Recently, Daniel Schoenfeld wrote a piece breaking down Yadier Molina’s case for the MVP. I would like to consider one aspect of Yadier’s defense that hasn’t been taken into account yet: his receiving. At this point, I think many people look at Buster Posey as one of the top, if not the top candidate for the NL MVP award, and since this post is about catching, lets start by comparing the WAR of the two:
Posey: 8.0 fWAR, 7.2 rWAR
Molina: 6.5 fWAR, 6.7 rWAR
As you can see, it makes a really big difference which version of WAR you opt to use. Molina ranks 4th in rWAR, and is within half a win of Posey for the lead, whereas in fWAR, he ranks 7th and is a full win and a half away from Posey (again, for the lead).
The differences between these two stats are well beyond the scope of this article, and rather than focusing on those differences, I would like to point out one thing they share in common: both rWAR and fWAR do not take a catcher’s receiving into account.
Why is a catcher’s receiving important? Hitting outcomes are often driven by count leverage. Consider league wide performances this year after the first pitch:
- AVE: .270
- OPS: .822
- tOPS+: 128
- AVE: .226
- OPS: .612
- tOPS+: 68
Whether or not that first pitch is a strike or a ball has a huge impact on the expected outcome for the batter. On average, batters performed 60% worse (in tOPS+) after a first pitch strike when compared to a first pitch ball. A catcher that frames the ball well has the ability to get close pitches called in his favor, which may alter the entire course of the at-bat.
From 2007 to 2011, we know (Thanks to Mike Fast over at Baseball Prospectus) that Molina averaged 8 runs saved (from receiving alone) per 120 games behind the plate. This year, Molina started 133 games as a catcher and caught in 3 more, so lets make it easy and bump that number up to roughly 10 runs above average. Using the approximation that 10 runs equals a win, we can expect that Molina was roughly worth an extra win for the Cardinals this year thanks to his ability to frame pitches. In 160 games from ’09-’11, Buster Posey was about 5 runs above average thanks to his receiving. I will give Posey the benefit of the doubt and say that in starting 111 games behind the dish this year he was approximately worth 5 runs or half a win to the San Francisco Giants.
Obviously, my application of Fast’s data is very rough and I offer no claims about its precision. What this quick analysis does hope to illuminate is the dramatic effect that a catcher’s ability to frame pitches could have on his WAR totals. Molina should be recognized as being more than just a great arm behind the plate. Molina started an extra 22 games behind the plate and we have good reason to believe that when he did, he received the ball better than Posey. Do those extra strikes tip the scale in Molina’s favor? It is hard to say, but there is a good chance that the gap between the two may be narrower than just a cursory glance at WAR may lead us to believe.