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Jose Molina and Called Strikes

Using a simpler method to appreciate the best pitch framer in the game.

Jose Molina gets more called strikes than any other catcher in baseball year after year.
Jose Molina gets more called strikes than any other catcher in baseball year after year.
J. Meric

Last Friday I wrote an article for The Hardball Times that I called Pre-PITCHf/x Leaderboards. Along with several other anecdotal statistical outliers, the post included a table describing which pitchers had generated the most called strikes over the past three decades. As it turns out, Mike Mussina in the final season of his career received the greatest called strike per pitch percentage of any other pitching-season since pitch-by-pitch data is available, with a phenomenal rate of over 25 percent.

Later that morning in a piece for Baseball Prospectus, Ben Lindbergh noted that 2008 was the year Jose Molina "caught all but 10 innings Mussina pitched." This is significant because in Mike Fast's groundbreaking article on catcher framing from two years ago, he estimated Molina saved more than 70 runs for his pitchers over a five year period-- making Molina far and away the best pitch-framer in baseball.

Ben then makes what I would call a remarkable discovery. He recalls a recent podcast in which Molina told ESPN's Buster Olney that it was that very same year in which he and Mussina first began developing these supremely effective framing techniques:

On a recent episode of the Baseball Tonight podcast, Buster Olney asked Molina when he started “becoming aware of framing pitches.” Molina responded:

"It was 2008. Mike Mussina and Tony Pena, with Joe Girardi, the coaches there. But mostly Tony told me that if I turned a little bit side to side, either way, either corner, I’m going to get more strikes. With Mussina, he wasn’t throwing that hard at the time. So I was always open to learning new things. We worked on it, I got a little bit better at it. And it started working. I guess it worked, right? It was 20 wins for him that year, so it just worked, and from that point on, I think I took advantage of that."

This fascinates me. Even if you don't understand the math behind generating run values from PITCHF/X data that portrays Molina as one of the most valuable secret weapons in the game, a simple look at how many called strikes Molina gets should amaze you.

For instance, I pulled all pitchers that had at least 100 batters faced with Molina in a single season since his epiphany in 2008, and then compared their called strike rates with their previous season, when Molina was not their catcher. On average these 25 pitchers saw their called strike rates increase by 1.8% with Molina.

I also compared called strike rates for Molina's pitchers with their subsequent season, and found that those pitchers on average lost 1.5 percent on their called strike rates.

Among those who improved the most: Mike Mussina and his legendary 2008 and 2012 breakout Fernando Rodney:

Best improved called strike rates with Jose Molina

# Name Year with Molina PA w/ CldStr% w/ Year without Molina PA w/o CldStr% w/o Difference
1 Burke Badenhop 2012 134 27.01% 2011 276 21.36% 5.65
2 Fernando Rodney 2012 156 21.75% 2011 150 17.31% 4.44
3 Mariano Rivera 2008 142 21.61% 2007 274 17.25% 4.36
4 Sergio Mitre 2009 120 19.69% 2010 225 15.57% 4.12
5 Ricky Romero 2010 183 19.37% 2011 917 15.41% 3.96
6 Mike Mussina 2008 776 25.17% 2007 605 21.31% 3.86

Ok, so maybe you are saying, "Big whoop, Gentile, so a pitcher increases his called strikes from 17 percent to 18.5, seems like an awfully small increase to make a stink about. So what?"

In terms of wOBA against, both groups of pitchers saw a weighted average decrease of .025 wOBA points in their season with Molina behind the plate compared to the season immediately before or after without him.

Now wait a minute, didn't you just tell us that called strikes are on the rise?

Yes, I did. Thanks for mentioning that. A few weeks ago I put together some data that demonstrated the rise in called strikes, rather than swinging strikes. Does that mean Molina is getting undeservedly celebrated due to an environment that is increasingly called-strike friendly?

Not at all.

Even after we convert called strike percentage into a "plus" metric, where we measure a catcher's called strike rate compared to the league average, Molina still emerges as an elite producer of called strikes. His 2008 season is still the most impressive by this method, and he has four seasons in the top ten over the last ten years (min 1000 BF):

Top 10 catchers in CldStr+ since 2002

# NAME Year PA CldStr% CldStr+
1 Jose Molina 2008 3078 20.5% 118.8
2 Francisco Cervelli 2011 1340 20.2% 114.5
3 Jeff Mathis 2007 2028 19.7% 114.5
4 Brian Schneider 2011 1250 20.0% 113.5
5 Doug Mirabelli 2003 1810 19.2% 112.2
6 Jose Molina 2012 2910 19.9% 111.6
7 Jose Molina 2007 2133 19.1% 111.1
8 Chris Stewart 2012 1657 19.8% 111.0
9 Yadier Molina 2004 1524 18.7% 109.9
10 Jose Molina 2009 1608 19.3% 109.8

But his 2008 still remains the best of all time:

Top 10 catchers in CldStr+ since 1988

# NAME Year PA CldStr% CldStr+
1 Jose Molina 2008 3078 20.5% 118.8
2 Ron Hassey 1990 2022 17.6% 115.4
3 Ron Hassey 1991 1109 18.0% 115.3
4 Francisco Cervelli 2011 1340 20.2% 114.5
5 Jeff Mathis 2007 2028 19.7% 114.5
6 Mike LaValliere 1994 1597 17.8% 113.7
7 Alberto Castillo 2001 1717 19.2% 113.6
8 Rich Gedman 1989 2746 17.3% 113.5
9 Brian Schneider 2011 1250 20.0% 113.5
10 Tony Pena 1994 1258 17.7% 113.0

There are some interesting names on this list (including Jose's also-exalted brother, Yadier), but my eye was immediately drawn to Francisco Cervelli, who was Jose's successor as Yankees catcher who was also under the tutelage of Tony Pena and Joe Girardi.

Of course, the quality of the pitchers is also likely play an enormous role in the amount of called strikes a catcher receives, naturally. But consider that Molina made this list in four separate seasons, with three different teams, and three different pitching staffs.

That has to be more than coincidence.

. . .

Thanks to Baseball Heat Maps and Retrosheet for the data.

James Gentile writes about baseball at Beyond the Box Score and The Hardball Times. You can follow him on twitter @JDGentile.