Jose Molina’s Value

Atlanta Braves catcher David Ross is considered by many to be the best back up in baseball. It’s highly likely that Ross would be an every day regular on several teams around the league, but with Brian McCann holding the job in Atlanta, he’s been subjugated to back up duties.

However, this season, there’s another back up catcher outperforming him. Toronto Blue Jays receiver Jose Molina is having as close to a career year as someone who will likely finish the season with fewer than 200 plate appearances possibly can. While offering his typically steady defense behind the plate, Molina’s rate stats have more in common with Buster Posey’s than about half the starting catchers in baseball.

His reliably excellent play this season, in an admittedly small sample, has seen the Elias ranking system rank him as a Type B free agent. Given the relative depth at catcher in the Blue Jays system and the fact that a supplemental pick for a back up is almost always a team friendly swap, it’s unlikely that Molina will be returning to Toronto this off season.

That’s too bad, but not for the reasons we may be thinking. While this season may represent an offensive breakthrough for Molina, it would be foolish to expect the 36 year old’s numbers this year to be a better representative of his true talent than his career sub .300 OBP and .280 career wOBA.

While it may be no secret that Molina’s true value to an organization is found in his glove rather than his bat, Mike Fast from Baseball Prospectus discovers that it’s his specific ability to frame the strike zone with that glove that makes Molina even more valuable defensively than most would imagine.

Fast explains in his must read piece on a catcher’s ability to frame pitches close to the strike zone and earn strike calls from an umpire.

To calculate the catcher performance, I first established a baseline for each pitcher over the period 2007-2011. I used the strike zone definition described here and counted the number of extra strikes and subtracted the number of extra balls tallied by each pitcher . . . I divided the net number of extra strikes by the total number of called pitches for that pitcher to arrive at an expected net extra strike rate for each pitcher.

Next, I applied the same procedure for each pitcher-catcher pair and subtracted the pitcher baseline from the result. Then, I summed the results by catcher. I also calculated an approximate run value for the extra strikes saved or lost by each catcher using Dan Turkenkopf’s finding that switching the call from a ball to a strike on a close pitch was worth about 0.13 runs on average.

Fast, using this method, goes on to calculate that Molina has saved 73 runs for his teams over the last five years, including 10 in limited play this season, simply by influencing an umpire’s decision on close calls. That’s more than any other catcher in baseball. He notes that Molina has been most effective against left handed batters, providing this chart:

And this GIF:

It’s really a phenomenal bit of research by Fast that deserves a full read, so I’ll link to it once again. His article includes just about everything I love about baseball thinking: a new way of finding value from a different aspect of performance, emphasizing an under appreciated talent, exhibiting that talent as an art, and admitting to the limitations of his findings.

We do not distinguish here how catchers may be getting the extra strike calls for their pitchers. It may be that they have superior mechanics that influence the umpire to call more strikes, whether by action or lack of action on the catcher’s part. Or, it may be that they are particularly adept at setting the target for the pitcher in such way that he delivers the ball on a trajectory that is more likely to get a strike call. It may even be that some catchers exert a verbal influence over umpires or develop friendships that sway calls in their favor. Any effect that gains strike calls and is related to the catcher should be captured here.

Amazing stuff.

Comments (14)

  1. As a catcher myself, I love the article.

    However, I find myself in agreement with one of Keith Law’s recent comments on twitter which can be paraphrased as “these findings are also an indictment of umpires who are unable to distinguish between borderline balls and strikes.” Regardless of how good Jose Molina is, it is absurd that anyone could frame a pitch that is nearly 2 feet off the plate for a strike. Two feet!

    • Agreed. However, I love this quote from Brent Mayne:

      Simply catch the ball firmly. When the pitch and glove meet, that’s where the action should stop. The catcher should have enough strength to stop the momentum of the ball so that strikes don’t turn into balls. Think of a gymnast “sticking” a landing. Just “stick” the ball, hold it for a brief second, then throw it back.

    • It’s not 2 feet off the plate, it’s 2 feet from the centre-line of the plate, meaning 1 foot, 3 and a half inches off the plate, which is still way too far outside for anyone to be thinking it’s a strike.

      Anecdotally, I’ve seen umpires call a strike a ball if the catcher (Rusty Martin comes to mind) too aggressively tries to frame it back to the middle. So this sword can cut both ways, but either way the umpires shouldn’t be influenced by it.

      • Another thing to remember is that the location graphed here is a single value, but the ball doesn’t travel exactly in a straight line across the plate. Pitches with movement can be poorly categorized by a single value.

      • This is actually even crazier if you look into it a bit more!

        Jose Molina right now has 1.5 WAR in 177 PA, if you add in the pitch framing it’s another 1.5 WAR in 3000 called pitches (starters see 8000-9000 called pitches). If he was a regular starter he could be a 7+ WAR player right now.

        Jose Molina best player in baseball??!?!?

      • Thanks for remedying my inability to read properly.

  2. Amazing work by Mike Fast. Even without the benefit of some pretty fantastic detective work, Molina has certainly delivered incredible value for his very small contract. I’ve often thought that Molina does a good job helping the umpires to see strikes – by staying out of their way – but this adds a lot of depth to that argument.

    His batting has exceeded my every expectation this season. I’ve thought that his work with the young pitchers has been outstanding – particularly with Alvarez. The fact that he’s a type B and will no doubt make LOADS more money somewhere else next season – while leaving the Jays a comp-pick is just the cherry on top of a very solid season. He really has been the perfect back-up catcher.

  3. This is actually even crazier if you look into it a bit more!

    Jose Molina right now has 1.5 WAR in 177 PA, if you add in the pitch framing it’s another 1.5 WAR in 3000 called pitches (starters see 8000-9000 called pitches). If he was a regular starter he could be a 8+ WAR player right now.

    Jose Molina best player in baseball??!?!?

  4. Um, maybe the Angels will sign Molina in the offseason. Pat and Buck were gushing over the Yankees catcher on the weekend and his framing and were giving blowjobs to Scoscia’s criteria for a good catcher (framing was a big one; hitting wasnt even on the list).

  5. @JRock: What do you expect Martinez to do? Scioscia’s a well respected member of the catching fraternity, and Buck couldn’t hit a lick. ;)

  6. That gif is an absolute example of what a catcher should NOT do. It’s way too obvious, and it tells the umpire you (the catcher) knew it wasn’t a strike and felt the need to move it. More than likely the umpire will never give you that strike.

    The Brent Mayne quote cited above is dead-on.

  7. I took a look at Mike Fast’s data table to check out JPA – and it isn’t pretty: he’s at -88 strikes for the season, which is an estimated -12.9 runs. I really like JPA, as he seems to have a good rapport with the pitchers, he’s already a good hitter for his position (and might well get better), but his pitch-blocking leaves much to be desired, and now apparently his framing is pretty poor. Travis d’Arnaud (defensive C of the year in the Eastern League) looks more and more like the long-term solution.

  8. yea i’ve been thinking the same thing on molina. he does many things well as a catcher. only thing that still annoys me is the passed balls, but i guess leopards dont change their spots at his age. plus i think a lot of his passed balls are caused by trying too hard to frame certain pitches, which then go off his glove and to the backstop. we’ll take the good with the bad tho, certainly has been well worth his paycheck this year.

  9. No draft pick is worth letting the best backup in baseball go.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *