As often happens in my writing, one event leads to investigating another and before I know it, I have wandered over a considerable portion of the baseball universe.
Such is the case resulting from St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina’s recent exploits.
His pickoff of San Diego outfielder Will Venable during Saturday’s top of the seventh sapped the life from the visitors’ rally. Five straight Padres had reached base with two out and the tying run was just 90 feet away from home.
Just after pinch hitter Oscar Salazar took another ball from reliever Kyle McClellan, Molina turned the game on its ear with his arm. The offense then quickly scored two runs in the bottom of the seventh and the Cardinals were on their way to a 7-4 victory.
It was Molina’s seventh runner picked off first base this season and the 33rd of his career.
During the next inning, Molina may have traveled a bridge too far as he was caught trying to steal home. That cane on the heels of Molina’s seventh stolen base on Friday night.
He is now seven-for-nine this season, a total that matches his steals over his entire professional career prior to 2009. Molina had four stolen bases in the majors from 2005 though 2008 and another three as a minor leaguer in 2001 and 2002.
The Cardinals media notes, picked up by several news services, credit the team’s record for stolen bases by a catcher in a season at nine. Their co-leaders are Tom Pagnozzi, 9-for-22 in 1991 and Tim McCarver at 9-for-15 in 1966.
That seemed surprising to me, so I fired up my invaluable copy of Lee Sinins’ Complete Baseball Encyclopedia.
Specifying a few quick parameters gave me a list of the top stolen base seasons by catchers in team history. Yet as I soon learned, players are categorized by their primary position. Stats presented are their complete results from all positions played.
Stolen bases by a catcher, season, top 30, St. Louis Cardinals history
There are quite a number of pre-1900 players on the list, headlined by the man that may be the true franchise leader, Jack Boyle, who accumulated 19 steals in 1891. Turns out that while he played 91 games at catcher, his predominant position, Boyle also logged another 41 games in the infield and outfield.
Lacking splits, I cannot confirm how many of Boyle’s 1891 steals were made as the catcher – without undertaking the lengthy process of going through individual game logs, that is.
Among those following Boyle are colorfully-named, but long-forgotten Cardinals pioneers Doggie Miller, Doc Bushong, Heinie Peitz and Klondike Douglass, each with a dozen or more thefts in an 1800’s season. Yet they all played multiple positions those years.
The undisputable king is 1899’s Lou Criger, who swiped 14 bags and only took the field behind the plate for St. Louis that year.
Post-1900, Ivey Wingo most likely had the most stolen bases by a Cardinals catcher with 18 in 1913 and 15 again the next season. I say “most likely” because Wingo played a total of ten games at first base and the outfield over those two seasons. Still, 168 games logged behind the plate means he is the likely leader.
Later to become the first Hispanic manager in the history of Major League Baseball, Cardinals catcher Mike Gonzalez swiped 12 bags in 1917 and 14 the next year. Ironically, the Cuban native also caught 168 games those two seasons, but because he spent parts of eight games at first and in the outfield, the above games-played caveat again applies.
Further, catcher Jimmie Wilson joined the Cardinals in 1928. Playing exclusively behind the plate, he stole nine bases in his St. Louis debut season. Wilson matched the total in 1932, although he did appear in the infield during four games that year.
Even if the contemporary definition of “history” begins in 1918, one recent name on the above list stands out. According to the CBE, catcher Eli Marrero logged 11 stolen bases in 1999.
Further analysis helps to clarify. In addition to the 96 games Marrero started behind the plate that season, Eli also played 20 games at first base, including three as the starter.
Using the valuable tool Retrosheet, we find that Marrero was 11-for-13 in steals that season. He logged one 1999 steal as a pinch runner and one as the first baseman, leaving a nine-of-11 success rate accumulated while catching.
Therefore, to be accurate, Pags and McCarver must share with Marrero and Wilson the club’s modern season record for stolen bases by a catcher at nine.
With just three more this season, Molina can pass them.