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April 24, 2013
Yadier Molina's Maybe-Amazing Powers of Defensive Positioning
Several months after Yadier Molina made his major-league debut, we panned his career prospects in Baseball Prospectus 2005. “He’s every bit a Molina,” we said, “like his brothers in Anaheim: admirable defensive skills, inadequate bat.” Molina was 21 at the time, and catchers tend to peak later than players at other positions, so we acknowledged that there was “hope for improvement.” But not much improvement, evidently: “Expect Matheny levels of production with maybe a handful more homers.” Matheny levels of production are pretty terrible, even with a handful more homers. Given that pessimistic offensive projection, the comment’s conclusion didn’t come as a shock: “best suited to a backup role.”
Well, we nailed the part about the defensive skills. The rest seems silly now. But it didn’t start to look silly for a few seasons, and it took a few seasons more for it to become outright wrong. Through his age-27 season, Yadier’s career TAv (.237) was lower than his brother Jose’s through the same age (albeit in many more plate appearances).
We know now that Yadier Molina is much more valuable than we thought he was even, say, two seasons ago. In part, that’s because he’s improved in obvious ways: that “handful more homers” turned into 14 in 2011, then 22 in 2012. Suddenly, the guy whose bat we once comped to Mike Matheny’s is one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball. But it’s also because we’ve learned more about what the things he was already doing were worth. Our best estimate is that Molina saved the Cardinals 35 runs last season through framing, something we couldn’t have said prior to PITCHf/x. Even if his contributions from framing were worth a fraction of that, Molina’s fourth-place MVP finish last season probably understated his skills.
But as much as we’ve come to appreciate Molina’s value, both at the plate and behind it, we might still be selling him short. A few days ago, Buster Olney blogged about a previously unappreciated (by me) aspect of Molina’s game:
If Molina really repositions his fielders constantly, and he really has a better sense of where the ball will be hit than they do (and, presumably, than the typical catcher does)—well, that would be worth quite a bit to his team. The problem is that it’s really tough to tell whether it’s true without much evidence other than the testimony of the players Olney talked to. Watching on TV, it’s impossible to tell how the defense is positioned from batter to batter, let alone pitch to pitch. Even if you sat behind home plate or in the press box for 162 games and tried to chart where the defense was before each delivery, you’d miss most of Molina’s “slight nods” and “subtle gestures.” Maybe FIELDf/x could answer this question, if the system is installed in Busch Stadium, but it won’t answer it for us, since we don’t work for baseball teams. (Unless you do work for one, in which case please email me the answer. I won’t tell!) So, because it's the best we can do, let’s approach the problem indirectly and imprecisely, and we’ll see what we see.
From 2010-2013, the Cardinals’ defensive efficiency—the percentage of balls in play they’ve converted into outs—in innings caught by someone other than Molina has been .692. With Molina behind the plate, it’s been .708. That’s a big gap. Last season, the difference between .692 and .708 would have meant the difference between 28th in the majors and 17th. The average pitching staff in 2012 allowed almost 4400 balls in play, so a 16-point difference in defensive efficiency represents a swing of roughly 70 hits. The average run value of a single is almost half a run, and the value of swapping a single for an out is even higher. So even if all 70 of the saved hits were singles, the value of preventing those runners from reaching first base would add up quickly.
If we expand the sample to 2005-13, the Defensive Efficiency difference narrows, but it still exists (.707 vs. .700). Of course, one would think that anticipating batted ball direction and positioning fielders accordingly is the sort of skill that would improve with age and experience, so the 22-year-old Yadi and 30-year-old Yadi might be as dissimilar in that respect as they are offensively.
We can break down the difference by batted-ball type:
It makes sense that more line drives would be hit right at people with Molina catching if he’s a positioning savant. (Then again, you’d think that if he anticipated a particular pitch leading to a line drive, he’d call for something else.) But as Russell pointed out, “line drives are the most luck-driven of all the batted-ball types.” In this case, the statistical significance could be deceptive.
There’s one potential explanation we can probably rule out. Given Molina’s skill as a framer, it stands to reason that opposing hitters could count on less favorable counts with him behind the plate. Batters make weaker contact when they’re down in the count, so maybe what we’re seeing is a difference in how hard balls are being hit, not where defenders are standing. Russell ran the numbers on this too, from 2010-12:
It doesn’t seem like Molina’s ability to get into more favorable counts is the answer, although he could have some skill as a game-caller that would allow his pitchers to escape less favorable counts unscathed. Overall, the stats are consistent with, or at least don’t contradict, Olney’s (and the Cardinals’) contention that Molina’s behind-the-plate puppet master act is saving St. Louis runs. But they can’t confirm that contention. As Russell put it, “the trend is toward Molina being some sort of wizard, but statistically, there is no significant difference.” We can’t prove that the difference in batted-ball results is not just noise. And even if we could, we couldn’t prove that Molina’s positioning prowess is responsible.
There are a lot of potential confounding factors here, aside from the small-ish sample size. There’s the fact that we’re not controlling for pitcher quality—theoretically, at least, the non-Molina catchers could have been catching guys who were more likely to allow hard contact. And we’re also comparing Molina only to a select group of part-time Cardinals catchers: Tony Cruz, Gerald Laird, Jason LaRue, Matt Pagnozzi, Bryan Anderson, and Steven Hill. Maybe those catchers were the worst at positioning defenses. For all we know, they banded together to sabotage St. Louis to protest never getting to play. If you compare Molina to the rest of the league, his results don’t stand out to the same degree; the non-Molina Cardinals catcher results are more of an outlier than Molina’s are.
So that’s where we stand with Molina’s maybe-amazing powers of defensive positioning. It could be a heretofore hidden skill that contributes as much to the Cardinals as his ability to frame pitches, if not more. Or it could be much ado about nothing. That leaves us with those time-honored words: further research required. Those words aren’t especially satisfying. But it is nice to know, even in baseball’s era of big data and instant answers, that we still have some mysteries to solve.