Baseball, Columnists, Sports

Fair or Foul: Tracking the history of the Cardinals’ ageless battery

So far in 2021, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina have been integral pieces of the Cardinals’ Wild Card run. Molina is batting .256 with an adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS+) of 90, so not great at the plate, but his 1.7 wins above replacement (WAR), per Baseball-Reference, demonstrates he still brings value to the team. 

Meanwhile, Wainwright’s season is putting him in dark horse contention for the NL Cy Young Award. He ranks second in the NL with over 190 innings pitched while ranking eighth with a 2.88 ERA. The craziest part about these two is not that they are performing like that at the ages 39 and 40, respectively, in 2021, but that they have been doing this together for almost two decades.

Alexia Nizhny/DFP STAFF

These two were in their mid-20s in 2006 when they created one of the most famous — or infamous, for Mets fans — playoff moments of all time. Wainwright was closing out the 2006 NLCS and froze All-Star Carlos Beltran with a curveball that the league would continue to learn is unhittable. His catcher that postseason: Molina. The end result of that ’06 campaign: a World Series championship. The success of this battery was just beginning. 

By 2010 — just four seasons later —  Molina had already earned two All-Star nods, along with three Gold Gloves. On the mound, Wainwright had gone 39-19, with a 2.53 ERA and back-to-back top-three Cy Young finishes from 2009 to 2010. In those two seasons, he averaged over 230 innings pitched and 212 strikeouts with 1.13 walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP). Simply put, by the beginning of the last decade, these two were already playing their best baseball.

Then came 2011, a season that would bring the Cardinals another World Series championship. The only sad part of it is that Wainwright underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the entire season. Thanks to veteran righty Chris Carpenter and the young arms of Edwin Jackson and Jaime García, the Redbirds were still able to get the job done. When Wainwright returned in 2012, he might have been just what Molina needed to kick his offensive drive into a never-before-seen gear.

After posting a .814 OPS and finishing 21st in MVP voting in 2011, Molina set career highs in batting average, home runs, RBIs, hits and runs scored in 2012, while also posting a career-best .874 OPS. He finished fourth in MVP voting that season, while Wainwright posted a 3.94 ERA with a 3.10 fielding independent pitching (FIP) in his first season back. 

Things kept getting better when 2013 rolled around, and these two led their team to another World Series. Wainwright returned to elite form with a 2.94 ERA, 2.55 FIP and a career-high 241 2/3 innings pitched. He was runner-up to Clayton Kershaw for the Cy Young Award that would continue to elude him. Molina ended up setting new career highs in batting average, hits, RBIs and runs scored while finishing third in MVP voting and winning his sixth Gold Glove.

Wainwright would put up one more elite season with a 2.38 ERA and 20 wins in 2014, while Molina would do the same in 2016 with a .307 average and another new career-high with 164 hits. Since then, it has been a grind for these two. From 2016 to 2020, Wainwright averaged just 21 starts per season while posting a 4.43 ERA, and Molina batted just .278 with a .746 OPS. 

Nevertheless, such a decline was to be expected after the careers these two have had. After two World Series championships, and a third appearance in the Fall Classic, along with over 300 games as a battery and many winning seasons for the Cardinals, their legacy is already cemented.

One thing is clear: These two Cardinals are well on their way to having their numbers retired. After Molina has caught over 2,000 games for them, and after he and Wainwright worked over 300 games together, the bond between these two and the memories created in St. Louis is unquantifiable. There likely won’t be too many catchers who reach 2,000 games played for one team, and it is even less likely that the same battery does what they do for so many games over so many seasons. 

With Molina already announcing that he will retire after 2022, if Wainwright returns for another season, it will be one heck of a sendoff for this famous Cardinals duo.

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