Only six catchers in the whole of Major League Baseball had enough plate appearances to qualify for a batting title last season. Here they are by age: 26, 27, 27, 28, 29, 35. The outlier - and frankly, “The Outlier” would be an apt nickname for him - is Yadier Molina.
The amount of high quality baseball Yadi plays at his age is insane and amazing, but it’s also just part of the story. Because once the regular season ends, Yadi goes right on playing, and playing well.
Yadi spent the last few weeks playing in the MLB Japan All-Star series, where a team of MLB All-Stars play six exhibition games against a team of NPB All-Stars. So how did Yadi do, coming off another grueling MLB season? He batted .500 with a 1.279 OPS for the series. And in case you were assuming this was just like a beer league softball game, among his home run and other highlights, Yadi also beat out an infield single.
Prior to the Japan All-Star Series, Yadi was in Columbia managing the Puerto Rico Under-23 National Team in the Baseball World Cup. So here we are, barely into the Hot Stove season, and Yadi has already played a prominent role in two international baseball tournaments SINCE THE REGULAR SEASON ENDED.
This is not a new thing for Yadi. In fact, he told MLB.com he wanted to play in the Japan Series during its previous incarnation in the early 2000s, but he couldn’t because he was already committed to playing Winter Ball. I can’t track down stats for how many games of winter ball Yadi played during those years, but I’m going to guess it was all of them.
Then there’s the World Baseball Classic.
In the history of the WBC, Yadi ranks 5th in number of games played. In terms of both games and plate appearances, his total nearly doubles the next catcher on the list. His slash line during those series: .306 / .338 / .419.
Yadi has played in all four WBC tournaments, though he shared time as the primary catcher for Puerto Rico in the first two series with Ivan Rodriguez. Since assuming the starting role, Yadi has lead Puerto Rico to two 2nd place finishes and been named the catcher on the All-World team both times.
How did he prepare for that 2013 series, the first where he would be the primary starter? He played 14 games of winter ball in Puerto Rico. So that’s a 30-year-old Yadier Molina, coming off a 4th place finish in MVP balloting, playing winter ball to make sure he’s in top shape for the World Baseball Classic.
I imagine Yadi as a traveling nomad during the offseason... popping up at baseball tournaments all over the world, throwing no-look pickoffs and serving base hits into right field. He’s kind of like Bill Murray, only instead of giving toasts at random weddings, he completely dominates the best baseball players on all continents.
I’m sure I’m missing some significant baseball work Yadi has done during his career between his other job, being the best Major League catcher of his generation. There’s just So. Much. And of course, he’s far from the only big league veteran who still plays international ball... but for a guy who is 35 and a catcher? Yadi is in a class of his own.
There’s a prevailing wisdom among certain fans that says “so what?” to all international play. But I find that completely wrong-headed. Baseball is baseball. It should be enjoyed whenever possible, both by the fans and the players.
That attitude that ONLY what players do in American Major League Baseball matters is not only ethnocentric, it’s completely at-odds with what we know about international baseball. If you look at the quality of play from teams across the world in the WBC, or the fact that the NPB team took five of six from the US in this latest Japan series... it’s clear that the international game is on-par with MLB.
Some also try to diminish these contests by saying they are just exhibitions. Come on. They’re keeping score, man. It’s a baseball game. If the players aren’t playing as hard as they can, that’s on them.
And Yadier Molina ALWAYS plays as hard as he can.
The All-Star game is also often diminished as “just an exhibition.” What’s Yadi’s career line look like in his seven All-Star games? .556 / .600 / 1.000.
I’m reminded of a story my father-in-law tells about seeing Ray Charles in the Quad Cities in the early 70s. They were probably coming off a bender in Chicago the night before, and apparently the band wasn’t quite performing up to their standard. Ray stopped midway through and chastised the band, saying “these people deserve a great show.”
Yadier Molina always puts on a great show.
Because we are in the twilight of Yadi’s career, it feels like all conversations about him are pulled by gravity towards the question of “is he a Hall of Famer?” That’s not a discussion that particularly interests me. But because Yadi isn’t a slam dunk candidate by WAR alone, that conversation often drifts to the things he does which we cannot measure. As a Man of Science, I’m not always comfortable with that speculation.
But I will tell you this...
You would be hard pressed to find another player who has played more baseball on the international stage, and played at the level of excellence as Yadier Molina.