Jose Molina and the art of framing
Rays catcher Jose Molina is pretty special, largely because of his ability to frame pitches.
One of the most engaging recent trends in advanced baseball analysis is the deep study of a catcher's ability to frame pitches for strikes (or, on the other, less-skilled end of the continuum, unwittingly turn strikes into balls). This is absolutely a native skill. And considering that the majority of pitches aren't swung at, it's an important skill.
Almost anyone who has probed this facet of the game has concluded that Jose Molina is rather comfortably the best "framer" in the game today. (Dan Turkenkopf of Beyond the Boxscore, Max Marchi of the Hardball Times and Mike Fast of Baseball Prospectus all deserve recognition for their pioneering efforts in this area.) Estimates will vary on how many runs Molina saves in a typical year via his framing techniques, but there's little doubt that he does make a big difference.
To hear Molina tell it, his skills in this regard trace back to 2008, when he was a member of the Yankees. That year, Tony Pena, a longtime major-league catcher and then a member of the Yankee coaching staff, advised Molina to work angles on borderline pitches. And so Molina, master framer, was born.
Of course, it took more than pointers from Pena to make Molina into the framer that he's become. It also took a foundation of skills on Molina's part. The secret to Molina's success has much to do with his unusual ability to remain still when framing a pitch. To put a finer point on that, let's take a look at a couple of representative GIFs from the current season.
The first one, from earlier this week, comes to us courtesy of Robert J. Baumann of NotGraphs ...
In this instance, we see Molina deftly pulling back an Alex Cobb two-seamer that, thanks to some healthy glove-side run, was in reality several inches off the outside corner. Called strike. Note that Molina's body is exceptionally quiet expect for that lateral arm movement that brings the ball back in the zone. Further, note that this GIF is slowed down quite a bit, so you can imagine how quickly and almost imperceptibly that Molina repositions the pitch in real time.
As well, Molina doesn't get greedy -- i.e., he doesn't try to frame in the middle of zone, which would likely be too obvious; rather, he wisely puts the pitch on the black. That's good enough for the home-plate ump, and it's a modest enough change to allow Molina's deception to remain, well, deceptive.
Now, let's take a look at this frame job from last week, captured for posterity by Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus ...
This time around, we see a bit of a different challenge for Molina. It's a 96-mph four-seamer from Fernando Rodney -- high and inside to the right-handed batter (Nolan Reimold, in this instance) -- and it requires Molina to keep his receiving elbow perpendicular to the ground.
What's the same? The utter stillness of Molina's body and the zipper-quick movement of his mitt to frame the pitch. As Lindbergh notes, Molina doesn't crouch as deeply for this pitch (since he knows it's going to be up), which eliminates any need to stab upward at the ball, which, in turn, keeps the reception of the pitch from being any "busier" than it needs to be. Once again, he teases out a called strike on a pitch that was a ball.
So, how do you frame pitches the Jose Molina way? Have a quick mitt, correctly position yourself before the pitch and have an uncommon ability to remain utterly still from release point until ball smacks mitt -- even when the pitcher misses his spot. No one today does it any better, and that's why Molina's services remain in demand despite his not providing much in the way of offensive production.