Yadier Molina has made plenty of headlines lately. First, after manager Mike Matheny implied Molina looked tired, we got this Instagram post. A few days later, Yadi took to Instagram again to throw shade Matheny’s way. Then, CardsCards gave us a look at Yadi’s future Instagram posts.
It’s fair to question Molina’s online antics of late. However, what’s most important right now is that he’s producing. And he is: since the All-Star break, Yadier Molina owns a .329/.369/.532 line, good for a 136 wRC+ (36% above average). That wRC+ makes him the St. Louis Cardinals second-best hitter since the All-Star break, trailing Tommy Pham by only one percent. Yadi finally looks like a five-hole hitter.
He’s gone on another, less noticeable run lately, too. Back on July 26th, I looked at Yadier Molina’s contract extension. In that analysis, I noticed his Framing Runs Above Average (FRAA) was only at 1.3 after posting +7.1 and +9.0 FRAA in 2015 and 2016. I was a bit concerned: if Molina is a worse framer, it hurts his defensive value going forward.
Since then, however, Molina has added +2.2 runs in a span of about two weeks and eleven games. He’s up to +3.5 FRAA, which places him back in the top fifteen among all catchers. Since Molina began his career, he’s ranked in the top fifteen in all but three seasons. Two of those seasons were shortened by injury (2007 and 2014). The other was his rookie season, in which he only caught 344 innings (and missed the top fifteen by less than a tenth of a run).
With the advent of Statcast data and the talents of @cardinalsgifs, we can now look at framing another way. I calculated a “net calls gained metric” for each catcher by taking pitches classified as out of the strike zone called strikes less pitches in the zone called balls. This season, Molina’s +162 calls gained ranks fourth best in the MLB. Since 2015, Molina’s +423 calls gained ranks sixth best.
Baseball Savant generates various graphics to visualize the Statcast data. Below is Yadier Molina’s 2017 framing heatmap for pitches out of the zone called strikes…
And pitches in the zone called balls…
Since 2015 (the first year Statcast data is available), Yadier Molina has been great at getting pitches off the edges called strikes, and he’s continued to do so in 2017. This year, though, Molina has struggled to get strikes on the lower edge of the zone. This may be the result of MLB’s attempt to raise the strike zone. If I were to speculate, it could also be that Molina is struggling to keep his body low enough to present these pitches as strikes after logging more than 14,000 regular season innings behind the plate. If that’s the case, it’s hard to blame him – but it’s something to watch going forward. Yadi also struggles to get the high strike called, in line with a league-wide tendency.
Molina’s best game behind the plate in terms of net calls gained came back on July 29th against the Diamondbacks. In that game, Molina gained 15 strikes on pitches out of the zone and lost only 4 balls on pitches in the zone, giving him a game total of +11.
We all know the importance of shutting down the visiting team in the top of the first inning. We also know the importance of getting a first pitch strike. Luckily for Mike Leake, Yadier Molina was feeling it from the start in this game.
Above is the first pitch to Arizona third baseman Jake Lamb. Lamb owns a 142 career wRC+ after a first pitch ball and a 63 wRC+ after a first pitch strike. Here, Molina helps get Leake ahead on a pitch that is clearly off the outside edge. Since Molina set up exactly over the corner, he had to move the glove away from the zone to catch Leake’s fastball. Notice how Molina shifts his body to receive the pitch instead of reaching his glove back. By shifting instead of reaching, Yadi better presents the pitch to the umpire and steals a call for his pitcher.
Yadier Molina got to work again on the very next batter. With Paul Goldschmidt up, Leake threw a first pitch fastball just below the zone over the middle of the plate. Honestly, this doesn’t look like a great frame job – Molina looks like he stabs down a bit before bringing the glove back up – but it got the call this time.
I noted above that Molina lost four calls in the zone this game. Three of those called balls that crossed the plate in the zone came against Ketel Marte. The first came against Marte in the second inning. This one came in high, which gave Molina a disadvantage. If you track Molina’s glove, however, he makes a circular motion after catching the cutter. That’s poor presentation whether the pitch is high or not, and in this case Molina failed to get the call.
Entering the eighth inning, St. Louis trailed 3-1. With Daniel Descalso on first, Yadier Molina failed to get a strike call on a pitch low in the zone. Kevin Siegrist didn’t miss his spot by much if at all, but Molina had to reach down before trying to pulling back up to the zone. It gave Marte a 2-0 count, and he hit a two-run homer on the next pitch to put the game out of reach.
Pitch framing is a complicated skill. The catcher is responsible for how he presents the pitch to the umpire, but the pitcher has to give him a good pitch to frame. Additionally, the specific umpire’s tendencies ball and strike tendencies factor in. Yet, for the 133 pitchers the St. Louis Cardinals have used since 2005, Yadier Molina has been consistently great at gaining calls and adding value for his pitchers.
Photo and gif credit: @cardinalsgifs