The Tampa Bay Rays had one problem. Over the last two years, they gave the bulk of their starts behind the plate to Kelly Shoppach and John Jaso. Shoppach is currently a free agent, as the Rays declined his 2012 option, and Jaso was just traded to the Seattle Mariners on Sunday for Josh Lueke, who is very much not a catcher.
The Tampa Bay Rays had another problem. Without Shoppach and Jaso, their 40-man roster was left with Robinson Chirinos and Jose Lobaton as the best catchers, and neither of them seems ready to assume a major load.
And the Tampa Bay Rays had another problem still. They're the Tampa Bay Rays. They don't spend a lot of money. They can't spend a lot of money, at least relative to the rest of Major League Baseball. They can spend a lot of money, relative to me, and probably you, unless you are filthy rich. But when it came to finding another backstop, the Rays would be working with a tight budget.
Enter Jose Molina. Monday, the Rays signed the free agent catcher to a one-year contract worth $1.8 million. The deal was actually rumored for a couple weeks, but Monday it became official. The expectation is that Molina and Lobaton will split time.
This deal hasn't exactly grabbed major headlines. Nor would you expect it to. Molina is 36 years old. He's played 666 games over a 12-year big league career. He's never batted 300 times in a season. Molina is an aging career backup with an underwhelming bat, and the move has drawn a corresponding response.
But the Rays might have something, here. They might really have something. I'll explain, using somebody else's hard work.
Look beyond Molina's bat. Yes, Molina just hit .281 with a 103 OPS+ last season with the Blue Jays, but that isn't representative of his ability. Molina has a career 66 OPS+, and a 69 OPS+ over the last four years. Molina is a pretty poor hitter who fluked his way into a pretty good season.
Look beyond Molina's footwork. Molina has an outstanding defensive reputation, but that isn't because he's amazing at blocking balls. He's actually been a little below-average in that regard.
Look beyond Molina's arm. Molina has a fantastic throwing arm. He's gunned down 40 percent of would-be base-stealers in his career. His arm is an undeniable asset, but its impact is fairly small overall, on the order of a few runs a year.
Look at Molina's ability to receive. By which I mean read Mike Fast's impressive study on pitch-framing from September 24. Seriously, read it. Take the time. It is incredibly well-done, and you'll learn a thing or two or three. Take the 15 minutes you were going to devote to doing the dishes and read this article instead.
In short? Fast looked at every catcher in baseball and calculated how many extra strikes and balls each got called, relative to the league average, between 2007-2011. He basically identified the catchers with the biggest and smallest strike zones, reflecting their ability to frame pitches. He found that, over his sample, Jorge Posada and Ryan Doumit were the worst receivers, when it came to getting pitches called strikes. And he found that the best, by a significant margin, was Jose Molina.
Just how good was Molina at receiving? Fast pegs him at 73 runs better than average over the five-year sample. For perspective, over the same five-year sample, Shane Victorino was 73 runs better than average at the plate, and he did that as a full-timer. Molina was a backup. Fast put him at +35 runs per 120 games.
If that sounds unbelievable, it's because it's really hard to believe. But the methodology is sound, and Fast demonstrated in his study that there seems to be a repeatable skill, here. Even if you allow for some regression towards the average, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that Jose Molina is a tremendous pitch-framer, to the point where he's exceptionally underrated.
So underrated that he could end up being the steal of the offseason. Now, "the steal of the offseason" is a subjective thing. Plus, it remains to be seen how well Molina does, and how often he plays. And there's no metric that will ever paint Jose Molina as any kind of star. But for the price of $1.8 million, the Rays might have landed one hell of a value.
Maybe there's a flaw in Fast's study. Maybe Molina isn't nearly as good as the numbers suggest. But the Rays can't afford to throw around big money, looking instead to get value for small money. Molina's a bit of a gamble, but if the numbers are right, or mostly right, then the Rays have succeeded again in doing exactly what they need to do.