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:
(32 pitchers, averaged)
.267 BA allowed
(32 pitchers, averaged)
.267 BA allowed
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.