Welcome to BFN, our new Cardinals contributor Jennifer Annely
One of the things that sets baseball apart from other sports is that it is not defined by time. Baseball is played in innings and they can be as long or short as the play dictates – indeed, in theory, a baseball game could never end. This is felt very strongly in St Louis as no matter how much time ticks by, summer after summer, we look out at Busch Stadium and there is Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright playing for the St Louis Cardinals. Unfortunately though, time does indeed catch up with all of us and next year might really be the end of an era as it seems likely both will retire after next season. Yet it seems unfathomable to imagine a St Louis summer without “Yadi” and “Waino” (as locals lovingly refer to them).
Molina has spent the last 18 summers playing for the Cardinals after being drafted by the organization in 2000. Molina has been playing for the Cardinals for so long that when he began his Cardinals career, iPhones had not been invented and McFly were at the top of the UK charts. Wainwright began pitching in relief for the Cardinals a year later (still pre-iPhone) and didn’t become a starting pitcher until 2007. Now 14 years later they have pitched together 315 times and hopefully will take the record of MLB battery mates together next season – which currently stands at 324 in the regular season (since 1900) held by Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan of the Detroit Tigers.
One of the things that makes this so special is that it is highly unlikely that we will ever see another pair break the record. In terms of current active battery mates, the next closest pair to Molina and Wainwright is Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey who aren’t even teammates anymore (and are unlikely to be again).
As baseball has evolved and with the rise of free agency; the likelihood that we see another pair get anywhere close to the record dwindles. In order to make this many starts together, players must be around the same age and start their careers at about the same time, they must both be consistently good enough and likeable personalities that the organisation wants to keep.
Maybe more importantly, they also need to stay relatively healthy and/or play at a high level for a long period of time. Even though Wainwright has had a few injury problems (including missing the entire 2011 season due to Tommy John surgery), they have been able to reach this record because they have been able to play at a high level for so long. After the 2017 season, it looked like Wainwright’s career was over after ending the season with ERA career high of 5.11, but his pitching picked up towards the end of the season and he decided to come back for 2018.
Amazingly, since then his ERA has come down every year since (4.46 in 2018, 4.19 in 2019, 3.15 in 2020 and 3.05 in 2021). This means that his ERA at age 39 is below his 16 year career average (3.35). In terms of the big picture, he was the best pitcher on the Cardinals in 2020 and became the ace again in 2021 after an injury to Jack Flaherty. He isn’t just an extra body in the rotation, he is arguably outpitching players much younger than him and proving himself to be irreplaceable to the team.
It is much harder to be able to accurately define the impact that Molina has and continues to have, as the stats for catchers don’t tell the whole story. His personal statistics, even over the course of his career don’t jump out (in Fangraphs Jay Jaffe‘s Hall of Fame ranking statistic JAWS he is the 22nd overall catcher of all-time, with contemporaries Buster Posey in 14th and Joe Mauer in 7th) Interestingly though, his residence both behind the plate and in the clubhouse definitely contribute to success of others around him. For example, Wainwright actually has a much lower ERA when Molina is behind the plate (3.23 ERA versus 4.10 when he has to pitch to someone else).
Also, his mere presence behind the plate causes baserunners to think twice before attempting to run on him. Between 2003 and 2021, the Cardinals have the fewest stolen base attempts against them with 1373, the next team on the list is the Arizona Diamondbacks with 1891 attempts (last on the list is the San Diego Padres with 2509 attempts). This means that just knowing Molina is there is enough of a deterrent to stop runners even trying to steal by a large margin. This also gives the pitcher piece of mind and allows them to focus on the next pitch. To be fair to baserunners, this is a smart move as last season Molina still caught 40.9% of baserunners who were silly enough to attempt to steal a base, the 3rd best in MLB behind Salvador Perez (43.9%) and Elias Diaz (42.1%) and much higher than the major league average of 24%.
However, in a sport obsessed with data, Molina and Wainwright have also been regarded as clubhouse leaders and contributed to the success of the team in ways that can’t be accounted for statistically. Having them in the clubhouse makes the Cardinals a better team. Since 2003, the Cardinals have only had one season with a losing record, they have made the playoffs 11 times and won two World Series titles. I can’t prove that this success is all down to them, but I do know that clubhouse leaders certainly have an impact in the mental drive it takes to have such sustained success and I am sure that they will leave very big shoes that someone else will have to try to fill. So next season when you see those two together, make sure to take a moment to savour the scene as time is finally catching up to the boys of the endless summer.