(photo: Yadier Molina and Mike Matheny – 2015 /Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports Images)
Yadier Molina seems to have it all – a career that looks to be headed toward Cooperstown, a new three-year contract to keep him employed until at least age 38 with enough money to remain fabulously wealthy for years beyond – on top of the adulation of tens of thousands of St. Louis Cardinals fans.
So, why has one of the team’s longest-standing leaders taken to social media twice this past week in what appear to be acts of defiance against the man he once replaced as the team’s catcher and is now his manager, Mike Matheny?
As you probably know, the 35-year old took exception to Matheny suggesting to the media that the reason he gave Molina a day off was because he thought his catcher looked tired. An angry Molina called it “#misinforming.”
After the first incident had mostly been smoothed over, at least publicly, Molina upped the ante by expressing his feelings to readers about missing former Cardinals coach Jose Oquendo. “The Secret Weapon” was long thought to be a viable MLB managerial candidate, but was passed over when Matheny was hired in his own backyard. Oquendo left Matheny’s staff early last spring and now works with Cardinals minor leaguers in Florida.
Needless to say, no matter whose side you might favor, the incidents do not reflect favorably on the Cardinals, a long successful franchise that is experiencing an unexpected downturn of fortunes on the field.
We may never get all the facts behind this, but as I have thought about the situation, I can come up with a number of possible explanations for Molina’s actions. Perhaps some combination of them could be valid and others entirely not.
Erode Matheny’s authority
Despite a three-year contract extension received one year early, during last off-season, the manager has been under increasing criticism as the losses mount in 2017. When Molina made his first declaration of #misinforming, a number of his teammates “liked” the comment on Instagram. That indicates other players appreciated Molina taking on his manager publicly. The unanswered question is whether Matheny has lost a segment of his clubhouse and if so, how many players are involved.
If a manager loses the respect of one of his stars and other supporting players, how can that not weaken his ability to perform his job effectively?
As Casey Stengel once reportedly said, “The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.”
Refusal to admit mortality
At the time of his one-day “tired” time out, Molina had caught an MLB-leading 738 innings, with only one other catcher in the entire game having more than 700.
Being successful for so long has afforded Molina the right to believe he is a cut above, but every player gets older and needs more rest to maintain peak performance – even an eight-time Gold Glove Award winner.
Molina will likely never accept that it would be in his best interest to take a break now and then. If he pushes himself too hard and gets hurt, a disabled list stint would definitely give his understudy an opportunity to shine. A game once a week or so would not, as even after a good game, the reserve would return to the pines the next day.
It appears Molina refuses to accept this reality, perhaps for reasons of pride. Yet, at some future point, his insistence that only he should determine when he sits out could definitely hurt the team. It is clear the organization is walking on eggshells, including the manager. Molina has caught every inning except one since his initial outburst.
Protect his playing time
During the vast majority of his 14 years with St. Louis, the team’s reserve catcher was nowhere near the same quality of player as Molina. Sure, last season and this, some overly-optimistic fans worked themselves up into unwarranted excitement over former back-up Eric Fryer, but Fryer is what he had proven to be for years. The veteran back-up hit so poorly this season, the Cardinals finally had to let him go.
However, Fryer’s replacement is another animal entirely. Carson Kelly is considered one of the top two catching prospects in the game, but it was thought the 23-year old would spend a majority of this season playing daily at Triple-A Memphis.
Instead, Kelly was called up on July 21. So far, he has just 11 plate appearances – including only one since July 27.
In Molina’s July 27 “not tired” game, television cameras focused on him periodically throughout. It appeared Molina spent the entire nine innings down in the bullpen, kibitzing with the second bullpen catcher. If there was any active mentoring of Kelly going on during his start, it was invisible.
While everyone is saying all the right things, it is almost impossible to look at the two catchers coexisting on the same roster for the next 3 1/3 seasons, which is the remaining duration of Molina’s contract.
Sure, Molina says he is ok with Kelly gaining experience – but apparently only as long as he does not have to yield his own playing time in the process. Since neither can man other positions in the field and the reserve catcher is always the last player kept on the bench for an emergency, you can see how this particular equation will never close.
Draw attention to clubhouse issues
Molina is no rookie. While not an outgoing individual, he knows his way around dealing with the media and the public. There is one theory, supported by his teammates “liking” his authority-challenging stance, that Molina had become frustrated to the point he felt he needed to take matters into his own hands.
His status as a team elder affords him more freedom to express himself with less fear of the ramifications.
Whether this would be to draw attention to clubhouse factions or communications issues among players or even a perceived lack of preparation by his teammates, I have no idea. But any could be possible.
Show dissatisfaction with current staff
A variation on Molina’s possible attention generation motive could be related to him not feeling the coaches are performing their roles at the level he expects.
His “missing” Oquendo could support this. As a recent editorial by Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the Post-Dispatch noted, Oquendo was highly valued for at least two key reasons. One is his ability to deliver fundamentally sound infield defense through his work with the players, an area in which the team has struggled considerably since his departure. The other is him not being “afraid to make folks uncomfortable, whether they’re coaches or players, in the quest for excellence.”
What does that suggest about the remaining staff?
Not only is Oquendo a tie to the Tony La Russa years, his time with the organization stretches all the way back to the glory days of Whitey Herzog over a third of a century ago.
I have not done the math, but it would not surprise me if Oquendo has as many years of experience on an MLB staff as Matheny and his coaches have combined.
Just missing his friend and countryman
Perhaps Molina just honestly misses a long-time associate and fellow Puerto Rican. But why, just after he was supposedly spoken with about “#misinforming”, did he choose to express his sentiments about longing for Oquendo to the public?
It was not coincidence, nor was it innocent. But we are still left to wonder “why?”
No one wins
If it ever escalates to a full-blown “him or me” struggle between Molina and Matheny, the catcher would have to be the favorite to survive. While the two have contracts of the same duration, the financial commitment is not the same. Further, the manager has less goodwill built up and could more easily be let go.
Certainly, Molina knows all of this, but what we do not know for sure is if a change in managers is his desired outcome.
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