Back on May 4th, Rob Arthur, a baseball columnist for Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight, wrote a pretty damning article about the seven-time Gold Glove award winning catcher of the St. Louis Cardinals titled "Yadier Molina Forgot How to Frame a Pitch." While Arthur backed up his criticisms with statistics, early May seemed pretty early to arrive at such a clear-cut conclusion, even if he later responded to questions regarding stabilization points of pitch framing. Frankly, Arthur wasted zero words in getting his primary point across to his readers:
Yadier Molina is falling apart. It’s not his hitting, and it’s not his base running. It’s too early in the season to say much that is meaningful about those skills, which can take months of stats to become reliable.
It’s the Cardinals catcher’s defense that’s a mess. Molina’s pitch framing has collapsed, dropping from third-best in 2013 to 60th in 2015. And the Cardinals are at real risk because of it.
First and foremost, what I found particularly humorous about Arthur's introductory paragraphs is the fact that the hyperlink takes inquisitive readers to an updated leader board of advanced catching metrics over at Baseball Prospectus. As stated in Arthur's piece, Molina was ranked 60th among MLB catchers in "framing runs added" at the time (through May 3rd, I presume). Well, this is something I have kept a close eye on as the season has progressed, and Molina has been on a steady ascent of this leader board. Through June 24th, Molina finds himself ranked 14th in the "framing runs added" category, which is obviously not as good as third in 2013, but is also nowhere near the "falling apart" stage.
Further, a month and a half after the publishing of Arthur's article, the Cardinals appear to be doing all right (47-24, .662 winning percentage), and the pitching staff has led the way from the very beginning with a league-leading team earned run average (ERA) of 2.69. This is all taking place despite Arthur's proclamation that the Cardinals would be at "real risk" because of Molina's newfound inability to frame pitches.
While I have zero evidence of a direct correlation between the two, I tend to think of pitchers' walk rates when it comes to pitch framing. Why? Because generally speaking, good major league pitchers, especially those on competitive teams, tend to hit their spots, but when they do miss, the pitch is usually in the vicinity of a corner, creating a situation that can either entice the batter to swing or the umpire to call a borderline strike. Well, the Cardinals' pitching staff is seventh in baseball with 2.62 walks per nine innings. Sure, a big component of this is having a pitching staff littered with good control pitchers, but as you will see in two graphs below, I strongly believe Molina plays a beneficial role as well:
Per BaseballSavant.com (through June 23rd), Molina's framing (combined with poor MLB umpiring) has helped Cardinals' pitchers gain 474 strikes on pitches that were actually outside of the league's official strike zone. On the flip side, there have been 87 pitches that were in the strike zone but called a ball. Thankfully, there has not yet been a pitch in the middle zone called a ball or I would be worried, about Molina, sure, but especially that game's home plate umpire.
For perspective, I compared Molina's "gained strikes" to those of the league's top five framers thus far according to the Baseball Prospectus leader board: Yasmani Grandal, Francisco Cervelli, Buster Posey, Jason Castro, and Tyler Flowers. On a count basis, Molina was tied for third, but since Yadi rarely takes a day off, he catches a ton of pitches, so it makes sense for him to have gained a high quantity of strikes. Thus, on a rate basis, Molina was actually second to last in this group, ahead of only Flowers of the White Sox. In terms of balls called strikes, you can barely differentiate between the six, with Posey and Flowers slightly ahead of the rest. So what does this tell us? It tells us that while Molina's framing is not where it was back in 2013, it is still extremely far from the point where the Cardinals should be worried.
What is the following statistic worth? I do not know, but what I do know is that I have always enjoyed the interesting tidbits Daren Willman (follow him) uncovers through his terrific site. This one from four days ago is no exception:
Yadier Molina has framed the most called strike 3s on pitches out of the zone this year with 68. Grandal 2nd with 59 http://t.co/l8W3ffkL2x
— Daren Willman (@darenw) June 21, 2015
In conclusion, Yadier Molina has not forgotten how to frame pitches. While framing statistics indeed stabilize quicker than most statistics, this seems like a perfect situation where it would have been wise to first wait for confirmation using a larger sample size before publishing.