a reputation for being one of the toughest players to strike out in all of baseball. His bat control is extraordinary, and his ability to foul off pitches, slapping them off to the right over and over again, in order to extend at-bats until he can find a pitch to handle, is nearly legendary at this point. His career strikeout rate is just 9.3%, in an era when strikeouts have virtually none of the old stigma they once possessed.
In this particular way, Berra and Molina may be the most remarkably similar, as Yogi himself was also legendarily difficult to strike out. The era, of course, was different; the 20%+ strikeout rates we see as fairly commonplace now were virtually unheard of in the postwar era of Berra. Even so, consider that Yogi's career K rate was just 4.9%, barely more than half of Molina's. In 1950, Berra stepped to the plate 656 times. He walked 55 times that season; an extremely respectable total for a much more aggressive era.
In those 656 plate appearances, Yogi struck out twelve times. That's a 1.8% strikeout rate.
Yadi's career ISO is .115; Yogi's was .198. Yadi has hit exactly 100 home runs in his career so far. Berra hit 358.
Berra even walked more often than Yadi, in spite of playing in a vastly more aggressive era for hitters as a whole and being somewhat legendary as a bad-ball hitter, the Vlad Guerrero of the Eisenhower years: 7.0% career walk rate for Yadi; 8.5% for Yogi.
I'm not saying any of these things to try and denigrate Yadier Molina, I hope you understand; rather, I want to make it clear that our own current all-time great catcher, as marvelous a player as he is, pales in comparison to what the guy with the big ears and the funny sayings was when he was on the field.
Of course, all the raw numbers in the world have only so much meaning stripped of their context and presented as simple comparisons. So let's go for a number adjusted for era, for league and for park, to demonstrate the difference. Yadier Molina, for his career, has a wRC+ of 99. And that, for a certifiably elite defender at the most uniquely challenging position on the field, is absolutely fantastic production. Average offense and some of the best defense in the game will net you a whole lot of value. Yogi Berra's career wRC+ was 124. Yadier Molina is almost exactly an average hitter, and well above average for a catcher; Berra was well above average as a hitter, period. For a catcher, he was downright otherworldly.
Now, you may notice I haven't said much about the defense. And there's a reason for that: we really kind of don't know much about defense from bygone ages. We can guess, of course, and there are estimations to be made based on frequency and percentages of putouts even when looking at long-gone players. But even those are, at best, broad sorts of guesses, and considering how hard it is to measure catcher defensive contributions right now, when we can see and track everything that happens on the field in minute detail, I honestly don't feel the defensive data on catchers from the past really has any meaningful value whatsoever. For what it's worth, Berra's defensive reputation was good, but it's impossible to know for sure what kind of defender he actually was.
What we do know is this: Yadier Molina has presided over one of the greatest eras in Cardinal baseball, and is a certified superstar player. And when we use him as the measuring stick to lay against the recently departed, it only throws into sharper relief just what an amazing talent, and an amazing player, the kid from The Hill really was.
The goofy sayings and addled, avuncular public persona will be what is most remembered about Yogi Berra, I'm sure, and that's absolutely fine. There are worse things a person can be remembered for than saying funny things and being beloved right up until the age of 90. But underneath all that, there was a baseball player, a catcher, who just happened to be one of the very best to ever strap on the tools of ignorance in the very long history of this game.
In that light, I suppose a sandwich really doesn't seem like enough of a tribute. Then again, it's a damned good sandwich. And I'll relish every last bite of it, sitting in the shadow of the home of a great player, and a great man. So goodbye, Mr. Berra. You may never have been a Cardinal, but you did baseball and St. Louis both proud.