It was eye-opening when people first got their hands on advanced defensive statistics. I remember coming across UZR more than a decade ago, and it started making its way through message boards and whatever blogs might've existed at the time. Though the metrics were and still are imperfect, perhaps greatly so, they allowed us to appreciate the impact of good and bad defense, and we became a lot more aware of it. Defense became something that mattered, not in theory, but in reality, every single day. What would our opinions be of Brendan Ryan were it not for the metrics that consider him probably the best defensive shortstop in baseball? We pay more attention to Ryan's defense than we might otherwise, so we think more highly of Ryan than we might otherwise.
It was similar last summer when Mike Fast at Baseball Prospectus whipped up his research on catcher pitch-framing. People have long known that some catchers are better at getting borderline calls than others. They might've had some guesses as to the names. But people didn't know a lot, and they didn't know the impact, and then Fast provided names and impacts. Fast showed that pitch-framing looks like a real skill that is in certain cases significant. Almost immediately Fast's work changed the way people think about certain backstops.
Jose Molina debuted in 1999. He owns a career 65 OPS+. Wilson Valdez owns a career 63 OPS+. Chone Figgins as a Mariner has posted a 68 OPS+. Molina was long considered an unexciting backup catcher, known more for his defense than for his offense, like pretty much every other backup catcher. I don't think many people suspected there was much special about Jose Molina. He had a good arm, but how much did that matter, really? His bat was and is really poor.
Fast provided evidence that Molina is just an outstanding pitch-framer. Gets calls in his favor to an extraordinary degree. His technique is so good that he saves runs upon runs upon runs over the course of a season. Overnight, Jose Molina went from being a nothing to being a something, and you have to figure that the Rays had Molina's framing in mind when they signed him to a free-agent contract last offseason. Molina is 37 years old. He's on pace for the second-highest plate-appearance total of his career, and his previous high came in a season in which Jorge Posada got injured.
Thanks to Fast's research, we pay more attention to good pitch-framing, and more attention to Jose Molina. We also pay more attention to bad pitch-framing, as we try to round out our evaluations of starting and backup catchers. Last night, the Mariners batted against the Rays, which means the Mariners kind of batted against Jose Molina. Starting behind the plate for the Mariners was Jesus Montero, whose defensive reputation is far from stellar. It just so happened that there were a few pitches where framing might've made all the difference.
I'm going to show you a couple Montero catches first, both with Carter Capps on the mound. These are fastballs, and Gameday showed both of them to be located within the strike zone. Montero and Capps got the call on neither. Capps walked three of five batters, but were it not for these calls, that wouldn't have happened.
Look at the way Montero stabs at the baseball. Even though the pitches were pretty much right where Montero wanted them to be, he still stabbed. Watch the patch on his left sleeve. Now here's Jose Molina catching a pitch from Fernando Rodney in the ninth that's way outside off the plate. Many of you will be familiar with the concept of the "lefty strike," where umpires tend to call strikes against lefties that are outside off the plate, but this pitch was out of that range. This was the most outside called strike of the night, by a fair margin.
Molina isn't perfectly still, but he's close to it. Most of the motion is limited to his forearm; his upper arm hardly moves. Instead of reaching for the baseball, he receives the baseball with his elbow bent. Never having caught or umpired, I don't know why these things should make a big difference, but one has to assume that they do. There has to be a reason or reasons why Molina is so good at this, because it isn't just random chance.
Sometimes one might be inclined to think that individual pitches don't make a lot of difference. And they don't, a lot of the time. But look at the first .gif. Instead of 2-and-2, the count goes to 3-and-1. In the second .gif, instead of a strikeout, it's a walk. In the third .gif, instead of a full count, it's a strikeout. The run value differences here are substantial, and though the score was 4-1, that's not insurmountable. And the score isn't always 4-1. Individual pitches can make a real difference in the outcome, and this is where Jose Molina shines the most.
Jesus Montero has work to do as a defensive catcher. Or maybe he doesn't, if the Mariners choose to move him away from being a catcher. Jose Molina doesn't have any work to do as a defensive catcher. Jose Molina is now being recognized for his greatest skill, and this probably isn't a skill that declines like some of the other ones. Mike Fast might've put Jose Molina's kids' kids' kids' kids through college.