Cardinals pitchers put trust, and team's chances, in Molina's hands

Wednesday October 30th, 2013

Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina is almost never shaken off by St. Louis pitchers like Joe Kelly.
David E. Klutho/SI

Entering the World Series, Cardinals rookie postseason sensation Michael Wacha had thrown 1,048 pitches to Yadier Molina and had shaken off his five-time Gold Glove-winning catcher a startlingly small number of times.

"Zero," Wacha said. "It's total confidence in him. . . . I've gotten pretty used to what he's going to be calling so I'm thinking about it in my head already, but if I'm thinking about a different pitch and he puts down a another one, I'm thinking, 'You know what, this guy's probably right. I'm going to stick with that.'"

For all the attention on the 22-year-old Wacha -- who is 4-0 with a 1.00 ERA in 27 postseason innings -- as the Cardinals try to win Game 6 of the World Series against the Red Sox and force a Game 7, much of tonight's outcome will hinge on the pitches being called by Molina. It's a particular challenge to attack the same lineup twice within a week, especially when the element of surprise (Boston had never faced Wacha before Game 2) is now gone.

CHEN: Cardinals turn to Wacha again to force do-or-die game

That Molina is an essential part of St. Louis' pitching success is no secret, but the magnitude of the pitchers' trust in his preparation and intuition -- especially by the many young arms on its World Series roster -- cannot be overstated. Molina excels at limiting opponents' running games, pitch framing and blocking balls in the dirt, too, but the extreme confidence his pitchers have in the way he calls a game is superlative.

This is a look into Molina's pitch-calling genius and the trust he has fostered from his staff, as told by his pitchers.

There are times, though they are rare, that those pitchers really don't really want to throw what Molina is asking for and must deliberate whether to shake him off.

"It's almost like an unwritten rule that you can't do it," rookie starter Shelby Miller, 23, said.

When a Cardinals pitcher does elect to try something different, there's extra pressure riding on that pitch.

"I was saying, '[This is] the first time I've shaken him off, this better work out or I'm never going to hear the end of it,'" second-year righthander Joe Kelly, 25, said.

Kelly recorded a strikeout after that shake-off earlier this year but hasn't worked up the nerve to try again. Besides, even when pitchers do overrule Molina, fate sometimes appears to intervene, guiding the pitch to its originally suggested target.

"He wanted a fastball away," rookie reliever Seth Maness recalled. "I ended up shaking him off for a fastball in and I think I ended up running it away, so it hit the same spot."

A few staffs can claim to rarely shake off their catcher, even if it happens a couple times a game, but some Cardinals have literally never done it to Molina -- except, as pitching coach Derek Lilliquist noted, when Molina tells the pitchers to shake their head because of the mind games that may play with the hitter.

Before the World Series started, I polled eight St. Louis pitchers on how many times they had shaken off Molina. Here are their answers, along with the number of regular- and post-season innings they've thrown to him.

Wacha, World Series Game 2 starter, 75 innings: Zero.
Kelly, World Series Game 3 starter, 182⅓ innings: One.
Lance Lynn, World Series Game 4 starter, 321⅔ innings: Once every two or three starts.
Maness, 44⅔ innings: One.
Kevin Siegrist, 28⅓ innings: Zero.
Shelby Miller, rookie starter, 151⅓ innings: Three.
John Axford, mid-season bullpen acquisition, 9 innings: Zero.
Jason Motte, injured closer, 201 2/3 innings: "A couple times early on in my career just 'cause I didn't have much of an offspeed pitch at all." (He then joked, "I still don't have much of one -- I always say I have a pitch and a half.")

The reality, however, is that Molina places a pitcher's comfort level with the pitch selection above any concern about shaking him off. "He insists that we can," Siegrist said.

"If you shake him, he doesn't care," Miller said. "He wants you to make the pitch you want to throw."

Molina, who is in the first season of a five-year, $75 million contract extension (with a mutual option for 2018), has been the mainstay as St. Louis has become a recurring participant in the World Series despite wholesale staff changes. This is the Cardinals' fourth appearance in the Fall Classic since Molina's rookie season of 2004 and he is the only player to have been on all four pennant winners. Jeff Suppan is the only man who pitched in the World Series in both 2004 and '06. Adam Wainwright is the lone holdover from 2006 still on this year's team (he was injured during St. Louis' last Series trip two years ago) and Lynn is the sole hurler who threw a pitch for the Cards in both 2011 and 2013.

Molina's pitch-calling skills are one reason for his superior catchers' ERA. Since he became the Cardinals' primary starter in 2005, the staff has a 3.72 ERA when he has been behind the plate and a 4.34 mark when anyone else has been catching.

"He watches the hitters, I don't know, probably more than our scouts do," Kelly said. "He just really knows the game inside and out. To have that guy back there is just comfortable as a pitcher, you know you can do whatever you want."

"It got to the point where I was like, 'If he's got that confidence in that pitch, you know what, I'm going to throw it and I'm going to have that confidence,'" Motte said. "I think it made some of my stuff better."

"If you have any doubt about a certain pitch," Wacha said, "it's not going to be your full effort and it's not going to be as effective as if you have complete trust in it."

The Cardinals' comments echo a common pitching ethos espoused by many, including Tigers Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, who often preaches that "the wrong pitch with conviction is better than the right pitch without it."

Of course there are times when a particular pitch just isn't worth calling. The pitchers recognize that their batterymate may well know their repertoire better than they do.

"Definitely, and he's told me that before too," Axford said. "There have been games when he just didn't call a certain breaking pitch because he said, 'In warmups, I didn't like it. It didn't look good.'"

"He actually might be more realistic," Lynn said. "As a pitcher, you seem to think your stuff is a little bit better than it is. He's realistic in knowing that, you might feel like you can get a fastball by this guy, but he knows you can't."

How Molina has synthesized his knowledge of opposing hitters and of his own pitchers to get the desired result has been critical in getting St. Louis to this point. How he does it with the Red Sox and Wacha on Wednesday night will be vital in keeping the Cardinals alive for another day.

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