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No one takes Catcher ERA seriously. This is wise.

I'm going to talk about it anyway.

I was actually thinking a little bit about the state of commentary on the game of baseball. In the beginning, there was reporting the game, and very little else. The prose could get a little purple, but the reporting itself was generally quite straightforward, honest and - quite often - unflinching to the point of a harshness we seldom see. Players who failed on the field were criticized harshly. This began to change in the 1950s, when Dick Young led the charge into the clubhouse, to get the opinions of the principals on the events of the game. A taste for the insider's perspective was developed and cultivated. The explosion of player salaries a generation later greatly increased the distance between the players and the fans and media, which only served to further whet the appetite for the insider's perspective. This inevitably took the edge off the commentary - the baseball commenter was now dependent on his access to the players, and unlikely to do anything to seriously jeopardize it. One Steve Carlton was enough.

Bill James based much of his early work, and built much of his reputation, by deliberately rejecting the insider's perspective. Having no alternative, he consciously set himself up as an outsider and asserted that while this meant that there were many, many things he could not know, there would be things he could see from his perspective that insiders, closer to the scene, could not. As he wrote at the time, someone standing outside the forest has a much better view of the forest as a whole than someone inside the forest.

It took some time, but the outsider's perspective has been taken up by many who have run with it happily. Most of us are outsiders when it comes to this game, after all.

I would only suggest that we might want to be careful that we don't run so far that with it that we come to think that our perspective, the outsider's perspective, is the only one that matters, the only one that is true. There are things about the forest that the trees can not possibly see. But there are many, many things that no one else sees so clearly.

 It's universally agreed that catcher is one of the game's key defensive positions. Just ask a former catcher. Seriously, though, almost everyone who's actually close to the game will tell you that what a catcher does on defense is much more important than what he does with the bat. Now a great many managers have always been former catchers, from Connie Mack and Branch Rickey to Al Lopez and Ralph Houk, a trend that continues into the present day with former catchers holding 10 of the 30 jobs (Leyland, Maddon, Scioscia, Bochy, Wedge, Girardi, Melvin, Yost, McKeon, and Gonzalez.) More precisely, these managers have generally been a certain type of former catcher. The catchers who went on to careers as managers were, almost without exception, catchers who carved out careers as players because of their defense. The catchers who could hit - Piazza, Bench, Fisk, Simmons, Carter - generally didn't become managers. (And I would suggest that none of these men were inadequate defensive players, and that Bench and Carter were both about as good it gets behind the plate. Obviously.)

(The famous exception is Joe Torre, who was a defensively challenged catcher but a guy who could really hit. Interestingly, Torre managed several championship teams that featured - wait for it - a defensively challenged catcher who could really hit. And shortly after Torre was replaced in New York by a more traditional former catcher turned manager, it became a matter of some urgency to find a replacement for Posada behind the plate.)

But Torre is the exception, of course, It is entirely possible that all the former catchers turned managers, who built their careers on handling a pitcher and playing defense, may exaggerate the importance of that particular thing that they themselves did well. But But it's not just the former catchers who say so. Casey Stengel once commented that the key ingredient of his success in New York was that he never went into a big game without "my man," the great Yogi Berra. Whitey Herzog said the real secret of his St.Louis teams wasn't all those stolen bases, but rather the big slow guy he brought with him from Kansas City to be his catcher, Darrell Porter. Here in Toronto, Cito Gaston would put up with questionable defensive performance in the infield (Ed Sprague!) and outfield (George Bell!) if he had to. But not behind the plate. And if that meant sitting a proven veteran and playing a kid out of AA who couldn't even hit... that's what Gaston would do.

Much of what we know about a catcher's defense seems fairly trivial. There are things we can see with our own eyes: how determined (or foolhardy) a catcher is when it comes to blocking home plate`how mobile and active they are, the better to distinguish someone like Rick Dempsey from Lance Parrish. In the grand scheme of team defense, this does seem somewhat trivial. Catchers do throw out runners attempting to steal, and this is one of their few defensive contributions that we can actually track with some confidence. We can count how many bases are stolen, how many runners are cut down. But even here, we had better be recognizing that a great deal of what we`re counting reflects just as much (and often much more) on the pitcher, rather than the catcher.  Furthermore, the catcher's opportunity is determined entirely by a strategic decision made by someone on the other team. And while a catcher who can eliminate opposing base runners is a fine, fine thing - the other teams catch on pretty quickly and refrain from giving him the opportunity. You don't tug on Superman's cape,, you don't run on Johnny Bench. Furthermore, the catchers who can't throw - Mike Piazza, Brian Harper - don't really seem to be hurting their teams all that much.

It's probable all of these things pale in importance to what every catcher, without exception, will tell you is the most important part of the job: handling the pitching staff, calling the pitches. Running the game.

We want to know everything. We`d like to be able to measure everything. But just because we want to doesn't mean we can. We can't measure this, and as a result we can't really assess and compare the abilities of different catchers in this absolutely crucial part of the game. 

Veteran catchers almost always end up with good defensive reputations. There`s a Darwinian process at work here. If a catcher's value is mostly offensive, he will get moved off the position, before it compromises his offensive value (Dale Murphy, Carlos Delgado, Craig Biggio), or before what defensive skills he does have are completely lost to the aging process (Joe Torre.) Backup catchers especially acquire reputations for their defense, and this brings us to Jose Molina.

Molina has been a career backup. Only once in his career has he caught more than half his team's innings, and that one time was because of a major injury to the starter (Jorge Posada in 2008.)  He's not much of a hitter, but this is his twelfth season in the majors. He's still around because of his defensive reputation. This reputation, such as it is, has to be based on something a little more substantial than Mike Scioscia's good opinion of him, although the fact that he played six seasons for a manager who was himself a good defensive catcher, and a man who clearly puts an extremely high premium on a catcher's defense (Jeff Mathis, people!) certainly didn't hurt. Still - the reputation needs to actually refer to something, some set of skills and abilities.

It's certainly not going to refer to Molina being... oh, a mobile and active defender. He was born a Molina, after all. (In fact, Jose and his brother Bengie are the only players I have ever seen - wait for it - clog the bases. It doesn't happen very often, but I have actually seen innings where the team really would have scored more runs if Molina had led off by making an out rather than getting on base. I wouldn't have thought it possible.) Anyway, Molina`s basic immobility once he gets in the catcher`s crouch, and his sometimes casual approach to balls in the dirt, have left two things for his defensive reputation to rest on: his ability to defend against the running game, which the statistics generally support (he`s thrown out 40% of opposing runners trying to steal in his career), and his ability to work with pitchers. And how can we hope to measure that? With Catcher ERA?

I think it's safe to say that most people regard Catcher ERA as mostly meaningless. With good reason.

But still... a vitally important part of the game is out there, somewhere. It's obscured by fog, and you must always respect the fog. But it's out there....

Now it is true that the Blue Jays pitchers had a considerably better ERA with Jose Molina behind the plate than they did with the team's other catchers in 2010. That could easily have been random and coincidental, I agree. And so could the Yankees pitchers having a better ERA working with Molina in 2009. Just as they had done in 2008.  Now that I think of it, the Angels pitchers had a better ERA pitching to Jose Molina in 2006, and in 2005.  Granted, this didn't happen in 2004 (4.31 ERA with Jose, 4.27 with the team`s other catchers). But in the seasons before that, the Angels pitchers had a better ERA working with Jose Molina in 2003... and 2002... and 2001. Even the Cubs, in Molina`s first cup of coffee in the majors back in 1999, did better working with Molina.

The year I left out was 2007; which Molina split between two organizations, and neither pitching staff did well with him. Otherwise, the pattern runs, with admirable persistence, through his entire career.

Data Table Time!

                               G     IP      ER   ERA     PA     AB      R     H    2B   3B   HR    BB    SO  SO/BB  BAVG   OBP   SLG   OPS    TB   GDP   HBP   SB   CS    BAbip
Chicago 1999   Jose Molina    10     57      31   4.89    243    216    34     55    9    1    6    22    45   2.05  .255  .326  .389  .715    84    3    2    5    3    .301
Chicago 1999   Other Guys    186  1373.2   806   5.28   6116   5442   886   1564   268  40  215   507   935   1.84  .287  .347  .470  .817   2557  110   25   95   40    .319
Anaheim 2001   Jose Molina    15   103      47   4.11    435    391    52    102    23   2   15    37    74   2.00  .261  .328  .445  .773    174     9    3   11    8    .290
Anaheim 2001   Other Guys    180  1334.2   624   4.21   5759   5138   678   1350   262  17  153   488   873   1.79  .263  .332  .410  .741   2105  103   61   98   51    .294
Anaheim 2002   Jose Molina    29    210      70   3.00   847    754    77    162    21   1   22    69   154   2.23  .215  .285  .333  .618    251    18    8   15    9    .246
Anaheim 2002   Other Guys    157  1242.1  525   3.80   5250   4699   567   1183   227  18  147   440   845   1.92  .252  .318  .402  .720   1887   108   41   63   42    .283
Anaheim 2003   Jose Molina    53    332    149   4.04   1412   1269   166    312    52   6   41   107   221   2.07  .246  .316  .393  .709    499    30   24   18    7    .270
Anaheim 2003   Other Guys    148   1099.1   531   4.35   4749   4263   577   1132   208  21  149   379   759   2.00  .266  .330  .429  .759   1829    82   52   62   41    .296
Anaheim 2004   Jose Molina    70   524.1   251   4.31   2235   2021   265    522   120   7   77   169   431   2.55  .258  .320  .439  .759    887    28   20   23   22    .296
Anaheim 2004   Other Guys    126   930    441   4.27  4010   3596   469    954   178  16   93   333   733   2.20  .265  .329  .401  .730   1443    70   24   64   22    .315
LA Angels 2005 Jose Molina    65   480.1   195   3.65   2025   1858   210    485    87  11   56   135   408   3.02  .261  .315  .410  .725    762    32   14   19   20    .309
LA Angels 2005 Other Guys    137   984    403   3.69   4133   3735   433    934   198  20  102   308   718   2.33  .250  .311  .396  .707   1478    82   34   49   22    .288
LA Angels 2006 Jose Molina    76   603.1   267   3.98   2554   2299   296    585   123   7   61   193   499   2.59  .254  .317  .394  .711    905    44   27   27   20    .304
LA Angels 2006 Other Guys    114   852.1   385   4.07   3591   3242   436    825   177  16   97   278   665   2.39  .254  .315  .409  .724   1325    84   23   50   20    .297
LA Angels 2007 Jose Molina    40   323     165   4.60   1405   1241   178    338    64   9   37   120   281   2.34  .272  .344  .428  .772    531    41   20   18    7    .330
LA Angels 2007 Other Guys    67   513.1   224   3.93   2197   2000   243    539   109  15   38   159   420   2.64  .270  .326  .396  .722    792    46   16   40    9    .328
New York  2007 Jose Molina    29   169.1   87   4.62   728    644    93    162    41   4   22    63   149   2.37  .252  .326  .430  .756    277    13   11   13    6    .300
New York  2007 Other Guys    164  1281.1   637   4.47   5578   4942   684   1336   286  23  128   515   860   1.67  .270  .342  .415  .757   2052   138   49  123   38    .309
New York  2008 Jose Molina    97    737     302   3.69   3078   2782   325    709   143  10   58   226   617   2.73  .255  .314  .376  .690   1046    62   25   42   33    .313
New York  2008 Other Guys    98    704.2   383   4.89   3096   2765   402    769   145  15   85   263   524   1.99  .278  .344  .434  .777   1199    49   26   71   23    .321
New York  2009 Jose Molina    49    356.2   131   3.31   1479   1339   150    309   63   4   37   108   362   3.35  .231  .296  .367  .663    491    32   20   23    9    .292
New York  2009 Other Guys    150   1093.1   556   4.58   4766   4184   603   1077   211  20  144   466   898   1.93  .257  .336  .421  .757   1760    78   51  102   43    .301
Toronto   2010 Jose Molina    56    444.2   184   3.72   1870   1670   198    401   106  16   34   164   417   2.54  .240  .316  .384  .700    641    36   24   19   15    .303
Toronto   2010 Other Guys    120    996    492   4.45   4295   3838   530   1006   204  15  116   375   767   2.05  .262  .331  .414  .745   1588   112  36   50   20    .304
Toronto   2011 Jose Molina    41    351    176   4.51   1505   1329   188    336    77   7   40   137   313   2.28  .253  .328  .412  .739    547    32   18   24    9    .308
Toronto   2011 Other Guys    103    908.2   420   4.16   3933   3497   459    893   178  22  110   342   690   2.02  .255  .328  .413  .741   1445    79   49   72   23    .293
Career        Jose Molina   630   4691.2  2055   3.94  19816  17813  2232   4478   929  85  506  1550  3971   2.56  .251  .317  .398  .715   7095   380  216  257  168    .301
Career        Other Guys   1750  13313.2  6427   4.34  57473  51341  6967  13562  2651 258 1577  4853  9687   2.00  .264  .331  .418  .749  21460  1141  487  939  394    .303

It`s much less pronounced in some of his seasons with the Angels, where he was often sharing the job with someone who was basically a better version of himself (his brother Bengie.) Once he got to New York and then Toronto, however, the pitchers on both teams were far more successful working with Molina than they were working with Jorge Posada or John Buck. (You may suspect, and I would agree, that this particular bar was placed much lower for Molina once he stopped working for Mike Scioscia and came to the AL East.)

But  let`s pause just a second here and ask ourselves. If a coincidence persists through that many seasons, in four different organizations, is it still just a coincidence? Entirely?

Damned if I know.

As you may have noticed, this year broke the mold. Toronto has used just two catchers in 2011, and Blue Jays pitchers have posted a 4.16 ERA working with J.P. Arencibia, who's actually in the major leagues because of his bat, such as it is. They've posted a 4.51 ERA working with Molina, whose career continues because of his defensive abilities, most of which are tied up in his ability to work with pitchers. (Just to make sure nothing makes any sense, Molina has been a more productive hitter this season than Arencibia. And has it struck anyone else that J.P. Arencibia is essentially a younger and handsomer version of Rod Barajas?) ) 

Does this mean anything? Of course not. The Blue Jays have exactly one good starting pitcher. His name is Ricky Romero, and he`s posted a 2.97 ERA in 193.2 innings. The team`s other starters have combined for a rather gruesome ERA of 5.01, in 636.1 innings. So yeah - the rotation essentially consists of Ricky Romero and a bunch of stiffs.

How have Romero's innings been divided between the team's two catchers?

Like this:

Arencibia: 193.2
Molina:         0

This is among the many excellent reasons why no one believes whole-heartedly in Catcher ERA.  In the case of the 2011 Jays, almost the entire difference between the two catchers is accounted for by the fact that one guy has been the [personal catcher for the team's one good starting pitcher (exclude Romero's innings, and the figures are 4.48 for Arencibia, 4.51 for Molina...)

Did Romero pitch effectively working with Molina in 2010? You'd have to say he did OK (3.77 ERA with Molina, 3.68 with Buck) , although Romero was the only starter who was actually more effective working with John Buck.

In 2010 Shaun Marcum was somewhat more effective working with Molina (3.11) than Buck (3.43); Brett Cecil did much better with Molina (3.58) than with Buck (4.49); and Brandon Morrow essentially had Molina (3.30 ERA) as a personal catcher, which worked out rather well (8.81 ERA working with Buck.) Even Marc Rzepczynski, in limited work, did much better with Molina (4.24) than with Buck (6.52)

This season, Arencibia has been the only catcher for both Romero and Brett Cecil - Molina has yet to catch a single pitch from either lefty. As for the other starters:

Drabek was much better with Molina (4.45 ERA) than With Arencibia (6.69).

Brandon Morrow's partnership with Morrow is ending, and it doesn't seem to matter. He's got bigger problems to solve. Anyway, he's actually been slightly better in his limited work with Arencibia (4.60 ERA, 4.83 with Molina).

Jesse Litsch, Carlos Villaneueva, and Jo-Jo Reyes all had somewhat better results working with Arencibia, while Luis Perez has been much more effective (1.59 ERA) working with Molina.

Relievers are all over the map, as you might expect -  this year, two current relievers (Camp and Francisco) along with the departed Rzepczynski have clearly done better with Molina. Janssen, especially, and Rauch have been more effective with Arencibia (as were Frasor and Dotel),. Last season, Downs, Frasor, and Gregg had better results working with Buck, while Janssen, Purcey and Camp were more effective pitching to Molina.

(I have contrived a Data Table for all of this, posted separately below.)

Too Many Molinas? I Think Not... | 13 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
acepinball - Monday, September 05 2011 @ 03:16 AM EDT (#243177) #

Great read Magpie.  I have really enjoyed all of the Molina's catch, and as a team policy would acquire any catcher named 'Molina'.  His role on the team is interesting with talented young catchers in the system.

RE: JPA, agree he's basically a better Rod Barajas right now.  But it's hard to remember that he's in his first full season.  I expect him to get improve on his rookie season.  He's already a 20HR hitter, can you project that to 30? 35?  Can he make better contact than a .220 average?  If he can improve to be even .260, he starts to compare more with Troy Glaus from the 2000's Angels than Bengie and Jose Molina.

He's a good hitting catcher who has a strong arm and has improved his receiving in the last two years.  That's valuable to any team in the MLB. 

Begs the question: When/If d'Arnaud proves to be better, what do you do with JPA?  (Carry 3 catchers and DH JP)  What kind of return could you get in a trade?  How much better can you expect d'Arnaud to be?

scottt - Monday, September 05 2011 @ 07:19 AM EDT (#243178) #
The most important aspect of Molina in 2011 is being a type B.
wdc - Monday, September 05 2011 @ 07:19 AM EDT (#243179) #
An excellent article, Magpie.  Thank you for all the work and the thought that went into this article.  It made me wonder how the catcher for my boyhood hero, Bob Gibson, would have fared in your analysis.  I am speaking, of course, about Tim McCarver.  It made me also wonder whether some types of pitchers are in more of a need for a Molina type catcher than others.  And what is it about those pitchers that they do better with someone like Molina. Gaston was not a catcher or a pitcher, but he seemed to understand these points.  What about Farrell, a former pitcher?  How would he see these things?
Dave Till - Monday, September 05 2011 @ 08:08 AM EDT (#243180) #
Great article!

From what I have seen of both Jose and Bengie, Jose is significantly faster than Bengie. That's not saying much, though - Bengie is the slowest runner I have ever seen. I am 51 years old, with slightly cranky knees, and I have never been any kind of an athlete, but I am reasonably certain I could outrun Bengie.

I seem to recall reading that Earl Weaver wanted his pitchers to call their own games. In his system, the catcher's job was just to catch the ball. They weren't "executive receiving engineers".

Dave Till - Monday, September 05 2011 @ 09:57 AM EDT (#243181) #
I had to mention this somewhere: sources report that Dustin McGowan has been activated off of the 60-day disabled list.

Is there any Blue Jays fan anywhere who isn't rooting for him? What an amazing story.

Magpie - Monday, September 05 2011 @ 11:42 AM EDT (#243188) #
starts to compare more with Troy Glaus from the 2000's Angels

Easy now!

I agree that Arencibia is still young enough to develop beyond the Barajas level, but Troy Glaus didn't just hit 40 HRs twice for those Angels teams (which Arencibia is extremely unlikely to match); Glaus also drew more than 100 walks twice. I'll be happy enough if Arencibia can improve his discipline enough that he can draw 100 walks in two seasons.
Magpie - Monday, September 05 2011 @ 12:00 PM EDT (#243189) #
What about Farrell, a former pitcher? How would he see these things?

It's too soon to tell. We never know how much credit or blame to assign to the manager or the pitching coach in these situations anyway (I think we tend to give far too much credit to the pitching coach myself.) It's something I've been worrying about for a while. Just as one of the happy stories of 2010 was the development of the young pitchers, one of the grim realities of 2011 has been the step backward many of those same pitchers have taken. With the same pitching coach. Not every manager has the right touch when it comes to turning young arms into major league pitchers, and Farrell is succeeding someone who was really, really good at it.

But it's still too soon to tell. As a pitching coach, Farrell worked with a couple of young pitchers who developed into excellent starters (Lester, Buchholz), although some of that credit for their development must also go to Terry Francona as well. And besides - this is simply what young pitchers quite often do. Break your heart, basically.
bpoz - Monday, September 05 2011 @ 12:22 PM EDT (#243190) #
Very well done article Magpie.

Scottt is right about the value of Molina's Type B status. He is cheap enough to easily get that pick.

So Jeroloman being up here makes a lot of sense now.
92-93 - Monday, September 05 2011 @ 01:16 PM EDT (#243195) #
Excellent piece, Magpie. I always thought Gregg Zaun was particularly strong on defense in all aspects of catching except for throwing runners out, the one that often sticks out most in fans' minds.
Magpie - Monday, September 05 2011 @ 01:51 PM EDT (#243196) #
Bengie is the slowest runner I have ever seen. I am 51 years old, with slightly cranky knees, and I have never been any kind of an athlete, but I am reasonably certain I could outrun Bengie.

Oh, I have no doubt whatsoever.

I will always remember a game at the Dome against Washington. Bengie came up and lined a ball into the right field corner. Guillen was playing him well into right-centre, so he to run for days and days to get to the ball. A guy like Lawrie would have coasted gently into third base, but we knew Bengie would have to settle for a double.

But Guillen ran into the corner, retrieved the ball, threw to second - and Molina was out by five or six feet feet. Just incredible. He hadn't fallen down, he hadn't failed to run it out. This was really as fast as he could go. Such an unusual thing to see in a major league game.
scottt - Monday, September 05 2011 @ 03:22 PM EDT (#243200) #
It's probably not fair to compare Arencibia and Glaus in absolute numbers. I expect one to have a lot more plate appearances than the other.
Magpie - Monday, September 05 2011 @ 05:27 PM EDT (#243208) #
I expect one to have a lot more plate appearances than the other.

True, but one guy had genuine on-base skills and the other doesn't. Arencibia's walked 30 times in more than 400 plate appearances this season. Glaus was capable of walking 25 times in one month...
mathesond - Monday, September 05 2011 @ 09:08 PM EDT (#243224) #
"I will always remember a game at the Dome against Washington"

I think I was at that game! I remember seeing the ball rifled into the corner and turning to my friends to say something along the lines of "solid single, he doesn't have the wheels for a double". As soon as he chugged past first I started groaning, and sure enough, out by a mile.
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