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.