Defensive game makes a catcher an All-Star
Work behind plate should be rewarded and on display at Midsummer Classic
Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals ought to be the starting catcher on the National League All-Star team every July. He won't be, but he embodies the best defensive work at a crucial position.
In the All-Star balloting, naturally enough, offensive production takes center stage. But catcher is a defense-first position. The best part of a great defensive catcher's game may defy precise statistical measurement, but that doesn't reduce his impact on the game.
Given the difficulties of his position, Molina may be the best defensive player in baseball. It is not simply his strong, accurate arm and his quick release. It is not only his ability to consistently block uncatchable balls in the dirt. It is also his willingness to go the extra mile for his pitchers, handling them astutely, breaking down film of opposing hitters, anything to give his staff an edge. He has deservedly won five straight Gold Gloves.
In the early years of Molina's career, when he was not yet a particularly productive hitter, then Cardinals manager Tony La Russa used to say that if Molina never hit at all, he would still be a major asset because of his defensive work. Typically, La Russa wasn't kidding.
More recently, Molina has made himself into a productive hitter, and thus, a perennial All-Star candidate. He was a starter for the NL in 2009 and 2010 a reserve the past two seasons.
The praise of Molina is not meant to diminish the majority of the catchers who have started in the Midsummer Classic over the past four years. The Braves' Brian McCann is obviously an accomplished receiver and an integral part of the success Atlanta pitchers regularly achieve. Buster Posey of the Giants was the NL Most Valuable Player last year and he has been at the heart of the Giants' success.
Joe Mauer of the Twins had two All-Star starts in that period and he is truly an all-around performer. His three batting titles carved out historical territory at this position. Detroit's Alex Avila is also an asset in all facets of the game on one of baseball's best teams.
In 2012, the American League starter at catcher was Mike Napoli, then of the Texas Rangers. Napoli is such an outstanding catcher that he doesn't catch anymore, playing first base and filling in at designated hitter for the Red Sox prior to the return from injury of David Ortiz.
Napoli's election was not a reflection of his defensive work, but a salute to his breakthrough offensive production in 2011, which included an OPS of 1.046. Either of the other two catchers on the 2012 AL All-Star squad -- Mauer or Baltimore's Matt Wieters, an emerging first-rate, all-around catcher -- would have been preferable choices.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny knows this landscape very well. He was a four-time Gold Glove winner. He was the starting catcher on the 2004 St. Louis team that won 105 regular-season games. He had all of the qualities of a splendid defensive catcher and was replaced only by, well, Yadier Molina. Matheny was asked if he though more emphasis should be placed on defensive work in selecting All-Star catchers.
"Without a doubt, but it's never been that way, so why would it change now?" Matheny said. "The deeper thinkers in the game pay more attention to the defense that happens. You've got to hit the masses when you're talking about something like the All-Star Game, so you've got to market the product to the majority and the majority looks at offensive production. And that's the way it has always been."
The Gold Glove Award is more than a consolation prize for catchers who don't gain All-Star recognition. It's a validation of their work.
"It's nice to have awards like the Gold Glove that the coaches and managers vote on," Matheny says. "They see what this guy back here does behind the plate, regardless of what the offensive production is.
"[The All-Star Game] needs to be about the fans, and the fans are doing the voting, because that's the lifeblood of what we do. I don't know if the All-Star Game should be just the defensive guy, but I am glad there is an award with the Gold Glove, that focuses on the defense.
Baseball is fortunate now, Matheny notes, because there is a core contingent of catchers who excel in all facets of the game. "We're in an era right now where we're seeing some pretty good examples of that. There's a mix of the two."
In St. Louis, a knowledgeable and devoted fan base fully understands the value of Molina's defensive work. And on this team, with this manager, recognition of the catcher's work is immediate.
After a recent victory over the Washington Nationals, Matheny said: "Last night, Yadi blocked about four balls in the dirt in situations when they had guys at second and third. That could have resulted in three runs.
"That kind of thing can get overlooked, except when he comes off the field, that's the first thing I have to say to him: 'You just saved three runs.' To people that are trying to be open-minded and can see the difficulty of doing that position, it's fun when it gets acknowledged."
There should be more All-Star recognition for great defensive catchers. In lieu of that, there could be an entire room filled with Gold Gloves at the Molina household.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.