Like most American sports fans with a cable subscription and/or their parents login credentials, I watched every second of ESPN’s The Last Dance. As a kid who grew up in a bedroom adorned with Michael Jordan posters, it was a hit of pure nostalgia. But another aspect of the film that was impossible to ignore was the way Michael Jordan could take any slight - even the tiniest, most innocent one - and turn it into motivation.
With that in mind, my ears perked up when I read Marly Rivera’s ESPN piece last week wherein Yadier Molina suggested that his transformation as a hitter had been fueled by a dig Dave Winfield made about him during the 2010 All-Star game.
Molina’s mid-career transformation from defensive-specialist to all-around weapon is what’s going to propel him into the Hall of Fame. Could that really have been driven by just one insult?
The idea of athletes being motivated by “bulletin board material” has been around as long as words have been in print. There’s no doubt that elite athletes feel motivated when someone doubts their greatness. I don’t think any Super Bowl winner has ever given a postgame speech that didn’t include the phrase “nobody believed in us,” even when the “us” is the New England Patriots.
But can we really find evidence that these butthurt feelings manifest themselves in performance? Let’s take a look at Yadi and find out.
We know that Yadi became a very good hitter. But maybe the most obvious question to answer is this: Was Yadi already on a long, slow road of improvement?
That’s a bit of a mixed-bag. Overall, we’d have to say that Yadi was trending slowly upwards. But before 2011, he’d only managed one season of above-average offensive production. So it was a pretty big leap from those numbers to:
Regardless of where his actual skill was at that 2010 All-Star Game, it’s safe to say that the perception of Yadi was still that of a can’t-hit, defensive specialist.
“There was a dinner after the Home Run Derby and [Winfield] made a comment that, “the only easy out there is Yadier Molina,” Molina told Rivera.
We don’t have video of that comment, but we can see Yadi’s first at-bat after the comment was made.
Maybe Joe Buck doesn’t call Molina an “easy out,” but he likewise suggests Molina isn’t doing much with the bat. Yadi responds by making contact with the first pitch he sees for the NL’s first hit of the game.
That’s fun for narrative purposes, but it is just one at-bat. We know that Yadi was a fairly bad hitter before 2010. And we know he was a very good hitter afterwards. Can we drill down to see if the All-Star Game was really a turning point?
Here’s Yadi’s 2010 numbers before and after the All-Star Game:
Wow. I’ll admit, while athletes feel like these slights motivate them, I tend to be skeptic that they really have that much impact on human beings who have already pushed themselves to the peak of their potential.
Was Yadi slowly improving as a hitter during the first 6.5 years of his career? We’d have to say yes. But he took a gigantic leap forward immediately after Dave Winfield called him an “easy out.” That peak would extend through 2013, a period in which he was not only the consensus best defensive catcher in baseball, but the best offensive one not named Buster Posey.
Given this example, I would like to encourage the Cardinals coaching staff to - at any point where Yadi’s production is dipping - hand him an iPad with video of someone talking shit about him.