As it stands at this moment (or at least the moment that Baseball Reference last updated their St. Louis Cardinals team page), Yadier Molina ranks 21st in franchise history in Wins Above Replacement. He is a hair below Jim Bottomley, could very realistically pass Keith Hernandez and Bob Caruthers by the end of 2017, and it would not be particularly absurd for Molina to pass Ray Lankford and Jim Edmonds in career WAR with the Cardinals by the end of the season.
WAR generally offers a decent snapshot of a player’s resume, and this particular snapshot suggests that Yadier Molina is among the best players in the history of the St. Louis Cardinals. And because Yadier Molina is already among, conservatively, the best two dozen players in the 135+ year history of the franchise, his new three-year contract extension opens new questions about just how highly to regard his legacy.
In the midst of the hoopla surrounding the press conference on Sunday afternoon announcing the extension, St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer Derrick Goold asserted on Twitter that the “Cardinals will secure the next number that goes up on the wall at Busch Stadium”, insinuating that by extending his Cardinals tenure through 2020, which will be his 17th season with the club, Yadier Molina has assured that following his retirement, the organization will retire the #4 which Molina has donned since 2006.
Molina’s extension, and the excitement which surrounded it before it was confirmed by the Cardinals just hours before the 2017 season opened, ushered in a nearly-unprecedented wave of good feelings for the always-beloved Cardinals catcher. But the assertion that Molina’s number retirement was “secure” now threw me for a bit of a loop.
I should probably first issue the following disclaimer: I don’t like number retirements. At all. Ever. This isn’t like “small Hall” fans who wants the Hall of Fame to include Babe Ruth and like three other players—I literally don’t want anybody’s number retired. Want to honor Stan Musial? Reserve Musial’s number six for players with a certain level of experience, skill, or exhibited character. Doesn’t Jackie Robinson deserve his number retired? Well, I guess if you put it that way, but isn’t the coolest night of the baseball season every April 15 when every player in baseball wears #42? Wouldn’t constant living tributes to Robinson be more apropos? Didn’t everybody love Mariano Rivera being class personified in his sixteen-plus years wearing Robinson’s number via a grandfather clause?
Okay, I’ve lost this battle. I will readily admit defeat. But if teams are going to retire numbers, they should maintain some level of consistency, reserving the honor for a fairly high caliber of player. So where does Molina fit in with the tradition of Cardinals retiring numbers?
Twelve numbers are currently retired by the Cardinals—thirteen if you count Rogers Hornsby’s commemoration, since the implication is that had Rogers Hornsby played in an era with uniform numbers, his number would have been retired. Three are retired in honor of men who did not play a single game with the Cardinals: ex-managers Whitey Herzog and Tony LaRussa, as well as former owner August “Gussie” Busch Jr. One could debate the merits of these number retirements on the grounds of what impact they feel a field manager or executive has on a franchise compared to the impact of a great baseball player, but regardless, the two are certainly weighed differently.
There are nine players, excluding Hornsby, with numbers retired by the Cardinals. Some were more obvious candidates for retirement than others.
Stan Musial, Bob Gibson
One is the greatest position player in franchise history; the other is the greatest pitcher in franchise history. Neither Stan Musial nor Bob Gibson ever donned another uniform other than that of the St. Louis Cardinals. It would be quite the challenge to argue that somebody deserves the number retirement honor more than Musial or Gibson.
The really really good players
Ozzie Smith, Enos Slaughter
Unlike Musial and Gibson, Cardinals lifers firmly in the top four players in franchise history (along with Hornsby, who received an aforementioned pseudo-number retirement, and Albert Pujols, who is still an active player), Ozzie Smith and Enos Slaughter played with other franchises. But despite Smith’s four seasons with the Padres and Slaughter’s six seasons with the Yankees, Athletics, and Braves, each is associated primarily with the Cardinals. Smith ranks 5th in franchise history in WAR; Slaughter ranks 7th. As for the player who ranks sixth...
The special case
Ken Boyer is the only player whose number is retired by the St. Louis Cardinals that is not enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. There are a few extenuating circumstances which led to this. First, Boyer has a legitimate Hall case—third base is a position notorious for under-representation in the Hall of Fame and only two Hall eligible men who primarily played third base, Graig Nettles and Buddy Bell, accumulated more career WAR without making it to Cooperstown. Additionally, Boyer’s number was retired posthumously, having achieved the honor in 1984, two years after his passing.
The second-tier icons
Lou Brock and Dizzy Dean
The modern scrutiny of replacement level metrics tends to cast Lou Brock in a somewhat unfavorable light, but in his era, he was a seven-time All-Star, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and, of course, baseball’s all-time stolen base king before Rickey Henderson (ahem) stole the title in 1990. Brock ranks 10th in Cardinals WAR, making him borderline if WAR is one’s only criteria, but if one gives him a bump based on the additional excitement brought to the franchise (and since number retirements are mostly done for the fans, this seems like a reasonable accommodation), he’s a more than fair candidate.
Dizzy Dean ranks 11th in WAR, but he also had a high and, perhaps more importantly, iconic peak, including a 1934 MVP season in which he became the most recent NL pitcher to win 30 games (pitchers wins are, rightly, an out-of-style statistic, but this got him on the cover of freaking Time magazine).
Entering 2017, Yadier Molina was a fraction of Cardinals WAR ahead of Red Schoendienst, a Hall of Fame player (with more total career WAR than Molina if you count other franchises). On the surface, this would be a promising sign for Molina’s number retirement case, but Red’s #2 was not retired until 1990, the year after his Hall of Fame induction, and after Schoendienst further cemented his Cardinals legacy by managing nearly 2,000 games for the club. Molina has the superior number retirement case on playing career merit, but Schoendienst is unique in that his incomplete cases as player and manager combine to put his number on the left field wall.
Bruce Sutter had his number retired by the Cardinals because he went into Cooperstown as a Cardinal, and this is the precedent. He is, by WAR, the least accomplished pitcher in the Hall of Fame (for perspective, his career WAR total is 24.5; Babe Ruth’s career pitching WAR was 20.6, and his final season with more than one start came at age 24). And he accumulated most of that with the Chicago Cubs. As a Cardinal, Sutter’s 6.4 career Wins Above Replacement is tied for seventh among relievers—Al Hrabosky and Jason Isringhausen are ahead of him, and Trevor Rosenthal is one strong season from passing him. Jason Heyward was worth more career WAR as a Cardinal.
Sutter’s number retirement could have been controversial, even with the Hall of Fame precedent, but since his number was already out of circulation because of the league-wide retirement of #42 for Jackie Robinson, Sutter got a ceremony. It’s all in good fun so I’m not mad (I’m laughing, actually; I find this humorous), but Sutter’s story should not be interpreted as remotely predictive for future number retirement cases.
The only precedent for retiring the #4 for Yadier Molina without his Hall of Fame enshrinement (a contentious issue among baseball fans) is Ken Boyer. This doesn’t mean that Molina’s number won’t be retired—it just strikes me as an uphill battle years from now, removed from the immediate emotion of his extension being signed.
Yadier Molina is immensely popular, and any player who tries to wear the #4 the year after Molina is no longer a Cardinal is making a major public relations mistake, along the lines of the wrath Bud Smith faced in 2001 when he donned the #51 that many fans associate strongly with Willie McGee. And in 2017, Dexter Fowler is the first Cardinals player to wear #25 since Mark McGwire retired in 2001. Likewise, Matt Holliday’s #7 will assuredly not be retired by the Cardinals, but for the moment, it is not in circulation, and likely will not be for at least a year.
Yadier Molina is a more important Cardinal than any of these recent unofficial, mostly temporary number retirements, and retiring his uniform number would not be a completely ludicrous move, relatively speaking. But there is no precedent to suggest that his number would be retired immediately.
Though, really, what is wrong with an unofficial, unspoken agreement of “No, man, you don’t touch the #4; that number still belongs to somebody else”?