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Milwaukee Brewers legend Paul Molitor is still underappreciated

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The ultimate Brewers’ honor still eludes “The Ignitor.”

Paul Molitor

There are four true immortals when it comes to Milwaukee baseball: Henry Aaron, Robin Yount, Bob Uecker, and Paul Molitor. The first three listed have bronze statues to recognize their standing in the hearts and minds of fans. It’s time Molitor joins this trio and becomes, fittingly, number four.

As the Minnesota Twins and manager Paul Molitor wrap up the season series with the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday, it’s time to acknowledge a travesty outside Miller Park. It’s absolutely ridiculous that arguably the best player to don a Brewers’ jersey doesn’t have a statue in Milwaukee.

Sure, he has his number retired, has been honored in smaller ways, and has a plaque in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. Still, in many respects, he goes underappreciated.

Molitor was the most exciting and dynamic player during the franchise’s best run of success. Truth be told, he was the most important piece, even more vital to the club’s accomplishments than Robin Yount. Yes, I know - that’s blasphemy.

While it’s not generally fair to correlate a player’s impact with a teams’ record, during Molitor’s 15-year tenure with the Brewers, there was a somewhat telling statistic: Milwaukee had a .545 winning percentage with him in the lineup and a .450 mark when he was out. Again, not nearly the best way to look at it, but that’s a 16-win difference in a 162-game season.

One of only two true Brewers in the Hall of Fame, Molitor had some of the quickest hands in the history of the game. He also had incredible baseball instincts and intelligence to take advantage of every situation imaginable (we’ll get to that later). Molitor was deemed “The Ignitor” with good reason, as teammates marveled at the way he could get something going on his own and take over a game in a number of different ways.

Many were enamored with Yount, but Molitor was a legend and the true backbone of those clubs.

While Yount received most of the love and attention - and many times he clearly deserved it - Molitor’s greatness and impact often went overlooked and undervalued. He was a team player who did what benefited the club the most. Many times, Molitor sacrificed his body, statistics, and reputation by playing all over the field and focusing on his role as a leadoff man. He had sneaky power, but rarely sought out that aspect of his skill set with the Milwaukee Brewers.

And let’s not forget what a clutch performer his was in his career. When the Brewers needed a hit, a run, a play - anything - he would seemingly come through. Molitor was the first player to ever record five hits in a World Series game. He owned a .368 average, .435 OBP and a 1.050 OPS in 29 postseason games.

When it came to the World Series, he was even better. In 61 plate appearances: .418 average, .475 OBP, .636 slugging percentage, 1.112 OPS. Molitor racked up 23 hits, 15 runs and 11 RBI in 13 games in the Fall Classic. A stud hitter, no matter the situation.

Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Also, despite being the first Hall of Famer who played more than half his games as a designated hitter, Molitor was actually a solid defender as well. He came up as a shortstop, but Yount obviously had that spot locked down. Of course, at age 22, Yount was unsatisfied with his salary and with rumors they could move him to the outfield to accommodate Molitor. Yount threatened to quit and join the PGA.

In the end, Yount stayed at short (for a while) and Molitor bounced all around the diamond in his career, including 50 games in the outfield. Some argue this may have contributed to his nagging injuries as his body was continuously introduced to additional and different movements.

Regardless of where he played defensively, however, offense was the calling card of number four. There have been more than 19,000 players in MLB history. Take a look where he ranks all time in a number of categories.

  • Hits: 3,310 (10th)
  • Singles: 2,366 (12th)
  • Doubles: 605 (13th)
  • Power-Speed: 319.6 (16th)
  • Runs: 1,782 (20th)
  • Times on Base: 4,460 (20th)
  • Total Bases: 4,854 (26th)
  • Runs Created: 1,873 (31st)
  • bWAR (position players): 75.4 (45th)

Molitor didn’t get into the elite levels in a number of rate statistics, in part because he didn’t hit for power and in part because he played so long. His peak, healthy years, however, were as fantastic as one could ask for. Plus, many of the things he brought to the table couldn’t necessarily be quantified, but you knew they helped you win.

Two examples that I like to look at relate to stolen bases and using brains over brawn for victory. First, did you know that Molitor is one of only 38 players in the history of baseball to have 10 or more steals of home? He is also one of just 42 players to steal second, third and home plate in the same inning. Smart and gutsy.

Speaking of savvy plays and baseball IQ, Molitor once laid down a game-winning bunt single with two outs in the 9th inning. The surprise play defeated lights out closer Dennis Eckersley. That play showed what Molitor was about - finding an edge to win a game. Interestingly, both those guys went into the Hall of Fame the same year (2004), and Eckersley was still mad about the move.

Back to the numbers. Even if you just look at his production in Milwaukee, it would make a vast majority of Major Leaguers jealous. As a Brewer, Molitor collected 2,281 hits and 1,275 runs - both second in club history. He sits second to Yount in most counting stats, only because he played in exactly 1,000 fewer games than “The Kid.”

Look at nearly any offensive category and you’ll find Molitor among the Brewers’ all-time leaders, ahead of Yount in batting average and OBP, hitting .303 (tied for 2nd with Ryan Braun as of Wednesday morning) with a .367 OBP (4th).

In Milwaukee alone, Molitor tallied more than 400 doubles and stole a franchise record 412 bases. That’s 141 more than Yount, who resides in second. Molitor finished with an a 125 OPS+ (100 is average), ahead of Rockin’ Robin’s 115 OPS+.

Paul Molitor

Molitor was simply a phenomenal hitter. One of the most consistent performers to you’ll ever find, especially considering how long he played. In 13 full seasons with the Brewers, Molitor hit over .300 in eight seasons, scored 100 or more runs four times, and averaged 30 doubles per year. Only once in those 13 years did Molitor finish with an OPS+ below 125. Incredibly reliable and dependable.

The Ignitor also owns the top two season for runs scored by a Brewer (136 and 133 runs), as well as the fifth and sixth-best years in that category. He was a constant threat and nuisance to the opposition, getting the most out of his bat, his legs and his mind.

In 1987, Molitor finished fifth in MVP moving as he had a franchise-record .353 batting average, a stunning .438 OBP (franchise record), and an OPS+ of 161. He also led the league in runs (114) and doubles (41) - all this despite playing in only 118 games due to injury.

If you peek at one of the more trusted, all-encompassing Sabermetric statistic in weighted on-base average (wOBA), Molitor’s ‘87 season was even more amazing. That season, Molitor posted a .433 wOBA. To put that in perspective, that high of a wOBA has been reached only twice in the last five seasons: Bryce Harper in 2015 (NL MVP) and Miguel Cabrera in 2013 (AL MVP).

No player reached Molitor’s .433 wOBA mark in 2016, 2014 or 2012, and Yount’s career best was .415 in 1982. In that magical 1987 season for Molitor, the Brewers went 22-23 without him and a remarkable 76-41 when he played - a .650 winning percentage.

Again, his elite offensive skills made an almost unbelievable impact on the rest of the team.

In fact, the great Ted Williams even compared Molitor to Joe DiMaggio, a huge compliment coming from a man who knew hitting better than anyone. Of course, also in 1987, Molitor tried to emulate the Yankee Clipper and his incredible 56-game hitting streak. It still stands as the longest in MLB history.

The small-market Brewers, led by Molitor, gripped the entire country every night in 1987 as Molitor took the baseball world on a six-week journey. His 39-game hitting streak stands as the fifth-longest in modern baseball history, and no one has reached that mark since.

Fast forward to the final two seasons Molitor spent in Milwaukee. The aging veteran was an All-Star in both years (1991 and 1992) and a legitimate MVP candidate. Molitor represented the Brewers five times in the All-Star game.

In ‘91, as a 34-year-old in a rundown Milwaukee County Stadium, Molitor led the league in runs (133), hits (216), and triples (13). Those last two seasons with the Brewers, Molitor averaged a .323 batting average, .394 OBP, 111 runs, 206 hits, 34 doubles and 25 stolen bases. He was proving once again, when healthy and aided by the DH position, he was the best player on the club.

That was part of the reason he was hurt by general manager Sal Bando’s contract offer at the end of the ‘92 campaign. Bando offered Molitor $900,000 less than he made the previous season. He low-balled Molitor, who was still among the best in the game. Bando hoped that Molitor, maybe the best to ever wear a Brewers’ jersey, would be “extra loyal” and accept the pay cut.

This is point where many people start to argue against Molitor having a statue like Yount. He shook his head at Bando’s offer and signed with the rival Toronto Blue Jays, who were looking to repeat as World Series champions. The Jays gave Molitor a 3-year, $13 million deal or $4.33 million per season. Bando’s offer was a 1-year contract worth only $1.6 million.

Now before you complain about “loyalty” and “greed,” put yourself in Molitor’s shoes.

You gave your all for 15 years to a company, were undoubtedly one of the best two employees they’ve ever had, and you were among the best in the world over during this industry’s (Major League Baseball) more than 100-year history. Not to mention, you were still among the top 10-15 performers in the previous two years.

Considering all of that, you tell me that you would take a pay cut to stay with that organization. Shouldn’t they have been a bit more “loyal?” To top it off, Bando went on to say they couldn’t pay that much for someone who was “just a DH.” Ouch.

So, Molitor made the extremely painful decision to leave Milwaukee - his home for over a decade - and take a shot at winning a World Series. Not only did he get the ring he longed for, he had one of his best seasons hitting in the middle of the Jays’ order.

On top of not being a leadoff man anymore, Molitor’s recognizable number four wasn’t on his back in 1993 either. In his first year in Toronto, Molitor wore number 19 in honor of his friend and longtime teammate, Robin Yount.

1993 World Series Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images

In that season, as “just a DH,” the 36-year-old Molitor was an All-Star, won the Silver Slugger award, finished second in MVP voting for the season, and won the World Series MVP en route to winning his first and only title.

He proved, one more time, the unbelievable value he always brought to a team. Molitor’s teammates in Toronto lauded about his ability to single-handedly take over a game, his keen baseball intelligence, and the way he acted as the backbone of the club.

When push comes to shove, Molitor was one of the most beloved, charismatic, “pay to watch,” insanely talented, and smartest players in the long, storied history of the greatest game on Earth. His contributions to Milwaukee and the Brewers, on and off the field, were beyond what many could comprehend.

The organization and some bitter fans need to come to truly appreciate the brilliance Paul Molitor delivered for 15 years and give him the final piece of recognition he so clearly deserves.

There are four true immortals when it comes to Milwaukee baseball: Henry Aaron, Robin Yount, Bob Uecker, and Paul Molitor. The first three listed have bronze statues to recognize their standing in the hearts and minds of fans. It’s time Molitor joins this trio and becomes, fittingly, number four.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com