When the Rays signed Jose Molina, the emphasis was placed on his defense, thanks in no small part to Mike Fast’s work on framing pitches. Molina always had a strong defensive reputation. When numbers-orientated writers wanted to prove the claim, they would point to his superb caught stealing rates; they would then make a crack about his on-base percentage. Some things don’t change. Molina is still a negative with the bat, even as a catcher. He swings a lot and every once and a while runs into a pitch. More often than not, you’ll settle for him making one out instead of two. Molina seemingly remains a fantastic defender. But he’s come under fire this season for his inability to block balls in the dirt.
Compartmentalizing a player’s skills seems like the best way to evaluate them. That’s one of the problems with the various catch-all stats: There’s a value in knowing the why and the how along with the what in a player’s production; so if two players have identical OPS, it’s helpful to know if one is a slugger, a walk machine, or a prolific singles hitter. The same can apply to labels. Saying that a player is a “great defender” works in a tight spot. But calling a player a “great defender” does not always translate into “great at every defensive aspect.”
I would call Molina a great defensive backstop. He seems to be an ace at receiving the ball, at gunning runners down (thanks to an impossibly quick transfer), and, anecdotally, at handling the pitching staff*. The thickness of Molina’s lower half is the purpose of many wisecracks, but it makes sense. That foundation allows him to sit quietly, softly behind the plate. The problem is it also does not allow him to make quick reactions on balls in the dirt. Besides, he’s a 37-year-old catcher with nearly 20 years of experience behind the plate; if his lower portion weren’t portly it would be because he never played or practiced.
*The images that I’ll carry with me from Chris Archer’s first start come in the early goings. Archer had gotten off to a rough start and his eyes were as thick as Molina’s thighs. Molina (and Carlos Pena) made repeated trips to the mound to calm him down. I won’t claim it had an effect, but I will say that I appreciated Molina’s awareness, and that it stays with me. (I also remember Molina joking with another pitcher during a tense moment; or maybe it wasn’t a joke because only Molina laughed.)
Even in calling Molina a poor goalie, I think it’s an overstated issue. In the table below, you can see how Molina stacks up with the Rays other two main catchers this season (Jose Lobaton and Chris Gimenez) and the league average totals for all catchers in caught stealing rate, stolen bases attempted per nine innings, and wild pitches plus passed balls per nine innings. Molina comes out ahead in two-thirds of those categories while unsurprisingly trailing in the third.
The criticism of Molina’s ball-blocking efforts is fair. But it’s only fair if we acknowledge that he’s still the best defensive catcher on staff, and an above-average defensive catcher overall. Consider the table below. Those are the differentials between Molina, Lobaton-Gimenez, and the league-average catcher using the above numbers in a prorated form. These totals are all from 81 games played—or about as many as Molina would catch were he to be in an every-other-day platoon.
|Split||SBA/81 G||SB/81 G||PB+WP/81 G|
|Molina – L-G||-12||-19||7|
|Molina – L-A||-18||-18||3|
What these numbers mean is this. Molina would allow 12 fewer stolen base attempts, 19 fewer stolen bases, and seven more passed balls plus wild pitches per 81 games than Lobaton-Gimenez would. He would allow 18 fewer stolen base attempts, 18 fewer steals, and three more passed balls plus wild pitches per 81 games than the league-average catcher would. Does the trade-off between minimizing stolen base attempts and successes and preventing passed balls and wild pitches make sense? Using generic run values, we can plug them in and get these results:
|Split||SB Runs||PB/WP Runs||Total|
|Molina – L-G||3.04||-1.89||1.15|
|Molina – L-A||2.88||-0.81||2.07|
In words: Yes, the trade-off makes sense. Granted, there are situations where you’d rather have a catcher who is a more skilled goalie than marksman, but on the whole, over the course of 81 games, it seems that Molina is preferable to Lobaton-Gimenez. Unless, of course, you believe Lobaton-Gimenez to be superior at the other aspects of catching; framing, staff-managing, fielding bunts and cue shots, and what have you (not to mention offense and baserunning). This exercise doesn’t make the passed balls and wild pitches sting less. However, it might shorten the time needed to forgive Molina for his shortcomings the next time a ball gets away.