Tampa Bay Drops the Face of Framing

In his final season as the face of baseball, Derek Jeter wasn’t the best player in baseball. He generated a forever memorable moment to close out his time in New York, but the year saw him finish with a wRC+ that was 46 points below his career average. Since Jeter’s retirement, people have openly wondered which player might take over as the new face of the game. I don’t know. I don’t care. This just serves as a strained introduction. Jose Molina might’ve just finished his final season as the face of pitch-framing. He might not have been the best pitch-framer in baseball, but he was close, because framing, unlike hitting, doesn’t follow a dramatic aging curve. The year saw Molina finish with a wRC+ that was 41 points below his career average. That’s dreadful, for a player whose career average is bad.

Molina’s 39. The Rays didn’t simply elect not to keep Molina. The Rays had Molina under contract, and they’ve designated him and his $2.75-million salary for assignment. So this isn’t a move to save money. This is a move to try to be better, and the Rays think they have a capable tandem in Ryan Hanigan and Curt Casali. That much is perfectly defensible. This isn’t interesting because the Rays are letting Molina go; this is interesting because no one else offered to pick Molina up at his salary.

It’s been pretty clear for some time that Molina was done in Tampa Bay. There was recently talk that he could be released, so the Rays would’ve jumped at an opportunity to relieve some salary. If anyone wanted Molina, they could’ve had him, dealing absolutely nothing to the Rays in return. No move was agreed to. So this serves as evidence of how little the market currently values pitch-framers, or at least framers who don’t hit well.

Let’s do some math. Okay, so, Molina’s 2015 salary is $2.75 million. Let’s say the market rate for a win will be in the vicinity of $6.5 million. Molina’s salary would be worth the equivalent of 0.4 WAR. He’s projected for 0 WAR, framing excluded. That’s been about his three-year average. But let’s also entertain the possibility he could be worth -0.5 WAR, framing again excluded.

According to Baseball Prospectus, Molina’s three-year average has been about +25 runs by framing. There’s no reason to think that skill’s due to collapse. Molina’s being paid to be worth about four runs better than replacement. If you take Molina’s 0 WAR projection, and if you assume +25 framing runs, and then if you consider that no one took Molina, that means the league doesn’t think he’s worth even 16% of his framing value. If you instead put Molina at -0.5 WAR for next season, and then follow the same steps, that means the league doesn’t think he’s worth 34% of his framing value. Teams passed Molina completely over, at his modest salary.

And that doesn’t even consider that Molina would’ve presumably been available at a reduced salary. Teams weren’t limited to the option of Molina at $2.75 million — given the lack of demand, someone could’ve requested that the Rays include some money. They’d be happy to unload anything. It’s obvious that no one wants to pay Molina like he’s actually worth double-digit runs as a semi-regular receiver. Someone might scoop him up for the league minimum, to bring some experience to camp, but it could be that Molina’s career is over. There are some things that could indicate.

It could be as simple as teams looking at Molina, and not being able to look past last year’s .009 ISO. Maybe he’s completely and utterly toast at the plate. That would make him an overall bad player, even with full framing credit. But we’ve seen that framing doesn’t get paid. The market doesn’t treat it like it treats, say, dingers. The Pirates just got Francisco Cervelli pretty cheap. The Astros got Hank Conger pretty cheap. The Blue Jays paid a lot for Russell Martin, but Russell Martin hits.

It’s possible that there’s less to gain than there has been. Max Marchi wrote about framing for a big audience in 2011. Mike Fast did the same. There were earlier efforts, but Marchi and Fast put framing in the spotlight. Here’s a potentially interesting trend. Using data from Baseball Prospectus, I calculated extra strikes per 7,000 framing opportunities. I calculated the average for the ten best framers and for the ten worst framers, and then I calculated the difference between those averages. Year-by-year:

  • 2011: 329 strikes/7000 difference
  • 2012: 298
  • 2013: 276
  • 2014: 268

Maybe it’s nothing, I don’t know, but that’s a 19% drop since 2011. Maybe this is becoming less and less of a thing to exploit. It stands to reason that, over time, more catchers will be taught more about how to get more strikes. More teams will get on the bandwagon, and more umpires will call zones more consistently, with a little greater awareness of what catchers in front of them might be doing. The best framers can’t get much better. The worst framers can either improve or get replaced. This is mostly just theoretical, but the future of framing is fairly uncertain.

And there’s the matter of replacement level. What is a replacement-level catcher? How good are they at receiving? Consensus is that basically every organization has its catch-and-throw guys who aren’t able to hit much. The Padres added Rene Rivera for free, and he was always considered a defensive specialist. Chris Stewart has floated around, easily acquirable. The Orioles plugged in Caleb Joseph this past year after Matt Wieters went down. The Mariners dug deep to find Jesus Sucre. Let’s say that each organization has one or two or three alleged defensive specialists. Those guys won’t be able to hit well, but the perception will be that they could come right up and start stealing strikes, so if you take someone like Jose Molina, maybe he’s not worth 25 runs more than a theoretical defensive replacement. Maybe the gap is half of that. Maybe it’s less? So, if teams wanted a framer, they could conceivably stay internal.

There’s a lot here to think about. And no matter how the market behaves, that doesn’t mean it’s behaving correctly — the behavior just reflects the thought at the time. The thought right now is that Jose Molina isn’t worth $2.75 million. Or, for that matter, $1.75 million, or anything more than the league minimum. So that’s indicative of how Molina’s skillset is viewed, and everyone in baseball is well aware of his framing reputation. I mean, this was Joe Maddon a couple years ago:

Well, I could reveal to you a stat that I just got today that I think would really blow some people’s minds up. I don’t know exactly how it’s calculated or formulated, but it was concluded that [Molina] saved us 50 runs this year. And that’s highly significant.

Teams might not believe in the extents of the framing effect. They might not feel good about framing’s short-term or long-term future. And/or they might feel like framing can be taught or simply plucked from a minor-league affiliate, so long as you don’t mind a mostly empty bat. Jose Molina has a mostly empty bat, and an impossibly steady glove. At this very moment, he’s essentially unemployed. He’s out there, available, for anyone to take.

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.

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7 years ago

I wonder if the cubs or the dodgers are going to pick him up for the league min now…