With Molina as backbone, Cardinals off to super start
St. Louis closer Edward Mujica has two personal stories to tell about the importance of catcher Yadier Molina to the Cardinals. The first one occurred when Mujica joined the Cardinals in Colorado after St. Louis acquired him in a trade from Miami last July 31. Mujica had not pitched against the Rockies since May, and he was not yet with St. Louis when the pitchers held their review of the Colorado hitters at the start of the series in Denver. Mujica approached one of the coaches about how to get information on the Rockies to get up to speed.
"Don't worry about it," he was told. "You don't need it. Just follow Yadi."
The second story occurred in a National League Division Series game against Washington last year. At a taut moment in the game, Molina visited Mujica on the mound for what seemed a typical session about developing a pitch sequence to the next hitter. Instead, Molina told Mujica, "Whatever you want to throw, just go ahead and throw it. Whatever it is, I'll catch it."
"I never heard of anything like that before," Mujica said. "He went back behind the plate. No sign. I threw a changeup. And he caught it."
Once a quietly efficient catch-and-throw backstop, a good player whose five-year, $75 million contract extension signed in 2012 raised some eyebrows (he was a career .274 hitter at the time with a .707 OPS), Molina is emerging as one of the most indispensable players in the game -- right there with Buster Posey of the Giants. He is an even stronger Most Valuable Player candidate this year after finishing fourth last year. He is the league's leading hitter (.354) on baseball's undisputed best team (41-22). Since signing that extension he has hit .327 with an .878 OPS. Oh, by the way, his team has allowed the fewest stolen bases in the league and he has caught the highest percentage of his team's innings of any catcher in baseball.
What really raises Molina's profile is the expert play of this Cardinals team. St. Louis began this week with the best starting rotation in baseball, the best clutch-hitting offense in baseball, the best run-differential in baseball and, in Mujica, a lockdown closer who turned the one question about the team into a definitive answer.
Though the Cardinals have used eight pitchers who never pitched in the big leagues before, the team just keeps rolling on. It has not lost a series since April -- winning 10 and splitting three. Molina, as Mujica's stories suggest, is the backbone of this team.
So good are Molina's Cardinals, with nearly 40 percent of the season played, they are worthy of a question rarely asked these days in the democratic baseball world of Bud Selig where so many teams have "hope and faith:" Are the Cardinals a rare, throwback superteam?
What is a superteam? A team that wins 100 games and the World Series. Once upon a time we came to expect our world champions to fit those criteria. From 1975 through 1978, all four world champs won at least 100 games (1975 and 1976 Reds and 1977 and 1978 Yankees.) But we've had just as many superteams in the 34 years since then (1984 Tigers, 1986 Mets, 1998 Yankees and 2009 Yankees) as we had in those four years.
The expanded postseason format makes navigating October trickier for even the best teams in baseball. But something else must be in play -- especially a better distribution of talent -- because fewer teams are even reaching the first hurdle to be a superteam: the 100-win mark.
Take a look at this: the number of 100-win teams in the past seven years compared to such teams in the seven years prior to this stretch:
They just don't make 100-win teams the way they used to; the 2011 Phillies are the only National League team in the past seven years to win 100 games, and they lost in the Division Series to th eventual world champion Cardinals. The last NL team to win 100 games and the World Series was the 1986 Mets -- more than a quarter of a century ago. And the last non-New York franchise to be such a superteam was the 1984 Tigers. Now you get an idea of just how rare it is for this Cardinals team to even be considered for that kind of company.
Let's be realistic: St. Louis still has 99 games before it even gets to October. And if you don't understand just how far away October is, here's a reminder: The best record in the league one week into June last year belonged to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who watched the postseason from their couches. In the 18 seasons of the wild card era, only three teams with the best record in baseball after the first week in June went on to win the World Series (1998 Yankees, 2005 White Sox, 2007 Red Sox). So let's not make these Cardinals into the '98 Yankees just yet. But if you want to construct an argument as to why the Cardinals have even the chance to be a rare superteam, you would bring up these points:
• The St. Louis rotation has the best ERA in baseball (2.73) by far -- by more than half a run. Over their first 60 games, Cardinals starters were 34-12 with a 2.63 ERA. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only one other rotation in the live ball era (since 1920) had as many wins with such a low ERA after 60 games: the 1944 Cardinals, which went on to win the World Series.
• Cardinals batters are hitting .341 with runners in scoring position. The league average is .258. No other team was within 30 points of them. In fact, no team has hit this well with runners in scoring position this deep into a season since . . . well, since such records can be traced to 1974.
• The Cardinals don't strike out. In this era when strikeouts come too easily, St. Louis is the second-toughest team in the league to strike out. If you think strikeouts don't matter, consider that the past three world champions -- the 2010 Giants, 2011 Cardinals and 2012 Giants -- ranked 12th, 16th and 15th in their league in strikeouts. They were great rally teams because they put the ball in play. This year the Cardinals and Giants rank 14th and 15th in the 15-team NL in strikeouts.
• Mujica has more saves (18) than baserunners allowed (17). He has converted all 18 save chances, four short of the Cardinals' record at the start of a season, set by Tom Henke in 1995. The same guy who had a 6.04 ERA for the Indians, a 3.80 ERA for the Padres and a 3.44 ERA for the Marlins has posted a 1.33 ERA in 56 games for St. Louis since the trade. Mujica credits a tweak in his grip for the split-change -- moving his fingers closer so they can ride more of the seams and throwing it with four fingers -- and the confidence in the pitch showed by Molina.
"He just kept calling for it -- one, two, three, four in a row -- it doesn't matter," Mujica said. "He said there's no reason to get away from it. When a guy like Yadi has that kind of confidence in it, you just trust him."
Trust in the operative word for all Cardinals pitchers when it comes to Molina's game-calling. Said manager Mike Matheny, "We tell all our young pitchers when they come up to pitch their game. Yadi needs to find out how they work. He's a quick study. But at the same time, they tend to just follow him. We do put them in Yadi's hands."
With 99 games left, the better question about St. Louis might be who is going to slow them down? The Cardinals have only six games against winning teams in the next 44 days. They play 41 percent of their remaining schedule (41 of 99 games) against the five worst teams in baseball: the Marlins (6), Astros (4), Mets (3), Brewers (9), Cubs (17!) and Mariners (3).
The Cardinals could cool off significantly -- from playing .651 baseball to .596 baseball -- and still win 100 games. They could collapse and somehow play losing baseball (49-50) against that cupcake remaining schedule and still win 90 games.
How important are 90 wins? In the wild card era, 57 of the 62 NL teams that won 90 games made the playoffs (92%). And if you retro-fitted the races to include the two wild cards we first had last year, then 62 of the 62 NL teams to win 90 games would have been playoff teams. Now, with this kind of start, you understand why the Cardinals are looking very good -- perhaps even super.