Carrying The Load

If 22-year-old Yadier Molina continues his current pace and his Cardinals continue to win, he will become the first catcher under 24 to catch 120 or more games for a division champion since Johnny Bench did it in 1970. Bench, of course, won the MVP while he was at it.

If 22-year-old Joe Mauer continues his current pace and his Twins continue to win and can overtake the Chicago White Sox, he will become the first catcher under 24 to catch 100 or more games for a division champion since Matt Nokes did it in 1987.

It is not unprecedented for young catchers of considerable talent to break into a contending team and earn a starting job. What is unusual is for that team to win. What is particularly unusual is for the young catcher to get the workload that Molina has been entrusted with by Tony LaRussa; he is on pace to start 137 games at catcher this season, a large number even for a proven veteran but rarely attained by a player of his age.

I had the treat of watching Molina in action on Monday night as the Cardinals visited Toronto for the first time to take on the Blue Jays and Roy Halladay. I took the game in with Kent Williams (the crusty old dean of Batter’s Box), as well as THT’s own Greg Tamer and some of our friends. Molina played about as well as possible for a catcher without getting a hit or throwing out a runner; he spanked a screaming liner to center that Vernon Wells managed to pick off just before it hit the ground (“a Bernie Williams triple,” as Greg called it) and caught a very good game behind the plate, despite having a throw sail on him when Russ Adams stole a base.

Molina moves extremely well for a player as robustly built as he is, and he made a near-perfect play in the eighth. With runners on first and second, Adams made a perfect sacrifice bunt down the first base line. Molina sprang into action, fielded the bunt perfectly with his bare hand, and threaded the needle to avoid hitting the runner with the throw. I was impressed. Sitting directly behind him gave me a good idea of his athleticism.

While we were talking, one of us brought up the fact that Molina was being asked to carry an unusual load of games in a pennant race—perhaps the most for a young player since Bench. As we tried to think of who since Bench had been a primary starting catcher at a very young age, I realized that this is never done anymore. Sure enough, it turns out that Bench was the last under-24 catcher to catch 120 games for a team that won the pennant.

Molina’s been given an extremely heavy workload, since he’s on pace to start over 130 games. Mauer’s workload for the Twins hasn’t been as heavy; although he’s the starting catcher, the Twins carry a lot of catchers and give Mauer DH time as well, so he’s not likely to pass 120 games caught and certainly not 120 starts, although he’s still doing a significant amount of the team’s catching and excelling at it.

Tony LaRussa, who is about to pass Bucky Harris into fourth place on the all-time wins list for managers, is well-known as a manager who demands defensive excellence from his catchers (and he carries a lot of them), so he likely wouldn’t give Molina the job unless he felt the youngster could handle the workload.

For the past decade, this practice—handing over the catching job to a single, clear starter under the age of 24—has almost died out completely. Perhaps it’s the perceived complexity of the job, but Jason Kendall in 1996 and 1997 was the last catcher to do so. For the two decades before Kendall, it was a more common thing, and some truly outstanding players got their starts under these circumstances.

Two teams since 1980 have had a starting catcher under 24 and won the pennant—the 1987 Tigers with big-bat catcher Matt Nokes (Nokes caught 107 games and Mike Heath saw a great deal of time as Nokes’ backup) and the 1981 Dodgers with Mike Scioscia (Scioscia started 87 of 110 games in a strike year, but was in a partial platoon arrangement with Steve Yeager). Scioscia’s Dodgers went on to win the World Series.

However, lots of great young catchers were the primary starters at the age of 23 or less. Problem is, their teams were always beaten in pennant races.

The last time that two young catchers the caliber of Molina and Mauer broke through for contending teams was 1994. Those catchers were Ivan Rodriguez for the Rangers and Javy Lopez of the Braves. Of course, in 1994 no pennants were awarded—and at any rate, Lopez’s Braves finished in second place. I-Rod’s Rangers came first in the AL West, but were ten games under .500. They fell short the next year, when I-Rod again took on a huge catching load, though as a five-year veteran by then it’s hard to compare him to Molina or Mauer.

These teams with young catchers were always falling short. In 1989, it was Craig Biggio and the Astros. In 1988, Benito Santiago and the Padres. Over in the AL that same year, the Brewers finished two games short—their starting catcher, of course, was B.J. Surhoff. Surhoff had also caught for them in 1987 when they contended but fell short of Nokes’ Tigers. In 1984 and 1985, Mark Bailey was the Astros’ young starter—they finally put it together in 1986. In 1982, Rich Gedman did it for the Red Sox, who came up short, as did Scioscia’s 1982 Dodgers, the year after their World Series title.

What’s odd is that I have just finished naming the nine players with the most at-bats as catchers under the age of 24 since 1980. That list goes Rodriguez, Santiago, Kendall, Surhoff, Scioscia, Gedman, Bailey, Biggio and Nokes. In other words, when a good young catcher breaks through early into a starting job in the major leagues, it’s usually with a team that is contending or very, very close. I find this an incredibly odd phenomenon.

At any rate, while recent history wouldn’t seem to be on the side of the Cardinals and Twins with their youthful receivers, I haven’t seen anything so far this year to make me doubt my preseason predictions that both teams will end at the top of their divisions. Best of luck to Yadier Molina as he carries the load for the Cardinals—he’s going to need it.

References & Resources
Thanks as always to Lee Sinins and his Sabermetric Encyclopedia for making questions like this possible to answer.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

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