Searching For the Value of Yadier Molina

The official 2013 National League Most Valuable Player is Andrew McCutchen, who was terrific. From what anyone can tell, he’s a very deserving winner, but the voting still came with a few little controversies. For one, Paul Goldschmidt didn’t pick up a single first-place vote, and all season he was incredibly clutch. For two, a pair of first-place votes went to Yadier Molina, both of them coming out of St. Louis. One of those writers put Matt Carpenter second, and it’s easy to write that off as simple bias. If you’re the only people to vote for a guy, and it’s a guy on your hometown team, and everyone else votes for another guy, that’s going to be pretty conspicuous.

My first impression, though, was that, even if they followed the wrong process, they might well have stumbled upon the right answer. Or at least, a good answer. Those people in St. Louis see Molina more than anybody else, and Molina, more than anybody else, seems to have value that’s tricky to measure. Catchers are hard, and Molina might be the best one, and he’s a leader who has the pitching staff’s full respect. Pitchers don’t shake Molina off. They say he’s the heart and soul of the ballclub, and I’m open to the idea that a bunch of Molina’s real value is basically hidden in other numbers. But I wasn’t satisfied with just a belief.

We know, for a fact, that Molina’s a good hitter. There’s value there. We know, for a fact, that he’s durable, and there’s value there. He has a really good arm, and there’s value there. He’s really good at blocking pitches, and there’s value there. The numbers say he’s a quality pitch-receiver, and there’s value there. These are all values we can get to, or at least beat around. The remaining unknown is basically that leadership, which manifests in the game-calling. We’re not very good at trying to put a number to this, but I found myself insistent on making an attempt.

Because I at least want a clue. I’m in love with pitch-framing research, and when stuff was coming out initially, I was blown away by how much it can apparently matter. It’s seemed to me there’s a chance game-calling could also really matter, and I’ve thought of it as one of the next frontiers. Everyone understands the importance of sequencing. There has to be a difference between good and bad sequencing. Who stands out? Who’s bringing up the rear? Based on reputation, Molina’s an amazing manager of pitchers. I did what I could to try to get at this. I get uncomfortable leaning on reputation alone.

Molina debuted in the majors in 2004, so I decided to perform an analysis using numbers from 2004-2013. The analysis itself is pretty simple. I identified all the pitchers Molina has caught for at least 250 batters. I narrowed that pool down to pitchers who were also caught by other catchers for at least 250 batters. The cutoff is arbitrary, but note that most pitchers came with much bigger samples. Chris Carpenter, for example, faced about 4400 batters with Molina during the window, and about 1100 batters with other catchers. I was left with a pool of 32 pitchers, and then it was just a matter of comparing Molina results to non-Molina results.

Obviously, this is a bit rough. I’m not going to pretend like this is worthy of a scientific journal, and I’m aware of some potential issues. But I’m mostly just interested in approximations, and the way I figure, if there’s a strong Molina effect, it should show up here. As I was compiling data, I expected to calculate a big difference, validating my feelings about Molina’s work. This, instead, is what I wound up with:

WITH MOLINA
(32 pitchers, averaged)

  • .267 BA allowed
  • .329 OBP
  • .416 SLG
  • .149 ISO
  • .298 BABIP
  • 7.2% walks
  • 16% strikeouts

WITH NON-MOLINA
(32 pitchers, averaged)

  • .267 BA allowed
  • .334 OBP
  • .423 SLG
  • .156 ISO
  • .297 BABIP
  • 7.7% walks
  • 16% strikeouts

With Molina, the pitchers averaged a .746 OPS against. With non-Molina, the pitchers averaged a .757 OPS against. That’s a difference of 11 points, and if you just look at the guys who had samples of at least 500 plate appearances instead of 250, the difference is 15 points. There’s a difference that exists, but it’s hardly massive at all, and it might be entirely explained by Molina’s quality framing. For as good as Molina’s reputation is when it comes to guiding a pitcher through a game, these numbers right here suggest he’s hardly a wizard. Or, if he is a wizard, then a lot of catchers are wizards.

Of course, certain guys have pitched better with Molina, and certain guys have pitched worse. That’s the way it almost has to be in a data set. Adam Wainwright, for example, has been considerably more effective with Molina behind the plate. Carpenter, meanwhile, has been considerably less effective, although much of that seems to be BABIP. What we care about is the overall effect, and I didn’t find what I thought I might. While I realize the research isn’t flawless, it should be good enough to pick up on a strong signal if it’s there.

Catcher ERA seems so perfect. What more could you want? Any catcher ERA needs to be adjusted for a handful of variables, but do that and you’ve got some interesting data, potentially. It’s something that ought to capture arm, it ought to capture blocking, it ought to capture framing and game-calling and everything else. It feels like catcher ERA ought to be something we use, but the research that’s been done hasn’t found its usefulness. A lot of that might be difficulty related to sample sizes and adjustments.

But maybe game-calling also just isn’t that big of a thing. By which I mean, maybe there isn’t that much of a spread, once you get to the majors. As in all skills, the majors are selective for elite ability, and calling a game is a big one. There do exist poor sequences, but big-league catchers probably won’t call them. It’s possible they’ll end up with similar approaches, especially given that they tend to work with the pitchers in advance of their games. It’s possible catchers don’t actually call dramatically different sequences, and then of course, the pitcher still has to execute the pitches. Molina, absolutely, knows what he’s doing back there. He has an idea of what to call, based on what’s been thrown and based on how the hitter looks. All other catchers also have ideas, and maybe those ideas aren’t too different. Maybe pitchers love working with Molina because of everything else he’s awesome at. They seldom shake him off, but that doesn’t mean they actually pitch differently to Molina than they do to others.

As usual, I encourage the ambitious among you to go after this same problem in greater depth and detail. I know I’m personally fascinated. It could be that this research is also selective for other catchers who are above-average. Maybe Molina isn’t being compared to a representative sample. That is just one of many issues.

But there could be real substance to this. It could be that we’re not actually all that far off from understanding Yadier Molina’s value after all. We’ve long suspected that he has hidden value in his ability to manage a pitching staff. Maybe that’s largely untrue, and as a consequence, maybe we’ve been giving him too much of a boost. He’s great at a whole bunch of things, making him just about the perfect catcher, but we have numbers for those, numbers we can put together. We never had a number for the great unknown. Turns out, maybe that number is small. Maybe that number is just about zero. I’d like to know more before I feel super confident, but boy would that ever make things easier on us. It’d be nice to have less uncertainty for a change.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


109 Responses to “Searching For the Value of Yadier Molina”

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  1. Spit Ball says:

    Obviously very hard to quantify but I wonder about a couple things in your analysis. Although I know it’s best to use the largest sample size possible, I wonder if Molina has gotten better at some of these skills as years go by. Would the numbers change in his favor if we looked at a five year sample size, say from 2009-2013? His hitting numbers have obviously increased over that time period but I wonder if some of his abilities such as pitch framing, game calling etc. have increased over time.

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    • I was thinking the same thing; there is obviously sense in using as much data as is available, but this is the 2013 MVP award, so there is also a sliver of sense in focusing on 2013 data.

      Molina’s 2013 ERA: 3.16 (1115 Innings)
      Tony Cruz’s 2013 ERA: 4.11 (267 Innings)

      That’s an absolutely huge difference, albeit not entirely reliable for obvious reasons. However, I will add that I have seen a large number of Cardinals games since Molina’s debut, and I have noticed that talk by Cardinals broadcasters/writers/etc. that portrays Molina as a catching genius has definitely increased in recent years. While this anecdotal evidence might not be that meaningful, it seems worth mentioning in an area like this that isn’t so quantifiable.

      Finally, one other factor that contributes to Molina’s value is his coach-like role with the team, something Dave Cameron has written about. Cameron gave some of the credit for the Cardinals ability to rapidly improve additions to their pitching staff to Molina.

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    • I might as well add the 2012 numbers:

      Molina: 3.60 ERA
      Cruz: 4.13 ERA

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  2. Anon says:

    One comment about a potential source of bias in your sample. I suspect that the non-Molina sample has a significant portion of St. Louis backup catchers, which have typically been strong defensive players. Said differently, I suspect the non-Molina sample has a higher than league average talent level.

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    • semperty says:

      That’s a good point. St. Louis usually signs, or (in Cruz’ case) calls up defensive specialists behind the plate. They don’t care for the Evan Gattises that will smash the ball off the bench, and then catch the next day so much as they’re worried about the best defensive back-ups possible. It’s one of the reasons I was so surprised they never grabbed one of his brothers to back him up

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      • Pirates Hurdles says:

        Not really, this argument supports the idea that many catchers are good at calling games and thus Molina’s value in this area really isn’t that high compared to a replacement C. When you think about it it makes sense that there are many guys that are good at handling pitchers. Almost every team has a defense first 2nd or 3rd C in the system. The delta between Molina and his peers with regards to handling pitchers likely isn’t huge. After all almost every MLB catcher has caught thousands of games prior to reaching the bigs. There is little reason to think Molina is significantly smarter (in a way that he does things differently) than the majority of other catchers.

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        • the hottest stove says:

          I’m not sure I agree with this thought process. The value of Molina is that you have this elite skillset on defense WHILE simultaneously getting the offensive statistics that are above average. Sure, teams can use Jose Molina if they want, but no one is excited about him being a run producer in the lineup. The real issue here is that the defensive metrics for CF seem to be ahead of the metrics for catchers. Maybe in a few years this conversation can go further but it is hard to say who was more valuable, and it is really hard to argue with anyone else’s opinion until we know more.

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        • AK7007 says:

          There is something else too – if a catcher was for some reason bad at calling a game, somebody on the bench who is good at it can do it instead. There is no smart reason for a team to ever let a poor game caller call a game. You could even argue that by calling it for him from the bench, you are teaching the catcher to do it themselves. And they plan out pretty much every batter before a game.

          I’m more in the MGL camp that ideal pitch sequencing is effectively weighted randomness. In that case, it would be really hard to be significantly better than others at it.

          However, I don’t really like the type of analysis that focuses on the big picture like this, instead of the sequencing itself to strip out other aspects of the game. What if there was some sort of way to quantify the effectiveness of different pitches in different counts, based on what other pitches were thrown in an at-bat?

          It is hard to ignore events like Romo striking Cabrera out looking to end the 2012 WS – it had to be a game theory thing where Cabrera couldn’t prepare for anything besides the slider. Thus, the fastball was an incredible call (that Posey didn’t call for). Thinking about it, Posey would be the one getting credit in a sequencing analysis, even though Romo had the idea. Baseball!

          Writing about that last bit made me realize that Jeff wrote about that event himself: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/sergio-romo-and-the-tim-wakefield-fastball/

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    • Bad Bill says:

      This probably explains some of the apparent anti-Molina splits with Chris Carpenter, in that Molina was the backup for the first part of the period Jeff looked at, and Mike Matheny, reputed (for what that is worth) to be another good handler of pitchers, was the one Carpenter threw to most of the time.

      In any event, it may be a methodological error to look as far back as 2004 for evidence that Molina really did make his pitchers better this year. There is a proverb that says a man can never cross the same river twice, because the river will have changed, and so will the man. This is certainly the case with pitching staffs. The Cardinals staff of 2013, with its vast swarm of power-armed rookies, was a very different critter than the staffs of 2004-2011, with Duncan-refurbished veterans who didn’t necessarily throw hard but all threw sinkers. Lumping the two together may be appropriate when evaluating Molina’s Hall of Fame candidacy a few years from now, but it probably misses something important for the 2013 MVP, which is what’s at issue here.

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    • semperty says:

      Another point on this: when Molina was on the bench, the odds that Cruz or Johnson were calling the game is very slim. I doubt a manager would send a very irregular back-up out there to call his own game, which leads me to believe that either Molina or Matheny are calling the game from the bench.

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      • paperlions says:

        Never happens in the majors. You can’t see enough from the bench to call a game. Every MLB catcher calls the game.

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        • cardinalswsbound says:

          During the period that Molina was injured this year and Cruz began starting, Cruz would look over to the dugout before calling for a pitch. This led me and several others to believe Matheny or someone from the bench was calling the game.

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        • AK7007 says:

          Never is a really strong word. Can’t see enough? They manage to get the signs for pitchouts when a runner is on base, don’t see any reason that they couldn’t get the signs for pitch calling. Saying that every MLB catcher calls the game just sounds wrong. Most? Sure. Every single one? Unlikely.

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        • That’s just plain wrong. I can’t think of names off the top of my head, but I’m positive I’ve seen multiple catchers get their signs from the bench. It’s not common, but it happens.

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  3. semperty says:

    I’m not sure you can put a value on Molina’s (or any catcher’s) ability to control a staff. To me it’s not so much sequencing as it is confidence. Obviously Molina calls the pitchers’ games, but if you talk to them the first thing they mention isn’t his ability to call the game so much as it is the confidence boost they get from having him behind the plate – especially those young pitchers. Unless you know some way to measure confidence levels in the midst of a game, I’m not sure you can measure that.

    That said, I’m still more interested in adding pitch framing results to WAR. I think pitch framing has proven to be a large part of a catcher’s defense, and while I’m not sure about the numbers you came to, the numbers Baseball Prospectus came up with would’ve propelled Molina from a 5.6 to a 9.2 WAR – which is an incredible difference. I think we should first master the things we already have a rough idea on (i.e. base running prevention, pitch blocking, pitch framing, etc.), before we start on a new frontier. I mean think of all we would’ve missed if Lewis and Clark had stopped searching when they reached Colorado, and decided to go venture somewhere else.

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    • Jaack says:

      While it would be mostly impossible to measure confidence independently, if it had a significant effect, than that effect would appear in the stats. While Molina may give his pitchers more confidence, there’s no evidence that it produces greater results.

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    • AK7007 says:

      “Confidence” is probably overrated, and can be rolled into the pitch blocking, framing, and throwing numbers. “I’m more confident to throw a slider in the dirt with a runner on 3rd because Molina will block it” or “I can throw one on the edge in a 3-2 count because Molina will preserve the strike” or “I can focus on the hitter, Molina will throw this guy out if he tries to steal 2nd” are all just another way of saying that a catcher is good at an aspect of the game.

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    • nada says:

      One interesting thing about including pitch-framing in WAR is that if the saved strikes values are correct (which is difficult to prove), then catchers are probably much more valuable than we’re giving them credit for. Many estimates have good pitch-framers saving dozens of runs per year, increasing their WAR values substantially.

      The result of this fact is that it would upend a number of WAR leaderboards were pitch-framing to be included, which is why there is some justified hesitancy to put it in. Or, to put it another way, to wait until we know how pitch framing works and how valuable it really is.

      Sources:
      Mike Fast’s study:
      http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324110404578628012148995702
      Some other studies too:
      http://riveraveblues.com/2012/10/estimated-2012-runs-saved-due-to-pitch-framing-77384/

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      • Los says:

        What this doesn’t take into account is that replacement level for catcher would go up for catchers in this case since you can get a no hit adequate framer in triple-A readily. You can’t just add framing value to the top framers and not adjust the baseline for Catcher D.

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        • nada says:

          I don’t think I understand. Are you saying that replacement level would go up once teams understood how valuable catchers are, and then prioritized their framing over their offense?

          That is probably true (and we may already be seeing it happen, given that Jose Molina still has a job), but that does not bear at all upon how valuable pitch framing is now or in the last few years (for which we have data).

          Replacement level in actuality is defined not by what it could be if teams were smarter, but on the average AAA pitch framer who –does– get called up to MLB. And it turns out that the WAR difference between good MLB pitch framers and the actual replacement pitch framers is very high, as it stands now.

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        • AK7007 says:

          Whoever said you can get an adequate framer in AAA ball readily? Where did you get that info? The framing numbers found here are normalized to league average (hence strikes/runs above and below average) – so how would including framing change replacement level?

          All it does is change the defensive baseline, or even add a separate component if that’s how you want to display it. Some players get better, some worse. It changes the extremes of how many runs a catcher can save for his team on defense.

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  4. tz says:

    I tend to think that, at the big league level, intangible items such as “handling of a pitching staff” vary little among all but the absolute worst of players. The process of making the big leagues probably weeds out a lot of guys who really need the extra help of a catcher’s ability to call the right pitches, for example. So the only variance would come from catchers who suck badly enough at game-calling that it gets on his pitchers’ nerves.

    My guess with Molina is that with TLR and Duncan (both former ML catchers), a lot of pitching strategy was consistently handled by whoever was behind the plate. It’s also reasonable that the backup catchers saw the value of doing things the Molina way and therefore added similar value (except obviously for throwing out baserunners)

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  5. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Carlos Gomez had 2.0 more WAR than Molina, why isn’t anyone making a stink about how he got robbed in the MVP?? (he also had more WAR than Goldschmidt)

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    • Pitnick says:

      Two things…

      a) The people making a stink about Goldschmidt are looking at HR and RBIs, not WAR

      b) The people who look at WAR are likely to know that single-season fielding numbers can be very inaccurate, and while Gomez is a great CFer, he probably isn’t that good. Interestingly though, his UZR/150 was only about 10 runs better than you’d expect based on his past history. Even if you lop off 10 fielding runs, his WAR would still be better than all but McCutchen and Carpenter.

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    • stan says:

      He had a good case. If he and McCutchen were traded, would they also trade places in MVP voting?

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    • Brian says:

      I think it’s b/c (a) no one, to my mind, is making a stink about Molina getting robbed for MVP (some people think he deserved to win, but I’ve not read anyone who feels he was “robbed,” or making much of a stink about it), and (b) the comparison would be Gomez to the actual winner, McCutchen, and although some methods have Gomez as more valuable than McCutchen, others do not, and there just isn’t enough evidence to say with any kind of assurance that Gomez was more valuable than Cutch.

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      • You must not live in missouri.

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        • Brian says:

          I moved out of STL years ago, but I converse regularly with dozens of Cards fans and none of them thought he was robbed of the MVP. Even Bernie Miklasz, who has been sorta embarrassingly pro-Molina in the MVP, has only been arguing for him finishing #2 instead of #1 (I mean, honestly, who cares about #2 vs. #3?).

          Do you live in Missouri, Antonio? Are you hearing something different than I am? (That is, beyond the normal fringe fanatics you get from every team?)

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  6. olethros says:

    Would it be possible to isolate the non-StL batteries and compare them to the same pitchers with Molina? Right now I think you might be getting a lot of noise from Cardinal backups, whose approach is going to be largely dictated by Molina, I suspect.

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    • Pirates Hurdles says:

      Why would you want to remove that? If anything it proves the point that Molina isn’t doing anything special if his backups can learn it in a hurry and do the same thing.

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      • the hottest stove says:

        Couldn’t this also be used to indicate that by teaching the backups to utilize his knowledge and skills, Molina is even more valuable to the team? Additionally, he helps with sequencing from the bench so the Cardinals’ pitchers should be removed in my opinion. I understand that it is difficult to measure, but Tony Cruz didn’t become a good defensive catcher on his own. He was a third baseman until pretty recently if I remember correctly.

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      • olethros says:

        Because the entire point of the exercise is to isolate Molina’s value to his team. If a large percentage of your data includes numbers generated entirely by members of his team, you’re not isolating the variable you’re trying to test.

        I doubt you’d see an appreciable difference, but five years ago everyone thought the same thing about pitch framing.

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        • Andrew says:

          Yes, but in an attempt to better isolate one variable you change what you would be testing. If you use caught by Molina versus caught by non-Cardinal catcher; it is not with or without Molina but with or with Molina plus Cardinals organization. This introduces many compounding factors. Also I think your without for some pitchers would become very small.

          I reserve the right to be completely wrong in my thought process.

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        • olethros says:

          The big thing we’re trying to isolate here is pitch calling, I think, and the only way to guarantee Molina isn’t calling from the dugout, or otherwise heavily influencing the way the backups call pitches, is to remove all Cardinal batteries from the data set.

          Yeah, SSS would definitely be an issue with some guys. You could probably set an inning minimum to account for that though. I feel like someone somewhere did something similar trying to isolate the “Dave Duncan effect.”

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        • Andrew says:

          I understand your point but I still hold that if you fully want to credit Molina you need to do what Jeff did. Here is that Duncan piece, I assume there is more to the Duncan effect than pitch to contact, and someone should tell Twins what the other pieces are.

          http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-dave-duncan-effect/

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        • olethros says:

          Oh no doubt my method would err on the side of over-crediting Molina for the work of others (be that good or bad), but Jeff’s method has the potential to err just as much in the other direction. I suspect that if differences exist between the two methods the truth would lie somewhere in the middle. Whoever pointed it out down thread about the Cardinals pitchers as a group outperforming FIP for the past decade had a good approach as well. That at least indicates something organizational.

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  7. Darren says:

    I know in Max Marchi’s great study on game calling a couple of years ago he tried to carve out the fielding influence on BIP. A stronger fielding team behind the Cardinal pitchers likely diminishes Molina’s influence. I believe Max looked at batted ball data instead of say OPS. He tried to pre-determine for each hitter in baseball what their most typical at bat against that particular pitcher would look like if you attached average run values to their projected batted balls, strikeouts and walks. Then compared that to the actual at bat with Yadi behind the plate.

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  8. Darren says:

    I recall Max’s study showed that good framers were not necessarily good game callers. In fact some were so bad at calling games it completely wiped out any framing greatness. McCann and Loucroy were good examples of that.

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  9. JS says:

    Does anyone wonder why Molina, at age 29, suddenly went from being a marginal major leaguer hitter to an excellent major league hitter?

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    • the hottest stove says:

      Aside from a down year in 2010 with an 84 wRC+, it’s been a gradual progression since 2006 rather than anything that happened suddenly.

      wRC+ 54, 86, 97, 106, ___ , 126, 139, 134

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    • cass says:

      Probably some mechanical adjustments? Better conditioning? Better approach? It happens all the time. Look at Bautista, for example.

      If you’re suggesting PEDs, go take a look at something like the Mitchell report and see how many of those players got suddenly better. I don’t think you’ll find it’s any different than for other players. Nook Logan used HGH, for example.

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    • Anon says:

      More FB and LD, Less GB. Even without considering other factors, a player with Molina’s speed will have better results with fewer GB.

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    • Ben Cerutti says:

      It has been well documented (at least here in STL) about how he changed his approach and stance at the plate week to week or month to month for seasons at a time.

      Once he found the one that worked for him, he has simply raked the last few years.

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  10. stonecutter7 says:

    What if we just looked at the actual sequencing, not the outcome. For example, for a given pitcher and count vs to LHH how often does Molina call for a fastball vs his backups.

    Also, I think tango has mentioned he’s done some work on sequencing, but it was proprietary and he might not talk about it until he’s retired from consulting.

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    • Cheechmo says:

      I like this idea. Also, within the samples of each pitcher, maybe you could measure the effectiveness of each pitch type to see if a particular catcher makes certain types of pitches more/less effective.

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  11. Tom says:

    I wonder if a better understanding of the value of pitch sequencing would help us to better appreciate Yadi’s full value. Much is often made about his creativity in calling pitches. I also wonder if there’s a way to value pitcher confidence when pitching to Yadi, as he is the best I have ever seen at blocking balls in the dirt.

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  12. Mac says:

    Another big assumption not yet touched on in the article or comments is the concept of pitch sequencing itself. That’s a huge part of game-calling and I don’t know if there’s solid evidence that sequencing is important, either because sequence doesn’t matter, or that most batteries can get fairly close to optimal sequencing.

    Also, isn’t it fascinating just how parallel those with and without Molina numbers are? I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that BABIP and BA were almost identical (less shocking) and that K and BB rate were also spot on. If there’s one thing sequencing should help with, wouldn’t it be an uptick in K%?

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  13. Brandon Firstname says:

    Very good research Jeff, it’s interesting to know that–at least when it comes to results–that Yadi isn’t necessarily better at calling comes than other catchers. I’ve always had this hunch, but was never very confident I was right.

    I think a lot of the next steps in sabremetrics is (imperfectly) quantifying things we’ve deemed unquantifiable in the past. And I imagine that we will find a lot of conventional wisdom to remain true, and a lot more to strike false. The fun part will be learning which.

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  14. JLuman says:

    I’d look for what might be call a rock-paper-scissors effect. Surprisingly, some people are really good that that game. Potentially subconsciously, these people are good at anticipating the patterns of their opponents.

    Potentially Molina has the ability, to make difficult to predict sequences. To identify this skill I’d look to identify a different patterns in various catchers with techniques borrowed from hard-drive disk reconstruction tools.

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  15. Tim says:

    We’re used to looking at those numbers on an individual player basis, where variation is large. 11 points of OPS on a team basis is not to be sneezed at. Over the course of a season it’s close to 40 runs, which given Molina’s playing time puts him in a dead heat with Machado on receiving alone.

    You can look at those numbers and say they’re fairly likely to be noise, if you like. That’s one of the problems with working with small variation. But you shouldn’t look at them and say they’re negligible.

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    • FanGraphs Supporting Member

      For one thing, I think the difference is more like 20-25 runs. For another thing, that’s over all innings of a season, which no catcher catches. For a last thing, we already have evidence that Molina is worth 10-20 runs a season with framing. What we’re interested in is the effect on top of the framing effect.

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  16. Brett W says:

    There’s a lot of good stuff here. Before this comment string is done, someone’s going to voros their way out of a job.

    Here’s one research angle that occurred to me, although it would be ridiculously labor intensive.
    1. Start with the idea of every pitch thrown to Yadier Molina (or any other catcher).
    2. Then filter out pitches where the pitcher significantly missed the framed glove (say, by more than 4 inches or some other number, perhaps using standard deviations or some similar mathematical theory). That leaves all pitches thrown to Yadier Molina that were relatively close to where he asked for them.
    3. On this subcategory of pitches, determine how many achieved a positive result (called strike, swinging strike, ground ball, foul tip, popup, etc.) and how many achieved a negative result (home run, line drive, called ball). This is probably the biggest flaw with this method, because the desired result and the actual results may not always be perfectly in sync, such as a 410-foot flyout to deep center, which ends well but certainly is not the battery’s intent in throwing the pitch. Cataloguing the results would be the science, and factoring which results are good, acceptable, and poor would be the art.
    4. Compare pitcher results on these pitches (by %, by OPS, etc.) across various catchers.

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    • You shouldn’t filter out the pitches that miss. Part of being a good game caller is knowing your pitcher. Of his slider isn’t sliding and you call a slider and it misses and gets crushed, that was part the pitcher’s execution and part a bad call.

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  17. Psych 1 Professor says:

    I’m sure there’s some “fundamental attribution error” involved here as well, in terms of pitchers/fans/coaches having the tendency to attribute successful outcomes to Yadier’s skill and failed outcomes to bad luck. His reputation is so strong that a rookie pitcher would probably feel uncomfortable shaking him off at this point, realizing that doing so will put the pitcher under the microscope if there’s a bad outcome.

    Throughout the course of a season there are thousands of opportunities to reinforce these biases when reputations are extreme, so I would tend to agree that the true impact of Yadier’s game calling is likely smaller than many perceive it to be.

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  18. Newcomer says:

    I like the idea of looking further into game-calling, if we can find a reliable way to measure it, but you hinted at a bit of a paradox that might force the skill to be low in value.

    “Pitchers don’t shake Molina off.”

    “They seldom shake him off, but that doesn’t mean they actually pitch differently to Molina than they do to others.”

    Perhaps (most) pitchers know what pitch they want to throw most of the time. Molina’s skill might be as much just knowing his pitcher well enough to know which pitch he’ll want to throw. That’s great, it makes the relationship easier, the pitcher feels more comfortable.. but if another catcher called for the “wrong” pitch, the pitcher would just shake him off and throw the “right” pitch anyway. So the batter sees the same pitch regardless of what the catcher calls.

    Now, I’m not saying this is entirely what happens. Maybe Molina’s great at sequencing pitches at those times when a pitcher doesn’t have a plan in mind. Maybe pitchers trust Molina enough that they’ll throw pitches they’re less comfortable throwing (and would shake off from a less trusted catcher) because Yadi thinks it’s a good idea. There can certainly be an element of that, but in the end the pitcher has final say on which pitch to throw. And it seems like, if the pitcher will just shake off a terrible game-caller’s calls, then the variation in game-calling talent among catchers may be effectively reduced by the pitchers’ game-calling skill (or lack thereof).

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    • Tim says:

      if another catcher called for the “wrong” pitch, the pitcher would just shake him off and throw the “right” pitch anyway. So the batter sees the same pitch regardless of what the catcher calls.

      It’s very likely that the right pitch called immediately is a marginally better pitch than the right pitch after a shakeoff.

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      • LK says:

        Do you have any support for this being “very likely”?

        I’ve heard Al Leiter say that he would sometimes shake even if the C called the pitch he wanted to throw, and keep shaking until the C got back to the original pitch, because he felt that shaking the C off made the hitter uncomfortable. This would suggest that the exact opposite of what you said is true. I personally suspect the true effect is probably negligible.

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    • AK7007 says:

      I like Newcomer’s take – and to take it to an extreme, Maddux basically called his own game without catcher aid. Regardless of game calling ability. It can go both ways, and can even be called from the dugout if everybody on the field is clueless.

      Correct pitch sequencing might be hugely important, and nobody is saying that a fastball down the middle 100% of the time would fare the same as Greg Maddux at his prime – but it is something that doesn’t need to be an individual player skill, and can instead be an organizational philosophy.

      Personally, I like MGL’s take: http://mglbaseball.wordpress.com/category/pitching-strategy/ on the discussion, that “All pitchers…randomize their pitch selections precisely so the batter cannot figure out what is coming with any certainty.” Maybe a catcher can do better than weighted randoms, but I’ll wait for somebody to prove otherwise.

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      • Newcomer says:

        I generally like MGL’s takes on everything.

        Ideal game-calling probably comes down to a combination of accurate weighted randomization, knowledge of any extenuating circumstances for the pitcher (not finding a particular pitch, perhaps due to temperature/humidity or a sore finger), possibly noticing and interpreting tells from the hitter (changes in stride because he’s looking fastball/offspeed, etc.), and of course what the umpire has been calling for a strike. But randomization has got to be key.

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  19. Brian says:

    “…a pair of first-place votes went to Yadier Molina, both of them coming out of St. Louis. One of those writers put Matt Carpenter second, and it’s easy to write that off as simple bias.”

    I’m not sure we necessarily want to write off “biased” votes. It’s baked into the very idea of the voting process (in any vote, really, not just BBWAA award votes) that you want to collect a wide array of individual perspectives that ideally add up to an intelligent consensus. That’s why the BBWAA works to establish a voting pool that’s geographically balanced and diverse.

    Yesterday on Twitter, for example, Keith Law teed off on Derrick Goold, one of the STL writers who voted Molina #1, tacitly accusing him of hometown bias. What Law doesn’t realize, it seems, is that the process is designed to tolerate a little hometown bias. As the thinking goes, Goold, as a Cardinals beat writer, will bring info to bear about Molina that other writers can’t – and that this is a good thing. Overall Goold will likely (and wisely, it seems) be outvoted by other writers who have their own information and views about McCutchen, Goldschmidt, etc. But it’s not a flaw in the system – or even, necessarily, with the individual ballots cast by Goold and Hummel – that 2 of the perspectives saw Molina as most deserving of the award. Indeed, that’s exactly what you WANT from a voting process.

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    • Jonathan Clayton says:

      I think hometown bias is fine, and as you say, offset by everyone else’s hometown bias. And voting Yadi and Carp two slots higher than the consensus view isn’t a big variation. I don’t think anyone would believe the two STL guys don’t really believe Yadi was number one.

      The real question is the guys who voted Yadi 9 or 10. Putting Simmons ahead of him? To quote John McEnroe, “you cannot be serious” and in fact, can only be viewed as trying to skew the results (the Pittsburgh voted), or just not being familiar with major league baseball (the two from MIA)

      The seventh place vote for Trout? I can’t even come up with a description of how dumb that is. As Dave wrote, if you’re really going to say players aren’t valuable unless their team wins, then don’t vote for Trout at all. That would help get us to ignore the MVP awards and demand a best player award as Dave suggested. After all, hasn’t the Rolaids Relief Man award pretty much become moot?

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      • Brian says:

        I totally agree with you Jonathan, but people who vote Yadi 10th or Trout 7th are really no different than those people who vote for Lyndon LaRouche for president. Dumb, but, I think, harmless, esp if, as in the NL, we get a good top result.

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        • Los says:

          As a Pittsburgher, I can say that Bill Brink is an idiot and Biertempfel is the writer in town who knows baseball. However, Yadi did finish 9th in R-War with Simmons 4th so it is not indefensible. I personally had Yadi 2nd but let’s not make Yadi out to be Trout when there is so much up in the air about Catcher D.

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        • Brian says:

          Fair enough – Yadi was only 6th in fWAR, 13th in bWAR, so #9 is pretty defensible. (Although the “up in the air” stuff about Catcher D – primarily pitch framing – most likely favors Yadi’s case. But I totally agree with your overall point.)

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    • Big Balla Game Calla says:

      Law teed off on someone on twitter? Seems highly unlikely.

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  20. Matt says:

    While it may be the fact that confidence is often overstated, I think in the case of Molina’s handling of pitchers this season it may be legit. The success that they had with young pitchers was tremendous. You can argue that Yadi had a big role in helping Shelby Miller succeed as a starter while only throwing a Fastball or Curve 94% of the time. One thing that sticks out to me though, is the success that Joe Kelly had this year despite his poor peripherals. Maybe we’ll see some major regression next year, but I can’t help but feel like Yadi is behind some of his success. Kelly’s curve can be a bit wild, and having Yadi behind the plate might allow him to focus on getting a swing and miss without having to worry about it getting by the catcher, even when runners are on.

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    • FanGraphs Supporting Member

      Not for nothing, but Kelly allowed a .646 OPS throwing to Tony Cruz (171 PA), and he allowed a .713 OPS throwing to Yadier Molina (335 PA).

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      • Anon says:

        What teams were those against? 171 PA is something like 5 games. An extra start at MIA or at COL can quickly skew the OPS result.

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        • Bad Bill says:

          Kelly did indeed get an extra start versus Miami with Cruz behind the plate, although it didn’t go well. A careful look at this question would require looking at the lineups as well as the teams, and is beyond my time and capability. A more superficial look based only on teams suggests that Cruz might have been catching slightly “easier” opponents but that the difference was not large. Curiously, Kelly seems to have had significantly more starts, and batters faced including relief appearances, against teams with OPS above the league average than against the weaker-hitting ones; the Cubs were the only weaker team against whom he faced as many as 40 batters, and he missed weaklings San Diego and Philadelphia entirely.

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        • If Yadi isn’t starting, it’s probably a Sunday noon game after a late Saturday game. In which case, the other team may also be trotting out bench players. We really should look at it player by player.

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  21. Nickname Damur says:

    There’s a possibility that we’re looking at the wrong set of data. Intuitively, I would expect a catcher to affect the pitch sequencing of inexperienced pitchers more than that of veterans.

    So one might want to examine the sequencing of pitchers with less than or equal to, say, two years of experience and see if the sequencing changes when they are traded to or otherwise picked up by the Cardinals.

    It would also be interesting to see if there were some significant sequencing differences in veteran pitchers picked up by the Cardinals who suddenly improve. Molina may not make too much difference to most veteran pitchers, but if there are pitchers out there with bad sequencing he may be good at fixing them.

    Such data could be significant for individual pitchers but be easy to lose amongst the noise of larger data samples.

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    • steex says:

      I’m not saying you’re right or wrong, but this sort of cuts both ways. If stats showed Yadi was much better with younger pitchers, holding your point true, then wouldn’t it be just as relevant to then question Yadi for hindering the performance of veteran pitchers?

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      • Ruki Motomiya says:

        More experienced pitchers may have a better feel of things than Yadi does or have a better feel of components that Yadi does not or cannot know about (For example, a bodily feeling).

        Another option might be that an experienced pitcher feels they “know better” than Yadi more often than an inexperienced pitcher and thus are more willing to shake him off. Or even vice versa, that an experienced pitcher actually can call a better game by himself (Some pitchers certainly have this ability, like Maddux).

        Finally, older pitchers tend to decrease in skill, so you’d have to compare their respective age groups to filter out age related isssues: Maybe the older guys are simply past their better years and thus are putting up worse numbers. Not sure this holds true for the Cards, though.

        It could also be that Yadi’s skills simply do more with a younger pitcher, so that + age = actually worse performances later?

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  22. channelclemente says:

    I wonder if the comparison doesn’t have to be made with another team. I just have a hunch that Molina’s expectations, and habits toward pitch sequencing and placement are learned attributes shared among pitchers. If that’s the case, then no matter who catches you get ‘Molina Behavior’ out of any Cardinals pairing. Perhaps it’s comparable to how a meme is shared. If that’s the case, then perhaps you’ve made the case for how powerful the ‘Molina Meme’ is in the Cardinals organization.

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  23. murphym45 says:

    What if we can find catchers whose pitchers outperform their peripherals? Since 2004, Cardinals pitchers have outperformed there FIP- by more than any team other than the Athletics, and have outperformed their xFIP and SIERA more than all but the A’s, Braves, and Giants. This is with a slightly below average BABIP (.291 Cardinals, .294 league avg) and LOB% (72.9% Cards, 71.9% league), and one of the worst team defenses in the league by UZR (24/30 with -94 runs over 10 years).
    The primary catchers for the other three teams? Kurt Suzuki, Brian McCann, and Bengie Molina.

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    • Richard says:

      FIP doesn’t take in to account the defensive aspects of the running game. If you can control the running game (which Yadi excels at) and good defensive fundamentals as a team (throwing to the right base; hitting your target on throws), that’s several wins a season right there.

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  24. Big Balla Game Calla says:

    I seem to remember quite a few moments under the iron rule of TLR where Yadi would look into the dugout to get the sign before putting it down. This could be false memory but it might impact the analysis some re: who was actually responsible for pitch selection during the TLR/Duncan era.

    However, I mioght also just be terrified to face a world where there is no substance to the Molina meme.

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    • AK7007 says:

      Those were likely for pitchout calls from the bench. Almost all catchers get those marching orders from the manager/bench coach. But I do know that in the early Posey days when the Giants pitchers were up in arms about losing Molina’s big brother, Posey was looking over even with the bases empty. There’s probably something to the idea that pitch calling and sequencing can be taught on the job just by having the bench call it a for awhile.

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  25. Los says:

    I’m sorry but if you do this with Molina’s first half vs his second half, you get just as sizable a difference. There’s some signal and then there is noise. The split of Molina vs non-Molina is noise.

    That being said, I have Molina second after Cutch.

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  26. Nick says:

    The problem with trying to place a value on his game calling ability is that it is very difficult to find a control group. You used Molina vs. other catchers. If Molina’s game calling is truly superior, the pitchers may pick up on that and will change their pitch selection with other catchers.

    If you attempt to use “pre-Molina” and “post-Molina” figures, too many other variables will likely affect the data to pull real insight from it.

    I am not sure there is a way to really evaluate a catcher’s game calling ability.

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  27. olethros says:

    I found this interesting.

    http://www.stltoday.com/sports/columns/bernie-miklasz/bernie-bytes-cards-split-mvp-votes/article_c0809d64-9b86-58e8-a139-287ec38edeb5.html

    “He’s more than just a leader,” I explained. “He’s a de facto pitching coach.”

    The voter seemed confused by my assertion; I assume he thought I’d lost my mind.

    But then during World Series the same voter approached me and said: “I get it now.”

    I asked him why. He explained that he’d been keeping track of how often Molina visits the mound during games. Or how many times he stands up after a pitch to shout out instructions or encouragement to the pitcher. And how many times — after a Molina intervention — the pitcher responds favorably, by immediately getting a positive result.

    “Exactly,” I said. “The pitching coach or manager doesn’t have to go to the mound and use one of their visits in an inning. They don’t have to, because Molina does it for them. They view him as an equal. It’s like having a coach or manager go out there. Just think about all of the pitching changes that Molina has prevented during a long season by making that trip to the mound instead of the pitching coach or the manager. That way, Mike Matheny can afford to stay with a pitcher a while longer, because the Cardinals aren’t using their mound visits.”

    Again, there’s no statistic for that.

    The people who see it on a daily basis get it. The people who don’t have the opportunity to witness Molina daily have no way of really knowing, and I don’t rip them for that. If you can’t watch Molina every day, your appreciation will be limited. If I wrote sports in another market, I wouldn’t fully appreciate Molina, either.

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    • AK7007 says:

      Hm, sounds like regression to the mean to me. Cardinals pitcher X does poorly for a batter faced, below his average performance. Molina (or a coach, or who cares who goes out there) goes out and talks to pitcher X. Next batter faced, pitcher X performs better than against the previous hitter. Was it the encouragement or the fact that the pitcher is statistically likely to perform nearer to his own average than the previous poor performance?

      I’d wager that it’s the latter, and individual performances either pitch-to-pitch or batter-to-batter are likely to be found somewhere along a distribution from “ball in dirt” to “nasty Randy Johnson slider” – with each pitcher’s individual performance mean some where along the curve. Each individual performance isn’t likely to be influenced by the last unless that particular pitcher has extreme differences in expected performance depending on base occupation. Or something.

      There’s a reason “there’s no statistic for that” – it probably doesn’t exist.

      It could exist, and pitchers could collectively need counseling in order to perform their job at a high level, but I would want to see proof that this is so instead of a beat writer inventing “human stories.”

      The only thing that I could see being a thing that he could be meaningfully helping pitchers with during “visits” would be along the lines of noticing a mechanical flaw/tipping pitches/etc – which could be called from the bench, and doesn’t need to be a player skill.

      It brings me great joy to hear insights into the game, but I don’t know that this one is real or attributable to Molina. More than one Kruk/Kuip broadcast with Bumgarner starting has contained the “his shoulder is flying open” line from Krukow after a walk, followed by Posey going out there and pounding his left shoulder while talking. Was Posey a “pitching coach?” Did the bench call it? Does it matter as long as the job gets done? Really, these aren’t skills that have to be contained within a player in order for a team to perform well. They can come from elsewhere in the organization. And therefore probably aren’t adding immensely to what a player offers to his team.

      Bernie Miklasz might be a smart guy and all, but isn’t really getting the idea of value. Molina’s actual abilities and skills on the field are more than enough to be a MVP, we don’t need to be inventing new “intangibles” to push him over the top. He’s there already without them.

      Then there’s the whole idea of “stay(ing) with a pitcher a while longer” through preserving mound visits – which is might actually be a net negative unless your bullpen can’t handle the workload for some reason. See this: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=22156

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  28. Trevor says:

    I wonder if there’s some effect in this comparison that comes from quality of opposition.

    Say St. Louis has been X% likelier to give Molina a day off in instances where the opponent’s offense generally weak or “cold” at the time. Meanwhile, they are X% less likely to rest him against tougher offenses or offenses that are “hot.” A difference introduced by being a bit more likely to rest Molina when the offense is already less likely to score could skew the stats a little bit against Molina in this raw comparison.

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    • Ruki Motomiya says:

      This seems possible, though testable (Look at the offensive stats of Molina starts vs.non-Molina starts)

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  29. semperty says:

    This might just be me, but I feel like they should try to isolate catchers before Molina solely. Several pitchers have had their seasons improved by the Molina/Duncan duo, and after they leave they’re not just going to go back to what wasn’t working before.

    It’s not like once a new team figures out what pitches/sequences worked for the pitcher they’re going to ignore it. There are obviously flaws in that as well, but it seems if you’re looking to completely erase the “Molina effect” then you have to eliminate Molina from every part of the process – not just the current.

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  30. AK7007 says:

    Thinking out loud, I wonder if there could be something to the idea of comparing actual pitch sequencing and calling vs ideal pitch calling and sequencing along the lines of Dave Allen and Keven Tenebaum’s article in this year’s THT Annual? Doesn’t have to be that exact algorithm, and something would need to be worked out to include multiple pitch types, but the idea being that we know theoretically an ideal pitch according to game theory, and how often does a catcher (or organization, pitcher, whatever) choose that “ideal pitch?”

    After writing that though, I could see all sorts of problems with it, and if we could do it, then why wouldn’t hitters automatically know what pitch is coming since it is the “ideal” pitch? You would need constantly changing run values for locations. This problem of assigning value to pitch sequencing is pretty incredible. Fascinating to read about.

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    • Leo says:

      Good pitch sequencing has to be somewhat random, right? There could never be an algorithm stating the “correct” pitch because the whole point is to keep the batter from guessing your pitch.

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      • Bad Bill says:

        “Random” is not the same as “unpredictable.” Any good catcher, not just Molina, has an idea in his own mind of what the batter is and is not looking for on the next pitch, given the batter’s preferences, pitcher’s capabilities, game situation, etc. He then calls for a pitch based on some intuitive but probabilistic algorithm that he could never articulate. That’s very different from “random.” Molina clearly has this skill in spades, but so do other good handlers of pitchers, maybe even most major-league catchers.

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      • AK7007 says:

        If you know the run values for every pitch/location/count/base-out state, then yes – you can calculate a “correct” pitch. Problem is, that “correct” pitch if thrown every time, quickly becomes too predictable and needs to be changed. (because the run values change when a hitter knows where/what pitch is being thrown) In the future, talent maximization is probably going to be on the basis of decisions like this one, as opposed to “dingers = winning/”

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        • Ruki Motomiya says:

          Dingers = Tiger Blood!

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        • Leo says:

          The pitch/location/count/base-out state values, if we knew them, would also be available to hitters and it would be very stupid to follow them. Arbitrarily selecting a pitch from a list of possible pitches assembled and weighted based on all available information (including the factors you list, hitters tendencies, defensive positioning, and anything else you like) would be optimal strategy in theory. In practice, these factors are extremely complex and individual, essentially making them unknowable for any given game situation, and catchers and pitchers are forced to rely on their intuition and experience when calling pitches.

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  31. Conor says:

    Good article. I have a question about something that was glossed over. It’s possible that it’s research that’s already established and I’m just ignorant of it. Is 10-15 points of OPS not very significant? I don’t mean in terms of team results and wins and losses but is this common? Are there really a lot of catchers with as many innings as Molina and 10-15 points of OPS against difference? Are there a lot of catchers with a greater spread? Frankly, I was surprised there’s much of a spread at all for any catcher with so many innings.

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    • AK7007 says:

      The OPS analysis takes into account framing, blocking, throwing, bunts/short hits, and sequencing all in one – essentially all aspects of defense. The issue isn’t “is Molina 11 points of OPS better than other catchers?” (no idea what the actual difference is) – just that this article wants to know about sequencing, but can’t isolate it from the other aspects of catcher defense.

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  32. mcnube says:

    I am more biased than the St. Louis voters, given I was born in Puerto Rico, like Yadier. I have been following baseball since 1959, and now that I am retired I have been learning more about sabermetrics. Evaluating catchers sure is very difficult, specially things that are extremely difficult to measure, if not imposible.
    If you want to appreciate Yadier Molina’s game calling ability, I suggest you take a look at the 2013 World Baseball Classic games against Teams USA and Japan if you can. You have there a sample of two extremes, calling a game against a team that he knows the hitters, and calling one against a team that he had never played against the hitters, with a pitching staff of not more than AAA caliber. I wish there could be a way to calculate what you will see.
    There is nothing like having the opportuniy to watch a catcher work from behind the pitchers mound where the cameras are located.

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    • Spencer D says:

      NPB can be a lot better than AAA. It’s thought to be somewhere on the fringes between AAA and MLB. Though of course there is All-star level talent and A level talent in it.

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      • Felix says:

        How does that relate to his point re: Molina unless Yadi is catching for Team Japan? Unless Team Puerto Rico has AAA+ level pitching…

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  33. Jeffrey says:

    You might take a look at Molina’s Cather era vs his backups since 04.

    It’s a staggering 0.50 better in a huge sample size of innings.

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    • Jeffrey says:

      Went ahead and looked up the data.

      While there isn’t much of a difference in the offensive numbers that you provided. Any sample set is going to have a league wide baseline to the league average, right? I mean, you could compare the best offensive team in the league to the worst over a 10 year sample set, and the OPS difference won’t be that large.

      Since 2004 the Cardinals have played almost 15,000 innings. Yadier Molina has caught 9945.1 of those innings. The Cardinals have a team ERA of 3.88 in that time. When Molina is catching, the team ERA is 3.71. When a backup or someone else is catching, the team has a 4.24 ERA.

      I would say Molina has some effect on his teams pitching staff. This margin, is by FAR greater than any other catcher vs his backup in baseball over this time frame that I can find.

      Now I know you challenged cERA.
      But this seems extreme.

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      • Ruki Motomiya says:

        But how much of that is sequencing and how much of it is other skills like pitch framing and catching steals and such?

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    • I don't care what anyone says:

      Catheter?

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  34. Ben Cerutti says:

    Something that was probably mentioned above that I didn’t take the time to carefully comb through:

    Even when Yadi is on the bench during an individual game, he was still in the preparatory meetings for that series and for that day’s starting pitcher. His influence is still very much a part of the game. He can still talk to the pitcher in the dugout between each inning.

    It’s not like you go from a 100% Yadier Molina game plan to a 0% Yadier Molina game plan with Cruz behind the plate.

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