You don't have to go far to find the most ardent supporter of Jose Molina's role on this team. Manager Joe Maddon has been Molina's biggest fan, combating the numerous criticisms of Molina's offense by showcasing the defensive value he brings to the club.
In fact he only cares about his defense so much, that Maddon didn't even know what Molina's batting average was as of May 27. (Spoiler Alert: it was .143)
Maddon says he didn't even know what Molina's batting average was, reiterates his value comes from defensive aspect. #Rays— WDAE 620 AM/95.3 FM (@620wdae) May 27, 2014
With the emergence of sabermetrics, pitch framing has become a bigger factor in determining the true value of a catcher. Of course, framing isn't a new thing. It's been around as long as baseball, but the newer technology to quantify just how big of an impact one's ability to frame pitches can have has allowed guys like Molina to prove their worth to a team. Whereas before, Molina's unimpressive figure and poor offensive history would cast a big shadow over his defensive value.
Before getting into some of the numbers, an important thing to keep in mind is that Molina doesn't play in nearly as many games as some of the more prominent catchers in the league. Since 2008, Molina has only appeared in 100 games or more in only two seasons (2008 w/ the New York Yankees and 2012 w/ the Rays).
Mike Fast was one of the more well-known analysts to tackle the idea of pitch framing. His calculations have been invaluable for determining the subtle values of catchers like Molina. So much so, that Fast was hired away from Baseball Prospectus by the Houston Astros as an analyst.
In his report, Fast determines that based off of his calculations, Molina was the best at saving defensive runs from 2008-2011 (before he signed with the Rays).
|Catcher||Called Pitches||Total Runs|
You'll notice that Molina finishes in first, only two runs ahead of Russell Martin, a very good catcher in his own right. However, Martin started during these years for both the Yankees and Dodgers during this five-year stretch, appearing in as many as 155 games during one season. Molina called less than twice the amount of pitches as Martin, but still saved two more runs.
At that rate, if you bring Molina to the same number of pitches called as Martin, he would save approximately 164 runs.
Max Marchi, an analyst at Baseball Prospectus, has been at the forefront of analyzing pitch framing and how it adds to a catcher's value.
According to his research, Marchi calculates that Molina has saved about 111 runs if you extend the range from 2008-2013, which equates to about 11 wins (a win for every 10 runs saved). In 2012 alone, Molina saved the Rays 50 runs defensively through pitch framing, catching runners stealing and blocking pitchers.
Offensively, Molina totaled a WAR of 3.4 from 2008-2013. Combine both numbers and Molina is valued at roughly 14.4 wins.
How about his first season with the Rays in 2012? 50 runs saved defensively means Molina is worth five wins. With his defense alone, that statistically puts him at roughly the same value as guys like Torii Hunter, Ian Desmond and above players such as Prince Fielder and Adam Jones. The only two catchers worth more wins in 2012 were Jose's brother, Yadier Molina, and Buster Posey.
Now, I'm not saying Molina is a better player than the likes of Fielder and Jones and even other players on the Rays roster. Offensively, Molina is very much below average, but the statistics prove that Molina's hidden value of how he frames pitches and save defensive runs provides an immense amount of importance to the success of the Rays.
As Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus wondered, you would expect to see Molina's impact to show up in other ways as well.
Check out the Rays' K/9 and BB/9 from 2008-2014.
You'll notice the change from 2008-2011 to 2012-2013. Before Molina's arrival in 2012, the Rays were in the middle of the pack for strikeouts per nine innings. An average of 7.15 K/9 places the Rays at 14th in the Majors.
Where did they rank over the course of 2012 and 2013? Second behind only the Detroit Tigers with a K/9 of 8.29.
Even more noticeable is the one-year leap in K/9 from 2011 to 2012, a jump of more than 1.4 strikeouts a game, three times more of an increase than the entire American League saw in the same time frame.
Walks per nine innings saw it's lowest number for the Rays in 2012 and tied for their second-lowest the following year. It currently sits a little higher this year at 3.43, but I would attribute that more to the inconsistent pitching thus far and the several injuries the Rays have sustained. When you have your No. 6, No. 7 and No. 9 options pitching for around a month or so, your numbers will reflect such.
Still don't believe Molina's value? The Rays pitchers do.
"It just seems like every pitch you throw, he's able to catch it clean, frame it and make it look like a strike," David Price said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. "We love him for it."
Let's see just what Price is talking about.
Here's Molina on Tuesday night against the Toronto Blue Jays. In the bottom of the third inning, Alex Cobb throws a curveball to start of the at-bat against Jose Reyes. Cobb has a filthy curveball but this one gets away just a little bit and ends up being initially caught by Molina above Reyes' belt. However, his quiet hands and quick downward movement frames the pitch at the top of the strike zone and gets the strike called.
Looks like Molina stole a strike there. Of course, this isn't anything new for Molina. According to baseballanalytics.org, he led the league from 2008-2012 with a staggering 13.4% of called strikes on pitches that were outside the zone, like you saw against Reyes.
Another example from that same game last Tuesday.
This time, the pitch is low and inside, below the knees of Edwin Encarnacion. Again, Molina's quick hands while maintaining a very still balance helps the pitch to appear to have hit the bottom of the strike zone, which earns Cobb the called strike.
This classic Molina frame earned this lovely reaction from Encarnacion after the strike call:
As Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey explained, stealing strikes like in the two examples above can have a major impact on the game.
"You're talking about maybe seven pitches in the game, which maybe doesn't sound like much, but can be colossal in terms of what it means," Hickey said. "Instead of a 1-1 count, you're at an 0-2 count, or instead of a 2-1 count, you're at a 1-2 count, which means everything."
In the book The Complete Handbook of Coaching Catchers, Colorado Rockies catching coach Jerry Weinstein says that the statistical impact of at-bats starting out with a borderline strike can decrease the number of expected runs produced with each plate appearance by .029 runs and increases by .040 runs with a ball.
"In other words, having as many of those 0-0 'striballs' called strikes can greatly impact the outcome of the game."
While Molina often looks awful at the plate, his defensive metrics show he more than makes up for his lack of offensive skill. And really he's the exact kind of catcher the Rays want for a team that is based on pitching and defense.
So I urge the Molina critics to really look at the numbers and get passed the low batting average and RBI. For a guy that makes only $1.7 million, Molina is about as great of value that a team can find nowadays and I'll take that everyday.