Yadier Molina was the MVP of the All-Star Game before he ever stepped to the plate in the sixth inning.
During player introductions, he waved a tiny Puerto Rican flag, drawing raucous cheers from a good chunk of the crowd and reminding us of his performance for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, in which Molina served as a vocal leader and cornerstone player, and triggered one of the best GIFs we've ever seen with a laser throw to Javier Baez. He served as the game's official on-field photographer, snapping a pic of Nelson Cruz standing at home plate with umpire Joe West for some hilarious reason.
And Molina cemented his status as the unofficial MVP by wearing a staring-into-the-sun-level shiny gold getup, his mask and chest protector looking like either Roman gladiator wear, or maybe something a little more space-aged.
Oh and there was his performance on the field too. In a game that ran counter to everything that's happened in the Year of the Home Run, Molina delivered the only long ball of the game in regulation, an opposite-field shot to right-center in the sixth that tied the game for the National League. Though the American League prevailed 2-1 in extra innings on a Robinson Cano long ball, the image of Molina running around the bases, getting playfully whacked on the hand by his countrymate Francisco Lindor, then flashing a huge smile as he trotted on toward third base, will linger for a while.
That dinger gave Molina the following line in his six All-Star appearances: 5 for 8 with a home run and two RBI (plus a ninth-inning walk Tuesday night that nearly led to the winning run). Not bad for the position player with the worst 2017 offensive numbers on either team.
Of course offense has rarely been Molina's calling card, even though he was a damn fine hitter in his prime. The youngest of the great baseball-playing Molina brothers will one day punch his ticket to Cooperstown mostly because of his historically great defense. Beyond that, he'll be remembered for a combination of his fiery demeanor, his calming influence on pitchers, and the instant, and then lasting impact he made on the game.
Molina made his major-league debut on June 3, 2004. He very quickly became the most feared thrower in the game, and one of the best of all time. In his first full season in 2005, Molina threw out 25 of the 39 runners who tried to steal off him, an unfathomably high 64 percent caught-stealing rate. By comparison, the MLB-wide rate for catching runners stealing that year was 29 percent. Molina's led the league four times in that category, gunning down a stunning 41 percent of would-be basestealers in what's coming up on a 14-season major league career.
Beyond just erasing baserunners, he's been the stabilizing force behind more than a decade of stellar Cardinals run prevention. Managers have come and gone. Pitching coaches have come and gone. Chris Carpenter begot Adam Wainwright who begot Carlos Martinez. The one constant behind all those years of pitching excellence has been Molina. Talking to Cardinals pitchers and others around the team over the years, they all swear that hitters are batting .000 lifetime immediately after a reassuring Molina mound visit.
Like the .000 claim, there are parts of Molina's legend that are probably a bit overblown. As dominant as he's been controlling the running game, that's just not nearly as big a contributor to winning baseball as it was in the '70s and '80s, when teams relied far more heavily on stolen bases. He's hit .300 or better five times, but batting average can be an overrated stat, and Molina's lack of walks and power make him a tick below average for his career as a hitter (99 wRC+). By Wins Above Replacement, Molina doesn't rank anywhere near existing Hall of Fame standards, instead sitting near the likes of Jered Weaver, Jason Heyward, and John Lackey.
But at the risk of violating my analytical cred, Molina might be the one player you truly can't fully measure by the usual numbers. For one thing, Wins Above Replacement has always been an iffy stat for measuring catcher value for multiple reasons, one big one being that it ignores the value of pitch framing, a skill at which Molina has always excelled. The grueling act of squatting through nearly 1,700 regular-season games (plus another 89 in the playoffs) is one that can transcend our usual metrics. Molina has been around so long, he was prominently featured in MVP Baseball 2005 for Pete's sake.
Those who've watched him play and followed his career can tell lots of Yadi stories. Here's one I love.
Heading into the 2003 season, future Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was the team's starting catcher heading into spring training. Molina came into spring training as a 20-year-old upstart who'd never played a single game above the Class A level. After one day watching Molina, Matheny came home to his wife with a dire message.
"I saw the kid," Matheny said, "that's going to steal my job."
That's Yadi. Scaring the crap out of everyone from basestealers to future teammates with his stellar defense, and entertaining fans with playful intensity, and C3PO-level swagger.