Wherever he was in Italy on an early-summer getaway last month, Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench still found wi-fi access that kept him connected to the games back home. He stayed “on top” of his Cincinnati Reds and saw the rise of a few rookie sensations. He joked that only the Texas Rangers’ sweep of the Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ surge escaped his notice.
Who didn’t fail to get his attention was someone he’s watched for a while.
Yadier Molina has his attention.
“He’s a force,” Bench told The Post-Dispatch from his home in Naples, Fla. “He’s the most dangerous guy on that team. He’s become one of the most dangerous guys in the league. He is the complete package.”
Through Saturday’s games, the Cardinals’ catcher led the National League in hitting (.346) and doubles (26), and that evening he became the second consecutive catcher to lead the National League in All-Star votes. Molina received 6,883,258 votes to edge teammate Carlos Beltran for the overall lead and secure his fifth consecutive All-Star selection. His status for the game will be clearer Sunday after scans taken of his irritated right knee will determine the cause and extent of the soreness that kept him out of Saturday’s victory.
He is the fifth Cardinal to be elected to three All-Star Game starting lineups and only the fifth NL catcher with at least three starts since fans began determining the starters. In the eight decades of the All-Star Game, only 10 NL catchers have appeared in more than five All-Star games.
At the top is Bench with 12.
Bench, the greatest catcher of them all, blended prowess at the plate with virtuosity behind it. He won two MVPs, earned 13 consecutive All-Star selections (though he did not appear in all the games) and merited 10 Gold Glove awards, second only to Ivan Rodriguez’s 13. Bench is the standard. Bench, 65, also is a catching connoisseur and what he watches to see he often does in the Cardinals’ 30-year-old backstop.
“I judge a guy by how he calls his game and the respect he gets from the pitchers after the game,” Bench said. “You can see it in the hugs. There’s a real concert going on there. They trust him. They key off of him. As a catcher, you’re the artist and they’re the brush. All you’re doing is painting a picture. … You put that with the hitting and it’s clear he finally got comfortable with what he wanted to do. He has redefined himself. All of a sudden there’s been this little more respect for him as a result.
“It’s like they just figured out he’s really damn good.”
Molina is being positioned as an MVP-caliber catcher this season, a candidacy that gained momentum last season when Giants catcher Buster Posey won the trophy. Molina had career highs in batting average (.315), home runs (22), RBIs (76) and slugging percentage (.501).
Baseball’s new calculus loved him.
According to FanGraphs, Molina’s 139 weighted runs created — a measure of a player’s offensive value in terms of runs — was better than all but four of Bench’s best offensive years. Molina’s 6.9 wins above replacement in 2012 were the 10th highest single-season total for an NL catcher in baseball’s expansion era. Bench has three of the top six, and Posey’s 7.4 WAR last season ranks sixth in that span.
It’s heady company that “he always had,” Bench said. “But all of a sudden you have a catcher hitting third or fourth or fifth like Buster and (Molina), and that brings credibility.”
While building a defensive and durable reputation, Bench also led the league in RBIs three times and retired with 389 home runs.
He holds the single-season records among catchers for homers and RBIs and ranks second and third, respectively, for career totals in those power numbers. He can relate to the difficulty of maintaining offensive production while playing as a catcher. He had six broken bones in his foot. Missed two days.
He broke fingers. Kept hitting. The type of sturdiness that Molina has achieved by trimming weight and improving nutrition, Bench said he came by naturally from his days hoisting peanuts sacks and cotton sacks as a boy.
“Great back muscles,” he said.
Great coordination, too. During the course of a 30-minute conversation, Bench tied a catcher’s ability to read and react behind the plate and deliver a strong throw to the fast-twitch needed to see and identify a pitch to deliver a solid swing. He was able to do both, well.
Other catchers struggle to connect the two. He also believes the two disciplines benefited from the one approach he always tried to have.
“This was my inner-conceit: I was better than the situation,” Bench said. “The pitcher couldn’t get me out. The runner couldn’t steal on me. You have to feel that way to be better.”
The offensive side of the game has come later to Molina than contemporaries such as Posey and Joe Mauer and recent standouts at the position like Ivan Rodriguez and Mike Piazza.
Posey won the NL batting title last season, the first full-time catcher do so since 1942.
Mauer has three of them in the American League. With the league lead now, Molina would echo Posey and this season would continue Molina’s midcareer incline of production. Through the prism of increased performance at the plate, Bench said Molina’s whole game appears sharper, better, even though he’s always been superb.
During the conversation, it’s Bench who brings up Cooperstown.
There are 13 catchers who played in the major leagues who have been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Rodriguez will go before the voters soon. Bench does the math and suggests that’s one for every decade, about one for every generation.
“They don’t come along often,” he said.
Bench sat on the 16-member committee that considered Cardinals great Ted Simmons’ candidacy for the Hall in December 2010. Simmons did not get in despite his only crime apparently being he was second-best to Bench. Bench lobbied for his teammate Dave Concepcion in that meeting, arguing that he was second-best to Ozzie Smith.
Different position, different players, similar plights. Only Simmons has more RBIs as a Cardinals catcher than Molina and more home runs, but he has way more. In RBIs Simmons leads Molina 929-511, and in homers it’s 172-83.
Bench starts doing the math. Can Molina get to 1,000 RBIs? What about 2,000 hits? Will Molina stay durable enough to be behind the plate enough and still solid at it.
Bench will be watching.
“His defense speaks for itself and it always has, but now his offense is bringing him attention,” Bench said. “He’s driving in big runs. He’s a very tough out. He kills this team. He kills that team. Balls are going all over. … Now people really start looking what’s possible. Now is when the microscope comes out. He’ll get the attention and those honors will follow. The numbers will total up. The home runs will total up and then we’ll see.
“If he stays healthy,” the Hall of Famer concludes, “call me in 10 years.”
Bench offered one piece of advice for Molina. It wasn’t so much a suggestion as a request.
The Hall of Famer chuckled as he said it.
“Don’t beat the Reds.”