St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina has picked off 47 base runners… (Chris Lee / Associated Press )
Yadier Molina was on his way to the dugout by the time his throw reached second base. He knew.
Angels baserunner J.B. Shuck, who dared try to steal, was tagged out easily at the bag, the ball waiting for him in the glove of St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter.
It hadn't taken the Angels long to test the arm of Molina, the veteran catcher. Shuck's thwarted steal ended the first inning of the series-opening game Tuesday night.
But challenging Molina, 30, has always been a risky strategy. He has won a Gold Glove at his position the last five years and has been selected to the last four National League All-Star teams.
He has thrown out more than 44% of baserunners trying to steal in his career, the best among active catchers.
Those kind of statistics speak for themselves, and Molina doesn't go out of his way to promote himself. Others do it for him.
"He just presents a major challenge," Angels third base coach Dino Ebel said. "He's everything you want in an All-Star catcher, and we know he likes to throw it. We'll have to pick our spots."
Molina did not hit better than .275 in his first four seasons in the majors, but in recent seasons his bat has started to catch up to his glove and arm as an elite tool. He has hit less than .293 only once in the last six seasons, ranked fourth in batting average in the NL last season and his .347 mark leads the NL this year.
On Tuesday night, hitting out of the second spot in the lineup, he hit two singles up the middle, both bullets that resembled his throws to second base."I don't think I've ever seen anyone prepare themselves for games the way he does," said Angels first baseman Albert Pujols, one of Molina's closest friends and a former teammate. "He has tremendous work ethic and is willing to do anything to help his team win."
Career leaders among active
players in throwing out
baserunners trying to steal: Rk. Name (years, age) % 1. Yadier Molina (10, 30) 44.64 2. Henry Blanco (16, 41) 42.95 3. Ryan Hanigan (7, 32) 40.71 4. David Ross (12, 36) 38.54 5. Jose Molina (14, 38) 37.69
Pujols expressed support for Molina as a candidate for NL most valuable player. Molina finished fourth in the voting in 2012. Catcher Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants won the award.
Molina's surname is certainly familiar to Angels fans. Bengie, his oldest brother, was an Angel from 1998 to 2005 and his other brother, Jose, played with the Angels from 2001 to 2007.
Bengie won Gold Gloves with the Angels in 2002 and 2003, but Yadier, the youngest of the three by seven years, was always seen as the Molina with the most potential.
"We all feel a really strong connection to the Molina family," Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. "Back when Bengie and Jose were with us, before Yadi was even in pro ball, the brothers were raving about how good he was going to be as the complete package."
Molina's contributions go beyond hitting and throwing out runners trying to steal. He has deftly handled typically strong pitching staffs, and his 47 pickoffs are more than twice as many as the next closest player over the last 10 years.
Like other strong-armed catchers — think Ivan Rodriguez — Molina often makes snap throws to first base hoping to catch baserunners napping. But it's the evolution of his all-around game that has really helped the Cardinals offset the loss of Pujols and allowed Molina to emerge as the new face of the franchise with which he has spent his 10-year career.
"He's not only an extraordinary all-around talent, he possesses extraordinary leadership qualities," said Scioscia, a former catcher. "When Bengie was with us, he was our heart and soul, and I know Yadier is the same for that ballclub."
In the All-Star voting update released Tuesday, Molina had more votes than anyone in the NL and led Posey by nearly 500,000 votes for the starting catcher spot. He will probably always be in the MVP discussion based solely on his defense and command of the St. Louis pitching staff, but a batting crown could be the final push.
"Oh man, I would love to see him win a batting title," Pujols said with a wide grin. "And then, who knows, we'll see what he can do from there."