Driving in to work today, I heard MLB Network Radio interview Tampa Bay Rays pitcher James Shields. He was asked about the team signing Jose Molina and Shields mentioned the Rays haven't really had a veteran catcher in a long time and how Molina is regarded as one of the best receivers in the game.
Thanks to the Pitchf/x data that is now available, smart people who are geniuses with a spreadsheet can attempt to study this kind of stuff. Mike Fast, who wrote for Baseball Prospectus, turned his ability to analyze Pitchf/x data into a job with the Houston Astros. BP just hired another writer named Max Marchi, who also crunches the Pitchf/x numbers.
Anyway, Max wrote a piece on Molina a few days ago for BP, breaking down Molina's ability on blocking pitches, controlling the running game, fielding bunts and batted balls and framing pitches.
Molina rated poorly in blocking pitches, very good at controlling the running game (from 2008 to 2011, only brother Yadier Molina saved more runs, according to Max's methods) and a tick above average in fielding batted balls.
But the big area of Molina's value comes in the art of framing pitches. In fact, that ability may be so important that if you believe the numbers, framing pitches has to be considered the new hidden, cost-effective gem in player evaluation. Since 2008, Max reports that Molina has saved 62.8 runs framing pitches, third-best in the majors behind Brian McCann (79.3) and Russell Martin (70.0).
What does that mean? Well, consider the following list of hitters and how many runs better than an average hitter they've been since 2008, from Baseball-Reference.com: Troy Tulowitzki (+71), Robinson Cano (+68), Justin Upton (+61), Ian Kinsler (+56), Curtis Granderson (+54). And remember -- Molina has only been a part-time player. He's caught 1,937.1 innings over those four seasons compared to McCann's 4,414.2 and Martin's 4,274.2. If we extrapolate Molina's runs saved to McCann's playing time, we get 143 runs saved, or about 35.8 runs per season. That's about the same number of runs as Albert Pujols contributed with the bat in 2011 compared to an average hitter.
Is that really believable? One way to check the findings is to compare the runs scored while Molina was catching compared to his teammates. Yes, this method is imperfect -- some catchers may only catch certain pitchers, a couple of big blowouts can influence the results and so on. But if Molina is really this good, something should show up in the data.
Check the chart to the right, which traces the past four seasons. This basic method also confirms that Molina is doing something right behind the plate -- he's "allowed" 4.08 runs per nine innings while his teammates have allowed 4.89. (Although that gap is helped created by the fact that John Buck and Jorge Posada rate as two of the poorest pitch-framers.)
It's funny; managers talk all the time about the importance of a good defensive catcher. Of course, they don't always back this up on the field. When Posada returned from injury in 2009 after missing most of the 2008 season, Joe Girardi still installed him as the regular catcher ahead of Molina. Angels manager Mike Scioscia did back this up when the club jettisoned Mike Napoli after the 2010 season. In Mike Fast's study published on Baseball Prospectus last September, Jeff Mathis rated plus-19 runs in framing pitches since 2007 while Napoli rated minus-24. Scioscia didn't like Napoli's defense; of course, that difference of a few runs over the course of one season wasn't large enough to make up for Napoli's advantage with the bat.
As for Molina, he's not much of a hitter either, thus his status as a career backup. But the Rays definitely know his value behind the plate. This wasn't just a random signing of a veteran catcher with great leadership skills. Andrew Friedman and the stat-crunchers in Tampa Bay's front office know what they're getting. And it's not like the Rays got offense from their catchers last season; they made the playoffs even though their catchers hit .194 with a .274 OBP.
Molina turns 37 in June and has played more than 78 games just once in his career, so it remains to be seen how he'll hold up if he's expected to catch 110 games or so. The Rays already have a pretty good pitching staff, so it also remains to be seen how much better Molina can make it. (The Rays were eighth in the AL in walks allowed, however.) It remains to be seen if pitch framing is the new undervalued asset and whether Jose Molina's glove is really equal to Robinson Cano's bat.
If it is, it won't be undervalued for long. Maybe in a few years the best pitch-framers will be in high demand and receive commensurate contracts. Could we see the day of the $10 million catcher who hits .223?