David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BOSTON - As the Mets look to build their future on a stable of young pitchers, they should remember the foundation for such a plan often has as much to do with who's behind the plate as the twenty-something prospect standing on the mound.
The Cardinals, once again, have taught us that this season, and it's a class that's been in session for most of the past decade, pretty much since the day Yadier Molina took over in St. Louis.
No one in the majors has done the job better. From the Cardinals' viewpoint, Molina is without peer in the majors, and his biggest impact is not delivered with a bat or glove. It's more about his head, and that catching intellect has helped turn top prospects such as Michael Wacha, 22, and Shelby Miller, 23, into future Cy Young candidates.
For all their talent, both credit Molina for their rapid development. Think of Molina as another coach in a chest protector, and as long as he's riding shotgun with a rookie pitcher, the game instantly becomes less complicated. It's like Molina has a map for the minefield.
"He just makes it so simple," said Miller, a Rookie of the Year candidate who finished 15-9 with a 3.06 ERA and 169 strikeouts in 1731/3 innings. "If I had to put it into words, it's just go out there and throw what Yadi calls. That's kind of how I did it. If you look at the season I had, I think the main reason is the guy behind the plate."
When the Mets look at pitching prodigies such as Wacha and Miller, they can draw parallels to their own rising stars, such as Matt Harvey -- out until 2015 due to Tommy John surgery -- Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard, to name a few. Unlike the Cardinals, they don't have a stabilizing force like Molina, and must hope that catcher Travis d'Arnaud -- himself a prospect -- moves quickly along the learning curve.
John Buck supplied that veteran presence until the end of August, when he was traded to the Pirates. But with d'Arnaud focused on his own survival after being thrown into the deep end of the pool, it's only natural for his attention to be divided. In 30 starts, d'Arnaud's catcher ERA was 4.15, lagging behind Anthony Recker (3.36 ERA in 38 games) and Buck (4.05 in 104 games).
Those numbers can only be used for an in-house comparison, and even then, not every catcher was used with each pitcher equally. That statistic vacillates according to the quality of a pitching staff, as the NL's top three indicates: A.J. Ellis (3.06), Russell Martin (3.16) and Molina (3.17). But the catcher does make a difference, and with still maturing pitchers, the positive effect can be off the charts.
"It's just amazing how well he does with game management," pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said of Molina. "In terms of reading guy's swings. When you talk about being strong in the middle, that's where it starts. If you don't have a strong catcher, game-management-wise, you're not going to win."
Wacha and Miller said they didn't shake off Molina all season. As soon as he put the signals down, they nodded, and tried to execute the pitch. More often than not, Molina's suggestion worked.
"There's just total confidence in him," said Wacha, who will start Thursday's Game 2 at Fenway Park. "If you have any doubt in your mind about a certain pitch, it's not going to be as effective as if you have complete trust in it."
"I've gotten pretty used to what he's going to be calling. But if I'm thinking about a pitch and he puts down another one, I'm thinking, 'Hey, you know what? This guy's probably right.' So I'm going to stick with that."
Helped by Molina's guidance, Wacha has allowed one run in 21 innings this postseason with 22 strikeouts. He also was named MVP of the NLCS, beating Clayton Kershaw for his two wins. Credit Molina with an assist.
"Usually, when we have game-plan meetings with [Molina], mine are short and sweet," Miller said. "I'm like, 'Hey, I'm going to throw what you call. So let's just go out there and execute that and see what happens.' "For the Cardinals, their uncommon success has a common thread in Molina. And why it's much easier to follow than duplicate.