November 13, 2012
The 50-Run Receiver
The Tampa Bay Rays were eliminated from playoff contention on October 1st, falling short of their fourth playoff appearance in five seasons, but it wasn’t because of their pitching. The staff’s walk rate fell from 3.1 per nine innings in 2011 to 2.9 in 2012, and its strikeout rate rose from 7.1 strikeouts per inning to 8.5, good enough to set a single-season AL strikeout record. Granted, it wasn’t exactly the same group of pitchers in both seasons, and the strikeout rate rose across the league. But the pitching improvement wasn’t just maturation on the part of the pitchers or another manifestation of the game’s trend toward more strikeouts. There was also a Molina in the machine.
In March, I mentioned the Rays’ Jose Molina signing as one of my favorite moves of the offseason, writing “Molina for $1.5 million (plus an option for 2013 at the same price) might be the best value any team got from the free agent market this winter.” The month before, Max Marchi had summarized Molina’s weaknesses (hitting and blocking) and strengths (framing and throwing) in a piece called “What Are the Rays Expecting from Jose Molina?” Like Mike Fast, Max found that Molina was among the best backstops in baseball at the things he was good at and among the worst where he struggled. But according to Max’s calculations, Molina’s framing skill was so superlative that it made him the best pitch-for-pitch defensive catcher of the past 60 years, which more than made up for his flimsy bat. That’s why the Rays wanted him, and that’s why it looked like they’d gotten a good deal.
Despite his considerable contributions behind the plate, Molina had a PR problem: the damage his bat was doing was easier to see than his subtle skills behind the plate, especially when he started the season with a .186/.255/.256 slash line in April. Rays fans could see the improvements in the team’s pitching, and his pitchers appreciated his efforts, but the statistical gains showed up in other players’ stats. Every now and then, Molina would make a cameo appearance on SportsCenter, but he usually played a supporting role in someone else’s helmet slam: Cody Ross’ in mid-April, Brett Lawrie’s in mid-May. The framed pitches that touched off those tantrums were forgotten in the furor that followed.
To their credit, the Rays, who knew what they had, kept running (or rolling) him out there, giving him the most starts, innings, and plate appearances at catcher that he’d had in any season except 2008. To his credit, Molina didn’t break down. But he also didn’t take center stage** (on Twitter, anyway) until after the Rays had been bounced, when Max tweeted this:
Later that day, Rays manager Joe Maddon went on 620 WDAE-AM in Tampa with co-hosts Ron Diaz and Ian Beckles, and he and Beckles had this exchange:
We don’t know for sure whether Maddon was referring to Max’s calculations. The timing certainly suggests that he was, but maybe there’s another explanation–after all, October 5th was two days after the season ended, which is about when Maddon might have received the Rays’ internal end-of-season reports. Maybe Max’ numbers matched up with the Rays’ own evaluations exactly, or closely enough that they felt there was no harm in letting the stat slip when someone else had already put it out there.
Wherever Maddon's stat came from, it's impossible to pinpoint his motivations for repeating it on air. We never really know why teams say what they say. Maddon might not actually believe the 50-run rating. Maybe he just wanted to make Molina feel good, pump up his trade value, or make his pitchers more confident in their batterymate. Maybe he wanted to justify his decision to use Molina as much as he had. Maybe framing is all an illusion and the Rays just wanted to pull the wool farther over everyone else's eyes (I don't think it's that one).
But imagine what it would mean for Molina’s value if his framing really was worth 50 runs. Without factoring in blocking, throwing, or framing, Molina was worth 0.2 WARP. The defensive systems agree that Molina’s good throwing added roughly as many runs as his poor blocking subtracted, so let’s call those a wash. Add 50 runs, or five wins, to his tally, and his total rises to 5.2, which would make him the most valuable Ray and tie him with Adam Jones and Giancarlo Stanton at 12th overall. Only 15 players had at least 5.0 WARP this season, so we’re talking about Jose Molina—chunky, 37-year-old Jose Molina, who started 80 games, made less than half as much money as sub-replacement player Juan Rivera, failed to hit his weight, and made two Tampa Bay radio hosts wonder what he had that Chris Gimenez and Jose Lobaton didn’t—being one of the best 15 players in baseball.
It does only so much good to spew stats about Molina’s special season. This is one of those times when “show” works better than “tell,” so here’s a list of the 10 pitches farthest away from the center of the strike zone (in any direction) that were called strikes with Molina catching.*
Batter reaction: "Really?"
Sometimes, when Molina is really feeling a frame, he'll freeze time and squat perfectly still for seconds while the pitcher, batter, umpire, and fans all continue their movements around him. Eventually the umpire takes the hint and calls the strike, and Molina rejoins the rest of the universe.
This video was captured at 20 frames per second, and the video (or series of stills) below is five frames, so this whole thing comprises a quarter of a second. In the first 20th of a second after catching the pitch, Molina moves the glove horizontally toward the center of the zone. In the second 20th of a second, he moves it vertically toward the center of the zone. Less than a second later, he gets James Shields a strikeout.***
Followed by: Mutual frowny face.
In case you were wondering: yes, the Rays picked up Molina's option for 2013.
*These 10 pitches with the greatest total distance away from the center of the zone aren’t the same as the pitches with the lowest probability of being called strikes. The pitcher, the pitch type, the batter, the count, and the umpire all influence the probability that a pitch will be called a strike, but we don’t currently have strike probability calculated on a pitch-by-pitch basis, and those factors wouldn’t come across very well in a GIF. It also would have been possible to look up the called strikes that were farthest away from the nearest edge of the strike zone, which would have yielded different (and possibly even more eye-popping) results.
**Molina's defense did win him one actual honor, apart from Max' tweet, Maddon's comment, and this article: he was named the inaugural Rays recipient of the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year Award, which seems to be something the Wilson company cooked up after belatedly realizing that Rawlings has been sponsoring the Gold Gloves for the last 55 years.
***As Max pointed out when I showed him this GIF, Molina's commitment to framing might actually be a cause of his poor blocking performance. Another catcher might have given up on getting that pitch called a strike and gone into "block mode" early, which would likely lead to fewer passed balls but also fewer frames. If a few more passed balls is the price of Molina's framing performance, it's a price well worth paying.
Thanks to Ryan Lind, Max Marchi, and Colin Wyers for research assistance.