25 Best Hitters of Free Agent Era: #19 – Paul Molitor

We continue our countdown of the 25 Best Hitters of the Free Agent Era.  The rest of the posts can be found here.

If you’re unfamiliar with Paul Molitor’s abilities in the box, I’ll step aside and let one of baseball’s greatest hitters of all-time describe him.  When Ted Williams was asked what he saw when he watched Paul Molitor, he said the following.

“I see Joe DiMaggio.”

Far be it for me to try to match that endorsement.  So I’ll just start by saying that Paul Molitor is one of baseball’s best pure hitters of the last few decades.  But it didn’t start out so smoothly.

Molitor battled numerous problems early in his career. He was hampered by injuries and drug addiction after a solid second season. In 1979, his sophomore year in the big leagues, Molitor finished 6th in the league by hitting .322.  It looked like he would take baseball by storm. But then, in 1980, Molitor hurt a muscle in his rib cage.  He was batting .358 in early June when the injury struck, and he attempted to return to action too soon. He wasn’t yet healthy, causing his average to plummet to .304 by season’s end.  What’s worse, he turned to drugs while waiting to return to the field, a falling into an addiction to cocaine.

The habit worsened in the off-season. The situation came to a head when he failed to show up to his family’s Christmas celebration.  At that point, Molitor recognized that he needed to turn his life around, or risk losing everything he’d worked for.

And, as baseball fans, we are grateful. While he never was able to completely cure himself of the injury bug, the body of work he produced in the Majors is impressive.

Molitor finished with 3,319 career hits, good for 10th all-time.  That might take a second to set in:  Only nine players in the history of baseball have more hits than Paul Molitor.  This total is a testament of his longevity and perseverance.  If the number of hits a player had were the best gauge of a player’s hitting ability, surely Molitor would be higher on the list.

His final average of .306 is solid, though not elite among the players in my list. It’s a pretty solid number, especially with a total of 12,167 plate appearances (10,835 official at-bats).  He got on base at a steady pace at .369.  For 15 years, he manned the leadoff spot for the Milwaukee Brewers and he did it well. He earned the nickname “The Igniter,” though it’s believed Molitor never liked that name.

It’s easy to see why he earned it though, batting over .300 13 times in his 21 long years. In seven of those campaigns, he batted .320 or higher.

He was never much of a power hitter, only once topping 20 homers. But again, he was a leadoff batter for most of his career. He finished with 234 home runs.

What I really like about Molitor is the back half of his career.  Around the age of 30, when ballplayers are supposed to begin battling Father Time and can be expected to see a slow decline in their production, Molitor did the opposite.  In 1987, easily his best year,  Molitor batted .353. It probably helped that he put up a 39 game hitting streak. His on-base was well above his career average, getting on at a rate of .438.

In addition, his late career surge produced two .341 campaigns (1994 and 1996, ages 37 and 39, respectively), and a handful of other .320+ outputs.  It might be noted that he actually turned 40 in that ’96 season, meaning that as a 40-year-old, he produced at a level most men couldn’t even dream about in their 20’s. Molitor led the league in hits three times, all three after he turned 30.

In fact, from 1987 through the end of his career in 1998, Molitor batted .316.  But that means in the seasons pre-1987, he batted a somewhat less spectacular .290.  The contrast really shows Molitor’s maturity as a hitter, honing his game as he grew older and developing into the professional, historical hitter we know him as today.

The apex of Molitor’s career came in the 1993 World Series, when he earned MVP honors for leading the Blue Jays past the Phillies,  He batted an even .500 in that series with 12 hits in 24 at-bats, including 2 homers and 8 RBI in just six games. His OPS in that series was 1.571, solidifying a fabulous postseason stat line. In 132 career playoff PA, Molitor put up a whopping .368 batting average and flat out sensational 1.050 OPS.  Small sample size, sure, but those numbers were in the most tense conditions and against baseball’s best pitching.

Some more from Molitor’s resume: 605 doubles, good for 14th all-time.  114 triples, which is 2nd highest out of the 25 players on my list.  He averaged 200 hits per 162 games. He walked 9.0% of the time while striking out just 10.2%. His 39-game hit streak is good for 7th longest in history.  Though unrelated to this list but a nice addition, he stole 504 bases in his career.  He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2004.

If not for his early career hurdles, and a nasty injury bug, we might be talking about 4,000 hits or even the hits record.  For 10 years, Molitor was a hitter deserving of a higher position than #19.  For the first ten or so however, his .290 average doesn’t have enough clout (see also: home runs) and sort of anchors his career a bit lower for me.  Only against the 18 fellas in front of him, mind you.

Because make no mistake: If you take Paul Molitor at his best, you’d be hard pressed to find a long list of hitters in history that you’d rather have at the dish.

Case in point: Here is Molitor collecting 3 hits in clinching game 6 for Toronto in 1993, including a triple and a homer.  His quick, compact stroke is a thing of beauty.  The third hit, a clean single to center, sets Joe Carter up for his epic World Series winning homer.  Also note that fellow countdown member Rickey Henderson moves up to 2nd base on that play.

Playing in a smaller market, and then in Canada, Molitor’s name sometimes gets forgotten in discussions of the great hitters we’ve seen.  But make no mistake, he was a world class hitter, and deserves a place on this list.

 

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