ST. LOUIS -- If there's one dominant tool in the five tools we think of when we picture the St. Louis Cardinals, it's speed.
There's Lou Brock, that longtime stolen base king before Rickey Henderson came along, with eight stolen base crowns, a high of 118 and 888 total as a member of the Cardinals.
But he's far from the only man in red and white we think of as scurrying around the bases. Whether it's Enos Slaughter scoring from first to win the 1946 World Series, or Whitey Herzog's speed demons making Busch Stadium II into a pinball machine, there's one thing we know about St. Louis Cardinals baseball: Speed, and specifically the stolen base, is integral to their attack.
Which is why it was so striking to me, as I made my way through the Cardinals' Hall of Fame on Monday, and spotted the team's active leader in stolen bases: Yadier Molina.
If you'd have asked me to guess how many career stolen bases Yadier Molina had accumulated, I'd have gone with somewhere between zero and three. Maybe, because you were asking me, I'd have revised upward, assuming there was a reason, and guessed 10.
Molina has 40 stolen bases in his career. And lest you think he racked those up early, when he was a, let's say, faster young player, the opposite is true. In the first five years of his career, he stole four bases, and was caught nine times. But from 2009-2013, he's stolen 36 bases, and only gotten caught 17 times. That's a pretty strong stolen base success rate. Put it this way: he's succeeding 68 percent of the time over the past five years. That's much better than the 57 percent success rate opposing would-be base stealers have against Molina over that span.
And among catchers, only Russell Martin can match his overall stolen base prowess for the past five seasons.
Still, that Molina is the active franchise leader, heir to the Vince Coleman-Pepper Martin throne, came as a surprise to nearly everybody, Molina himself included.
"No, didn't know about it," Molina said when I asked him about the record before Monday's home opener against the Reds. "It's not my area of strength. Wait, did you say, me, stolen bases?"
I assured him that yes, he was the active team leader in stolen bases. He laughed.
"I mean, I'm surprised because we have some fast guys through the years. But that's not my strength."
I pointed out to Molina that while it may not be at the top of his priority list, he has managed to increase his stolen base totals, and success rate, even as his legs logged hundreds of games behind the plate. A guy like Jason Kendall, the modern standard bearer for catchers who steal bases, swiped 122 of his 196 by age 28. Molina, meanwhile, stole 12 in 2012, his age-29 season, alone.
"For me, with my speed, you've got to take advantage of what they give to you," Molina said. "You've got to know the guy who's pitching, you've got to know his tendencies, when you can take advantage. In this game, you've got to pay attention to what everybody is doing. The pitcher, the catcher, any tendency they have, you've got to pay attention to that. If you've got the chance to go, I'm not afraid to go. I'll take a chance. Whatever happens, happens."
It's that attitude that led Brock, the current Cardinals all-time stolen base king, to be the sole person I interviewed about this who wasn't surprised when I told him about Molina's spot on the leaderboard.
"The fact is, he has the guts to try it," Brock said of Molina. "Often times, players don't have the guts to try it, which means players who run faster than Yadi, don't, because Yadi is not afraid of failure."
The Cardinals, according to manager Mike Matheny, have a protocol for how Molina goes about utilizing this part of his game.
"He's just a smart baserunner," Matheny said at his pregame presser Monday. "He's got a nice feel for the game. And you know, obviously he's not Billy Hamilton out there, not gonna get on base and look for every opportunity to steal a bag. He's also going to take advantage when there's a spot. Most of that comes down to just having a real nice feel, and instincts, and we allow him to use those instincts. And there's times when we shut it down, but when he sees something, feels it, usually he'll tell us, and we'll do a little research, and if he gets a chance, he'll take it.
And lest you think Molina is padding his stolen base totals in meaningless blowouts, he isn't. Matheny noted how often his stolen bases actually help the Cardinals win.
"They've ended up being big bases, too, just not when nobody cares, in a game that doesn't matter," Matheny said. "He understands the game, he understands the right opportunity is there."
The numbers support Matheny's assertion. Molina stole three bases in 2013: April 18 against the Phillies, April 29 against the Reds and May 17 against the Cubs. Each of these were one-run games. Very few of his stolen bases, throughout his career, happened in Cardinals blowouts.
There is a dark cloud over this story, however. Molina isn't likely to overtake Brock for the all-time franchise lead. He's currently 81st in Cardinals history, just ahead of Brendan Ryan, Tim McCarver, and Jose Cardenal. With 848 bases left to pass Brock, Molina will need to maintain his current rate of stolen bases from 2009-2013 for another 170 seasons, taking Molina until his age-201 season.
Then there are the challengers from within. Peter Bourjos, acquired this offseason, said back in January that he hopes to steal 40 bases-in 2014 alone. And Kolten Wong, promoted from the farm system and at second base for, the Cardinals hope, a long time, has his sights set on Molina's mark as well.
I spoke to Wong about his pursuit of Molina, and team history, after his first stolen base at Busch stadium this season. He added another Tuesday, which combined with his three last season, has him all the way up to five, just 40 games into his Cardinals career.
"Yadi's one of those catchers, he's so smart on the bases, he just picks up everything," Wong said, gracious about his rival. "And that's the reason he has so many stolen bases. He'll see something, and instantly take advantage."
Nevertheless, Molina ought to enjoy this statistical distinction while he can. I asked Matheny if he thought Molina's status was in trouble, given the presence of Bourjos and Wong.
Matheny replied, with a wry smile, "I hope so."