*Yadier Molina: Appreciating the quantifiable and the unknown

Is he daydreaming about running very fast? - Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

Yadier Molina is one of baseball's best players. While advanced statistics in recent years have a come a long way in helping determine a player's value, catcher defense has lagged behind. New studies are showing how valuable catchers can be behind the plate.

Albert Pujols. Adrian Gonzalez. Carlos Gonzalez. Freddie Freeman. Chase Headley. Those are the five hitters who are directly behind Yadier Molina's 133 wRC+ over the past three seasons with at least 1500 plate appearances. Molina is ahead of those players without blocking a single pitch, without throwing out a single runner, and without turning a would-be ball into a strike. In hitting alone, Molina is elite. His hitting is relatively easy to quantify, but Molina does not just hit.

Twenty-thousand times a season, with his eyes on the hitter, baserunner, and pitcher, Molina crouches behind the plate and demands a pitch be thrown. The pitch he selected based on his understanding of the hitter, the pitcher, and the situation. Much of what he does is quantifiable. Great work has been done in an attempt to determine just how many runs Molina saves through blocking, throwing, and framing strikes.

Fangraphs includes blocking and throwing in its component of WAR, but it does not include framing. The most recent work on framing was recently put out at Baseball Prospectus. Harry Pavlidis and Dan Brooks published their work on framing, attempting to quantify how many runs catchers saved through turning balls to strikes. They created a probable strike zone depending on count and the type of pitch thrown. They then weighted the importance of the pitch to determine the value of turning a ball into a strike i.e. a strike is more valuable on a 3-2 count than a 1-1 count. After that work was done, they attributed some of the value to the pitcher as some pitchers were better at getting strikes than others. Interestingly, this portion of the analysis hurt Molina.

The largest gross beneficiary of easy-to-frame pitchers was-Yadier Molina. The perennial gold glove winner started the analysis with 127 runs added before giving 60 back to his pitchers. This reflects the command contributions of teammates of the class of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright and is no knock on Molina, who still ranks high overall.

While Molina did not earn the most runs through framing from 2008-2013 (Brian McCann), he did indeed rank very high with 62 framing runs including 24 in the past two seasons alone. This past weekend, at Monti's in Chicago for a Baseball Prospectus meet and greet, I had the opportunity to talk with Harry Pavlidis about how they came up with the final part of the analysis that ended up costing Molina so many runs. He indicated they were very confident in their methods and were able to cross their numbers with other analyses which ensured they processed the information correctly. However, he did state that in a case like Molina's, it is possible that at the extremes of the pitcher-catcher credit model, Molina may be a little bit better than he's given credit for. Baseball Prospectus' blocking statistics also give Molina very high marks, crediting him with another 25 runs over the past two seasons. Scouts, fans, statistical analysis all agree that Molina is fantastic behind the plate.

And then there's this:

"It's almost like he can look right into a hitter's soul," Miller said Wednesday after making his first spring start. "And Yadier knows what to do with that. He stares at the hitter, and you can see him thinking. ‘What pitch can't you hit right now.' And if he calls the pitch, then you know that's got to be the one. You throw it, and it works. He's thinking the entire game. He's aware of everything that's going on.

That quote is from Bernie Miklasz's excellent piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Molina, and exactly what the quote means is impossible to quantify. If a hitter is slightly bothered by Molina peering into his soul, that is worth something. If his pitcher thinks Molina is gaining an advantage through a staredown, that is worth something. If a pitcher gets more confidence because he believes that Molina will call a pitch that will get the batter out, that is worth something. What is it worth? I would like to know, but I have no idea. I am not going to pretend to claim I do, and I hope nobody else would either.

Part of what makes baseball great is the combination of the known and unknown. An important part of sabermetrics is in the knowing. Taking information to understand the past and make informed decisions about the future. The less publicized part of sabermetrics is recognizing what we don't know. Knowing a player hits a home run in just one out of every 372 plate appearances and seeing him hit one to force a game six in the playoffs is not a knock on sabermetrics. Knowing a team has just a 4.1% chance of making and epic comeback in the ninth inning to win Game 6 of the World Series and watching them do it anyway does not diminish the statistics that surround baseball. Embrace what you know, and be excited about what you don't. Watching Yadier Molina makes that a very easy task.

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