JUPITER, Fla. — It’s from his many times on first against the Cardinals, as opposed to his few times at first for the Cardinals, that Lance Berkman knows well the six words coaches around the league use to greet their players at the base.
“Watch out,” Berkman recalled them saying. “He likes to throw.”
Whether he does or not, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina has already gained an inch or two of advantage because he has the opponent believing he’ll throw to first base.
A Gold Glove gunslinger behind the plate, Molina has picked off 41 runners in his career, including 39 who strayed from first base. With Ivan Rodriguez still unsigned, Molina is the active leader in pickoffs with 16 more than the next closest catcher, brother Jose Molina. Four times Yadier Molina has led the league in pickoffs for a season. But there is one thing missing entering 2012: his accomplice, Albert Pujols.
“I’m an aggressive catcher,” Molina said as Cardinals spring training sped to a close. “I don’t care if it’s Albert or Lance or (coach Jose) Oquendo playing first, I’m going to try it. With Lance over there I know that he’s aggressive too, so we’ll figure out something and try to get together.”
They did during the final days of spring, with Oquendo and the co-conspirators discussing when to try the pickoff, where the play had to be made and, most of all, how to sell it.
Berkman, a lefthanded first baseman (Pujols plays the position righthanded) explained how he couldn’t just arrive at the bag at the same time as Molina’s throw. Rather, he had to round the bag, get his feet so he was facing the runner and sweep the tag.
“It gives the umpire a more dramatic look,” Berkman said.
Berkman described how Pujols and Molina had “a great chemistry” when it came to pulling off the pickoff. He should know. On April 7, 2008, Berkman was the Houston Astro caught by Molina and Pujols to end the eighth inning. That was the 22nd pickoff of Molina’s career. Twenty-one of his first 24 pickoffs ended an inning. While still preferring to try a pickoff when a lefthanded batter is there to screen his attempt, Molina has varied things as his reputation grew. Only six of his past 17 pickoffs have been for the final out of an inning.
The constant has been Pujols.
Of Molina’s 37 pickoffs that ended with a tag at first base, Pujols has been the receiving glove on 35. The last first baseman not named Pujols to complete a pickoff from Molina was Scott Spiezio, in May 2006. (Berkman was involved in one last season but did not apply the tag.) It was Pujols back in 2006 who had Molina’s most memorable pickoff — the one that caught San Diego’s Brian Giles leaning for the final out of a victory.
“It changes games. It can win games,” Molina said. “Any time you see a catcher throw to first base, you’ve got to second guess and be careful how you take the lead and be more careful taking another base. If it’s Albert here or not, I’m trying to be that same guy.”
Manager Mike Matheny, who had 26 pickoffs in his career behind the plate, called Molina’s willingness to throw to first base an immeasurable asset.
“It’s not just a weapon to get an out,” Matheny said. “That’s one of those intangibles you try to get the sabermetricians to put a value on him and it’s very hard to (gauge) the short leads, the shorter secondary leads, the idea that every third base coach is afraid that ... he’s going to get his guy thrown out. All of those things play into having a guy at second base with one out instead of on third with one out. Those all come from what he’s doing behind the plate, keeping everybody on edge.”
The first baseman is more than a target, however.
Many times the play will be initiated by Molina, but he and Pujols developed a signal Molina said he’ll share with Berkman to put the play on with more than one runner on base. Marlins shortstop Jose Reyes, a former basestealing champ who will lead off against the Cardinals on opening night tonight, said it was all the movement that had him unnerved.
“When I get to first base against the Cardinals, the first thing I know is to be careful with Molina,” Reyes said. “You have to pay attention to Albert, pay attention to the pitcher, and pay attention to Yadier behind the plate. There are so many things going on ... it gets you confused sometimes. Most of the catchers in the big leagues don’t even try that.”
Asked if it means he’s a step, an inch, a stride closer to first base against the Cardinals than, say, against other teams, Reyes grinned with an answer.
“Real close,” he said.
That is when Molina knows the pickoffs are working. He doesn’t have to throw. He can measure success in the runner’s apprehension, no matter who is manning first.
“It makes you proud,” Molina said. “You can see a guy taking a (short) lead from here to there instead of taking the big lead, and you know that’s respect. That’s what you want.”
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