By Jeff Sullivan – Editor @ Baseball Nation
For a long time, Jose Molina was a bad catcher. No, that isn’t right. He was good enough to be a catcher in the major leagues, and the problem was never with him. He was probably always a perfectly fine catcher. The problem was with our understanding of him. Molina’s closer to 40 than 30 now, and he’s never really hit.
He owns a career 66 OPS+, with 31 home runs and four times as many strikeouts as walks. He would’ve always been discounted as a glove-first backup.
Fans would’ve figured he was good behind the plate, because teams always say that catchers like Molina are good behind the plate, but fans could never put a number to it, so they didn’t get excited by Jose Molina. Jose Molina was a journeyman backup catcher.
Umpires have always been human. Some of them have been a little more human than others, but from the beginning, umpires were people, and to this day umpires are people. As people, they’re imperfect, and as arbiters of the strike zone, they’re imperfect.
They can’t help it, they do the best they can, but sometimes they make iffy calls, and that makes batters mad. Batters just want a consistent, fair strike zone, and they don’t always get a consistent, fair strike zone.
We always had some understanding that pitch-framing was a thing. There’s a technique to catching, and there are guys who do it better than others. But it wasn’t really until last summer that our understanding of pitch-framing grew up.
Mike Fast did some fantastic research for Baseball Prospectus, and he identified some links between catcher behavior and consequent umpire behavior. Fast now works for a baseball team, and that baseball team is not very good. But that probably isn’t because of Mike Fast.
Fast looked at catchers who did the best and worst job of framing pitches, measured by who generated the best and worst calls on borderline pitches. The guys he identified as being pretty bad included Ryan Doumit, Jorge Posada, and Rob Johnson. Russell Martin and Jonathan Lucroy came away looking good. Jose Molina came away looking amazing.
Over Fast’s sample, no catcher generated a better zone than Jose Molina. The effect was enormous. Suddenly, we understood Jose Molina. We understood why he had floated around for so long, and we understood why the Tampa Bay Rays took a chance on him as an aging free agent. Molina has real value. He’s probably always had real value. It just took researchers years and years to find it.
Tuesday night, the Rays played the Blue Jays, and Brett Lawrie took a pair of very questionable called strikes in the bottom of the ninth. Lawrie flipped out and inadvertently hit home-plate umpire Bill Miller with his batting helmet. Lawrie was ejected and will soon be suspended, probably. The catcher behind the plate was Jose Molina.
We don’t know exactly why Miller called those pitches strikes. They weren’t obvious balls, but they were more like balls than they were like strikes. It stands to reason Molina probably had some influence. Look at Molina catch those baseballs – he’s convincing. He convinces me, and I know exactly where those pitches really were.
Earlier in the season, the Rays were playing the Red Sox, and Cody Ross took some very questionable called strikes in the bottom of the ninth. After the last one, which ended the game, Ross spiked his helmet out of frustration with the umpire. The catcher behind the plate was Jose Molina.
We have conflict. We have pitcher throwing pitch, and then we have conflict between batter and umpire. This is a pattern. Jose Molina is able to make this happen. Here are more examples. This did not take that long to research, which is a testament to Molina’s skill.
Jose Molina framing Elvis Andrus:
Jose Molina framing a composed but frustrated Wilson Betemit:
Jose Molina framing Kelly Johnson:
Jose Molina framing Eduardo Nunez:
Jose Molina framing a passive-aggressively disappointed Alberto Callaspo:
Jose Molina framing Jeff Mathis, who doesn’t act out but who I include because I think this is hilarious:
Jose Molina framing Eric Thames:
Jose Molina framing Seth Smith:
Jose Molina framing Seth Smith again:
In all of these, there’s at least a slight hint of disapproval, and at most an emotional explosion. In all of these, a pitch on the edge or out of the zone is called a strike, and the batter feels worse about the umpire behind him than he used to. In all of these, Jose Molina catches and frames the pitched baseball. It is not Molina who is the target of the batters’ ire. It’s not the first guy behind the batter with whom the batter has a problem; it’s the guy behind the guy behind the batter.
Which, of course, is fine – it’s the umpire who makes all of the decisions. The most Jose Molina can do is do a good job of framing a pitch. It’s then up to the umpire to make a decision about the pitch, and it’s on the umpire whether or not he’s influenced by Molina’s body language. Framing doesn’t directly do anything to alter the game. It indirectly alters the game by directly influencing the umpire, which is a weird thing and a real thing.
So no batter should ever come away from a plate appearance frustrated with Jose Molina. But it’s important to recognize Molina’s role in all this. Molina is like an occasional puppet-master, orchestrating batter vs. umpire conflict by catching baseballs all neat-like. The Brett Lawrie incident, for example, probably doesn’t happen with an automated strike zone. It also probably doesn’t happen without Jose Molina. Jose Molina played some role in Brett Lawrie’s strikeout and upcoming suspension.
Batters have long been frustrated with umpires, and batters will continue to be frustrated with umpires until umpires or umpire substitutes become perfect. A lot of the heated talk you see between batters and umpires these days has nothing to do with Jose Molina. A lot of the heated talk you see between batters and umpires these days does. Molina can make things happen without getting any of the blame, and in that way he’s like Bart’s butterfly. Unlike the butterfly, Molina doesn’t set anything on fire himself. But like the butterfly, Molina escapes blame when something burns down.