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February 10, 2012

The Stats Go Marching In

What Are the Rays Expecting from Jose Molina?

by Max Marchi

For more about Max, see his introductory post here.


At the end of the 2011 season, the Tampa Bay Rays declined catcher Kelly Shoppach’s $3.2 million option for 2012, setting him free to explore the market for his services. On November 28th, they signed Jose Molina as his replacement for one year and $1.8 million.

The middle Molina has been a backup catcher throughout his career: excluding his 2008 season with the Yankees (100 games played), he has never reached 80 games behind the plate in a season. However, Tampa Bay has few other backstop options at the major-league level and no catchers who qualify as top prospects, so barring injury, Molina will have a good chance to eclipse his career-high mark for games played in 2012.

The Rays did not hit their way into the 2011 postseason: they were middle-of-the-pack in runs scored in the American League, but last in their division, behind even the Orioles. The key to their success was run prevention, as they allowed the fewest runs in the AL thanks to their excellent crop of young starting pitchers and their off-the-charts defense.

Tampa Bay’s glove men turned balls in play into outs at a .735 rate, 13 points better than the second-place Rangers (the same gap separated Texas from the 17th-place Marlins). According to park-adjusted Defensive Efficiency, the Rays put together the fourth-best defensive season ever. (Note: Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency is a metric devised for Baseball Prospectus by James Click, currently Manager of Baseball Research and Development for Tampa Bay.)

Jose Molina’s addition certainly won’t help address the Rays’ offensive shortcomings, as he’s commonly regarded as a glove man who can’t hit. His career AVG/OBP/SLG line is .241/.286/.344 (.220 TAv), and while 2011 was his best season with the stick, he should not be expected to improve upon or even maintain his.281/.342/.415 line (.278) in his age-37 season.

Last summer, I conducted extensive research into evaluating catchers’ defense. I shared the results of my work at the fourth annual PITCHf/x Summit in San Francisco, and you can watch my presentation at Sportvision’s website. Catchers have several defensive duties: avoiding passed balls and wild pitches, controlling the running game, fielding short batted balls and bunts, framing pitches, and calling the game.

Let’s see how Jose Molina fares in each category.

Blocking Pitches
Rick Ferrell caught for the Senators in 1945. His hardly enviable task was to receive pitches delivered by the following starting pitchers: Dutch Leonard, Johnny Niggeling, Roger Wolff, and Mickey Haefner, all of whom were knuckleballers. Obviously, if one neglects to take that last tidbit into account, his league-leading 21 passed balls might suggest that he wasn’t adequate at blocking pitches.

Tom Tango has dealt with this issue by introducing the With-Or-Without-You method (abbreviated as WOWY). You can read the details of this approach at his website and in the 2008 Hardball Times Baseball Annual; in a very few words, WOWY compares all the available pitcher/catcher combinations in order to assess whether a particular catcher, given the pitchers he has caught throughout his career, has fared better or worse than expected.

Tango’s method relies only on the following information: the pitcher’s identity, the catcher’s identity, and whether the pitch resulted in either a passed ball or a wild pitch. Starting with2008, we can make use of additional data, thanks to the invaluable PITCHf/x system. To no one’s surprise, balls in the dirt are harder to block, as are breaking pitches (especially those with downward movement). Here are the table and the chart I showed at the PITCHf/x Summit a few months ago.

Pitch

WP + PB rate

Fastball

0.30%

Cutter

0.33%

Slider

0.79%

Change-up

0.84%

Splitter

1.05%

Curve

1.12%

Knuckleball

1.66%

 

Building a With-Or-Without-You model that also incorporates PITCHf/x data returns the following list for the top catchers at blocking pitches (time span: 2008-2011).                    

Catcher

"Blocking" Runs

Carlos Ruiz

9.5

Matt Wieters

8.6

Rod Barajas

8.1

Humberto Quintero

7.7

Yadier Molina

7.6

Kurt Suzuki

5.4

Yorvit Torrealba

5.3

Jason Varitek

4.3

Matt Treanor

4.0

Brian McCann

3.9

The Molina we’re after is actually close to the bottom of this list, with -6.2 runs over the four-year span. According to my model, Jose cost his teams 2.1, 1.1, and 3.7 runs, respectively, from 2008 to 2010, while adding 0.7 runs last season.

Analyst Bojan Koprivica did a terrific study on the subject last fall at The Hardball Times. Using different but equally sound methods, he also came to the conclusion that the second of the Molina brothers is among the least competent catchers at blocking pitches: his four-year rating is even more severe at -8.8 runs.

Finally, Matt Klaassen periodically publishes catcher defense ratings at Beyond the Boxscore. Although by the author’s own admission the ratings are not particularly sophisticated (failing to apply the adjustments mentioned above), they yield results mostly in line with the more complicated methods. Scrolling down Matt’s list, Jose Molina is rated at -2.7 runs for his blocking duties.

Three different approaches rate Molina as a rather poor catcher at handling difficult pitches. So far not so good for a guy who earns all his money when wearing the mitt.

Controlling the Running Game
Pitchers have a great deal of responsibility for discouraging the running game: getting a good jump toward second is much more difficult when pickoff artist Mark Buehrle is on the mound than when Tim Wakefield is throwing his floaters. Thus, back in the 2008 edition of The Hardball Times Annual, Tom Tango applied his WOWY method to preventing base-stealing as well.

In this case, there is a third actor on the scene: the runner. Since steal attempts are not frequent events, it’s very important to take into account the running abilities of the potential basestealers a catcher has to face. Failing to do so will probably result in conservative evaluations for the top receivers, as I expect only the best runners dare to advance on the great guns.

Further, as was the case for blocking pitches, PITCHf/x data add further insight on the subject. The following charts, which reveal that stealing is more difficult when pitches are delivered up and away, should not come out as a surprise to anyone. In fact, that’s the location where the ball is delivered when the defensive team calls for a pitchout.

Neither is it surprising that a higher percentage of steal attempts fail on fastballs.

Pitch

CS rate

Fastball

27%

Cutter

26%

Change-up

22%

Slider

21%

Knuckleball

19%

Curve

15%

Splitter

4%

So, after taking into account the runner, the pitcher, and the pitch type and location, the following were the best catchers in the base-stealing department in the 2008-2011 time span.

Catcher

“Running Game” Runs

Yadier Molina

10.0

Jose Molina

9.8

Gerald Laird

9.3

Ivan Rodriguez

8.5

Lou Marson

7.0

Miguel Olivo

6.8

Henry Blanco

6.0

Drew Butera

5.4

Russell Martin

5.4

Jason Kendall

4.7

Now we are starting to see some value in Jose Molina, whose yearly ratings from 2008 to 2011 were 5.2, 0.1, 3.1, and 1.4, respectively. Matt Klaassen’s evaluations also recognize Jose’s strong arm, giving him an even better mark for 2011 (2.4 runs).

Fielding Batted Balls
Fielding short batted balls is another important catcher duty. In order to evaluate the number of runs prevented in this area, I analyzed the batted balls that were fielded within 45 feet of home plate, according to Gameday hit locations. I discarded batted balls converted into outs by other fielders. With the remaining data, I assigned the catcher a successful play whenever he recorded at least one out on the basepaths. Note that when no outs were recorded, I considered the play a failure for the catcher, no matter who collected the ball. Adjustments similar to those shown in the previous sections have been applied to take into account the distance the catcher had to cover to field the ball and the identity of the baserunner, the pitcher, and the corner infielders.

Here are the top catchers at fielding batted balls, according to my model, for the years 2008 through 2011.

Catcher

“Batted Balls” Runs

Miguel Montero

7.2

Brian McCann

4.2

Carlos Ruiz

4.1

John Jaso

3.7

Gregg Zaun

3.3

Jeff Mathis

3.1

Kevin Cash

3.0

Rob Johnson

2.9

Ivan Rodriguez

2.9

Jason LaRue

2.7

Jose Molina rates 1.2 runs above average over the four-year span, with yearly ratings of 1.9, -1.7, 0.9, and 0.0. According to Matt Klaassen’s ratings, which take only errors into account, Molina was worth 1.1 runs in 2011. In his book Wizardry: Baseball’s All-Time Greatest Fielders Revealed, Michael A. Humphreys gives Molina credit for two runs on groundballs in 2009, the most recent year covered in the book. Going back, Humphreys gives Molina credit for as much as six runs in 2005 and nine in 2006.

Framing Pitches
Dan Turkenkopf was probably the first analyst who tried to quantify the ability of catchers to make umpires call borderline pitches their way. Works on the subject by Bill Letson, yours truly, and Mike Fast appeared later. Despite using different methods, we all came to the conclusion that catchers who can (and cannot) frame pitches have a huge impact on the game: Dan estimated that the top catchers can contribute as much as .7 runs per 150 pitches (roughly a game), Bill calculated approximately six wins per 120 games, and both Mike and I quantified the effect at around 20 runs per 120 games.

In this case, adjustments need to be made by pitcher, umpire, batter (actually, batters have a rather negligible effect), pitch type, count, and, obviously, location.

The following are the top receivers over the last four years, according to my model:

Catcher

“Framing” Runs

Brian McCann

79.3

Russell Martin

70.0

Jose Molina

62.8

Ryan Hanigan

46.6

Yadier Molina

42.8

David Ross

33.2

Miguel Montero

32.2

Joe Mauer

31.4

Jonathan Lucroy

29.8

Gregg Zaun

23.4

Framing pitches seems to be where Jose Molina earns his money, and he probably deserves to earn more. His yearly framing ratings are 20.3, 12.7, 16.9, and 13.0.

Total Value
Summing up what we have seen so far, Jose Molina can cost his team a couple of runs (relative to the average catcher) because he is not very adept at preventing wild pitches and passed balls. He more than makes up for that with his ability to prevent baserunners from taking the next base on a pitch. We may conservatively consider him average on fielding batted balls, though he’s probably slightly better than that.

But when we throw framing into the mix, his defense suddenly becomes extremely valuable. Despite playing part-time, he has consistently been able to bring between one-and-a-half and two wins per season to the table. So, what would we expect from him if he were given a starting job?

We have already mentioned his age: doubling his playing time at age 36 could cause some trouble at the most demanding position on the diamond. However, he recorded his best numbers in most of the above categories when given the chance to play 100 games in New York, though that was when he was four years younger.

As we have learned from reading Jonah Keri’s The Extra 2%, the Rays are looking for wins that can be bought at a low price, just as the Moneyball Athletics were. It’s quite likely that the 10-to-20 runs above average Jose Molina could contribute by inducing the umpires to call a few more borderline strikes would come cheaper than an equivalent amount produced by the bat of another catcher.

I’m positive that the Rays are aware of Jose Molina’s framing skill and the value it brings to a team. I don’t know whether they have devised their own system to measure that part of the game, but Keri’s book exposed how attentive the organization is to the research appearing on websites like Baseball Prospectus, The Hardball Times, and the like. Thus, Molina’s signing is probably not completely unrelated to Mike’s and my analyses appearing last year on the web.

There might be even more to Molina’s appeal. When we assign a run value to a borderline pitch that was called a strike, we are not considering how the call affects the rest of the game. Thus, despite the fact that turning a 2-1 count into a 1-2 count is incredibly valuable, one should also consider that the same batter, coming to the plate later in the game, will likely be forced to have a different approach on borderline pitches. That means that the contribution due to framing pitches is probably even bigger than we are currently estimating.

Calling the Game and Handling the Pitching Staff
This article has analyzed many of the defensive duties for which catchers are responsible. However, we haven’t covered all of the tasks backstops face when wearing their mitts.

A lot of input on pitch selection comes from the benches, but the man wearing the mask can make a significant difference in how the pitcher’s weapons are mixed. A couple of years ago, I was able to compare Jose Molina’s game-calling to Jorge Posada’s and, to some extent, Francisco Cervelli’s. The three had all caught a significant number of CC Sabathia’s starts in 2009, and Molina emerged as having a completely different approach to calling the game. However, it’s close to impossible to assign a run value to the dissimilar styles and decide whether CC was a better pitcher when delivering a lot of sinkers to Molina.

Finally, there’s handling the pitching staff, which is not something that should be overlooked given the young and talented staff the Rays send to the mound. Is it possible to quantify how much a catcher can improve the production of his battery mates? Is it something that actually happens, or should we count pitching staff handling among the famed intangibles? The answers to those questions will have to wait for another time.

14 comments have been left for this article.

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