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April 5, 2013

Overthinking It

This Week In Catcher Framing, 4/5

by Ben Lindbergh

This is the start of an experiment. I hope it will be a fun experiment, and maybe even an enlightening one.

I find catcher framing fascinating. Because I find it fascinating, I write about it often. And every time I do, I get a lot of questions and comments and clicks, which reinforces my writing-about-framing behavior. Sometimes I write about bad framers, like J.P. Arencibia or Jorge Posada. But mostly I write about Jose Molina. Molina is my muse.

Since this is the first installment of a weekly series on framing that will run for the rest of the season, let’s start with some background. In September of 2011, Mike Fast wrote a piece for BP called “Removing the Mask.” It wasn’t the first framing research—a few months earlier, Max Marchi had built on even earlier work to produce a model whose results agreed closely with Mike’s—but it represented the tipping point at which the importance of framing began to be referred to as fact, rather than something speculative. Mike’s article included a list of the best framers from 2007-11, and at the top of that list—just as he’d been at the top of Max’s—was Jose Molina. Mike’s numbers suggested that over a full season (which he’d never been given a chance to play), Molina’s framing alone would have been worth about four wins, well over a win more than the next-best framer (Jonathan Lucroy) and about two wins better than anyone else.

So that taught us two things: first, that framing was potentially very valuable, and second, that Jose Molina was by far the best at it. So much so, in fact, that he was very valuable himself, despite his bad bat.

The Rays signed Molina in November of 2011, and Max’s first article for BP was about what the team could expect out of him: bad blocking,* average or slightly above-average fielding of batted balls, great control of the running game, and the best framing in baseball. In light of that and the low price tag, I called the Molina signing my favorite move of the offseason.

*It may be that Molina is a below-average blocker because he’s not especially athletic, or because he’s overweight. At 6’2”, 250 lbs (listed), he has a 32.1 BMI, which technically makes him “obese.” BMI can be misleading for some pro players, because it’s based on typical body composition, while many elite athletes are mostly muscle. But I’ve seen Jose Molina shirtless, and “mostly muscle” is not how I would describe him.

I like to think that Molina’s bad blocking is the price he pays for his framing. Maybe he knows it’s more important to frame several extra strikes than to block one extra ball in the dirt, so he trades the quick reactions and mobility that would help him block balls for the solid base and understated movements that help him get calls.

If anything, Molina was better than advertised in 2012. He played in a career-high 102 games, and Max’s model credited him with 50 runs saved. Joe Maddon mentioned that 50 runs figure in an interview, and I wrote about it and talked about it on Clubhouse Confidential and Effectively Wild. That basically brings us up to date.

Molina’s framing doesn’t make headlines—you won’t see him earning an extra strike on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays. But if you look, you’ll sometimes see it lurking behind the headlines.

Last May, Brett Lawrie got ejected and suspended for throwing his helmet at an umpire after being called out on strikes. The ejection and suspension were the story. But why was Lawrie thrown out? Because he has a temper, of course, but also because Molina, who was behind the plate for the at-bat, had triggered that temper by turning two balls into strikes.

Last September, the Rays’ pitching staff set the AL single-season strikeout record. Strikeout rates were up across the league, but no other team’s was up by as much as Tampa Bay’s. The staff was the story, but Molina made it possible (or at least had a great deal to do with it).

One more example. In an article at The Hardball Times today, James Gentile looked at the pitching leaders in single-season called strike percentage from 1988-2012, the years for which we have complete pitch-by-pitch info from Retrosheet. Mike Mussina’s 2008 topped the list, at 25.0 percent—one out of every four pitches he threw that season was a called strike. He won 20 games for the first time in his career and walked away with the best final season of any pitcher who retired voluntarily.

That 2008 season was also the only one prior to 2012 in which Molina played 100 games. He caught all but 10 innings Mussina pitched. Mussina had great control and could get called strikes himself, but his called strike percentage that season, at age 39, was by far the best of his career. I’m going to say that that historic called strike rate wasn’t a coincidence. Molina was the kind of personal catcher Tim Lincecum wishes Hector Sanchez were.

On a recent episode of the Baseball Tonight podcast, Buster Olney asked Molina when he started “becoming aware of framing pitches.” Molina responded:

It was 2008. Mike Mussina and Tony Pena, with Joe Girardi, the coaches there. But mostly Tony told me that if I turned a little bit side to side, either way, either corner, I’m going to get more strikes. With Mussina, he wasn’t throwing that hard at the time. So I was always open to learning new things. We worked on it, I got a little bit better at it. And it started working. I guess it worked, right? It was 20 wins for him that year, so it just worked, and from that point on, I think I took advantage of that.

Olney asked if Mussina would say anything to Molina after the catcher earned him an extra strike. “After the year he had,” Molina answered, “he told me, and he gave me a big hug.” If Mussina gets into the Hall of Fame, it might be because of that final season, and it might be because of Molina. But Molina probably won’t be mentioned in the induction speech.

According to Max’s study of historical catcher defense, Molina’s overall defensive contributions are the best, on a rate basis, of any catcher’s going back to 1948. So we’re not just watching someone who’s good at an important aspect of the game; we’re watching someone who’s maybe the best ever at an important aspect of the game. And it’s not Buster Posey, or Joe Mauer, or someone we would have thought was a star without ever finding out how much framing matters. It’s Jose Molina, who we would have thought—for most of his career, did think—was a replacement-level player. Maybe catchers can be taught to frame like Molina, now that we know what it’s worth. Molina himself might not have been so special before he began to focus on framing in 2008. But we should learn from him what we can, while we can.

So my goal with this series is to make Molina (and other notably good or bad framers) the story. Fifty runs sounds like an implausible amount when you hear about it at the end of a season. And maybe it is. But it might not sound so implausible if we watch it build up week by week and see some of those extra strikes as they happen.

Watching framing can be fun, and, where Molina’s concerned, kind of calming and hypnotic. Other catchers stab, and dip, and shift, and hop. Molina, by comparison, barely budges, adjusting at the last possible second and trying to anticipate where a pitcher might miss. His glove glides, taking the most direct route possible from target to ball to strike zone, while the rest of him stays still. Study Sanchez’s technique in Sam Miller’s piece today: Molina’s is the opposite of that. A bad framer’s body seems to react to the ball, but Molina’s, as much as possible, gives the impression that the ball is always right where he wants it to be.

It’s subtle, but once you’ve become conditioned to see it, it’s as aesthetically pleasing as anything else on the field. By the end of the season, I hope we’ll have picked up on some patterns and gained a greater appreciation for framing, and what makes Molina good.

***

The plan is for this series to get much more sophisticated over time. In future installments, I hope to be able to tell you exactly what the likelihood of each called strike with Molina catching was, given the pitch type, location, count, umpire, etc., and update you weekly on how many runs his framing has saved the Rays. This is week one, so we’re still working out the kinks, and there isn’t much data to draw on. For now, we’re just going to go with a combination of distance from the center of the zone and a rough strike probability model developed by Ryan Lind, culminating in an estimate of Molina’s runs saved so far.

Although I’ll be spending the most time on Molina, I’ll also incorporate the week’s best and worst frames by other catchers in each edition after this one. If you wanted to, you could think of this series as the best and worst umpire calls of the week. But while every good frame is in some sense a bad call, not every bad call corresponds to a good frame. I’d rather focus on the skill that contributes to a catcher earning an extra strike than the umpire mistake that makes it possible.

The Rays’ season didn’t start until Monday, so we’re dealing with a small sample in this inaugural edition. (Subsequent articles will cover the seven days prior to publication.) Molina played in three games, only two of which he started and only one of which he finished. He caught 19 innings and 324 pitches. Of those 324 pitches, he caught 15 outside the strike zone that were called strikes, and 10 inside the strike zone that were called balls. So after 19 innings, his net contribution is five extra strikes—or, using the value of 0.13 runs per extra strike derived by Dan Turkenkopf and used by Mike Fast, a total of 0.65 runs. If we prorate that to the 709 2/3 innings that Molina caught last year, his tally comes to 25 runs.

Twenty-five runs isn’t 50 runs—it’s half as many!—but it’s pretty darn good. Even if Molina really was worth 50 runs last season, we’d expect some regression this season, since that probably wasn’t his true talent. Plus, we’re dealing with a small sample, and a different determining method. These figures will probably change somewhat as we refine our technique and settle on a single methodology for the rest of the season.

Let’s get to the GIFs. Framing is as much about not giving strikes away as it is about getting them, but not losing a strike doesn’t make for much of a visual, so we’ll focus on the extra strikes earned. Molina’s best moments came in the seventh inning of Thursday’s game against Baltimore, with Roberto Hernandez on the mound and Manny Machado at the plate. The 0-0 pitch was low and on the outside corner, and Molina caught (as Lucroy recommends) it without obviously dipping his head or the glove, keeping the target low and raising it slightly to get the strike:

“Ooh,” said Orioles announcer Jim Palmer. “At the ankles.” Machado appeared to agree.

“Jim Reynolds has been very, very consistent,” Palmer continued. “That’s probably one of the first pitches that he has blatantly missed. That ball was definitely low.” He paused, then added, sarcastically, “But it’s only a strike.”

The next pitch was over the middle, but even lower:

“I don’t think I’d be taking the next one if it’s anywhere close,” Palmer said. Machado was even more animated. The best reactions occur when batters get burned by Molina twice in the same at-bat. Five pitches later, Machado struck out swinging on a low changeup. If he’d been Brett Lawrie, Reynolds would have had a helmet wound.

Despite what Palmer said about Reynolds’ strike zone, Hernandez had gotten a strike on a pitch to Chris Davis in the sixth that was lower than the first one to Machado:

And in the eighth, Molina got Davis on his farthest-outside frame of the week. Davis stood still after the call for a little longer than he had to:

Davis had a similar call go against him in the eighth inning on Wednesday:

The strike zone called against left-handed hitters is typically shifted juuuust a bit outside, so it’s not just Molina who gets that kind of call. But Molina is better at getting the outside strike to lefties than anyone else, and he's also better at getting calls there than he is in any other area. According to Max's research, catchers differ in their ability to get calls in certain sections of the zone in a way that persists from year to year. The greatest range in framing skill between catchers comes on high and low pitches, not those on the corners.

This is the highest pitch Molina earned a strike on, with Fernando Rodney dealing 1-0 to Nolan Reimold on Wednesday:

Let’s look at one more sequence, again against Davis, but this time on Tuesday. Here’s the 2-1 pitch with one out in the sixth:

Outside again, and deftly tugged back toward Davis. “And a nice job by Molina, helping him with that pitch right there,” said Rays color man Brian Anderson. “That’s why the Rays love him back there,” agreed broadcast partner Dewayne Staats.

And now the 2-2:

“A nice job by Molina in framing that pitch back towards the plate,” added Anderson. “Go out there again. See how Molina angles himself toward the plate and then freezes that ball right there. Gives John Hirschbeck a good look at it.”

Remember what I said about the reactions of twice-burned batters?

To look at all the calls that went against Davis, you'd never know that he'd gone 7-for-11 in the series with a walk, three home runs, and three doubles. The one strikeout must have been frustrating, but he'll probably pull through.

We’ll be back with more Molina and the coming week’s best and worst frames next Friday.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

27 comments have been left for this article.

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