RCG Rays 2012 Season Preview: Jose Molina


I can’t believe I’m about to spend over 1000 words talking about Jose Molina‘s offense. But that’s exactly what I’m about to do.

Jose Molina has never been a starting catcher in the big leagues before. That’s no fault of his defense. Molina has always been a great defensive catcher. Baseball Prospectus had a crazy in-depth article on his defense here, but to provide some perspective based on stats we can actually understand, for his career Molina has a .993 Fld% compared to the .991 league average, a 40% caught stealing percentage compared to the 29% league average, and .009 passed balls allowed per inning compared to the league average of .007 (that’s one of Molina’s defensive stats that has trended in the wrong direction in recent years). He’s not perfect, but he calls a good game, frames pitches well (see the link above) and he will give the Rays a dependable defensive catcher.

But what about’s Molina’s offensive ability? For his entire 12-year MLB career, Molina has posted a -0.3 offensive wins above replacement, meaning his offensive production has cost his teams slightly. Just one year of his career has Molina been worth even 0.5 WAR from his offense in a season: 2011. In 2011 for the Blue Jays, Molina posted a .281/.342/.415 line with 12 doubles, 1 triple (which was a go-ahead triple against the Rays), 3 homers, 15 RBI, and even 2 stolen bases in 3 attempts. Molina actually posted a 103 OPS+ meaning he was 3% better than the league average adjusted to ballpark. For his career, Molina’s offensive numbers are much more meager. He has a .241/.286/.344 career line, worth just a 66 OPS+. But did Molina somehow make any type of significant improvement offensively in 2011?

A stat I always like to quote is line drive percentage among bate balls. Molina’s actually came in at 21%, well above the 18% league average. One problem: Molina’s career mark is actually 21%. In addition, just 7% of Molina’s flyballs were pop-ups on the infield compared to the 14% league average- but his career average is 8%. The problem for Molina in his career is that he strikes out too much without plate discipline. For his career, Molina has struck out in 20.3% of his plate appearances while walking 5.0% compared to the league averages of 17.2% and 8.7% respectively. In 2011, Molina actually struck out more, 23.0% of his PA’s, although the increased strikeout rate did come with an uptick in walk rate up to 7.9%. So why did Molina suddenly play better in 2011 if he didn’t improve both in terms of batted balls and strikeout and walk rates?

Not all line drives are created equal. There are line drive singles, line drive doubles and triples, and line drive home runs. Could Molina’s 21% line drive percentage just like his career average be hiding additional power that Molina did not possess before? Molina’s .415 SLG in 2011 and .135 ISO were his highest since 42 plate appearances in 2001. Could that have been simply a coincidence? The table below contains the BAbip (batting average on balls in play) along with percentage of plate appearances that ended in an extra-base hit for groundballs, flyballs, and line drives.

(Note: I’ve been putting down .713 for the MLB BAbip on line drives for quite a while now, but a recent correction by Baseball-Reference just moved it up to .714.)

A bunch of things stand out from this table. First off, how did Molina manage such a high BAbip (.363) compared to his career average and the league average? In order to answer that question, I singled out several of  the lurking variables for BAbip: BAbip by batted balls type, batted ball ratios, and percentage of plate appearances that ended in an extra-base hit, overall and by batted ball type. My knee-jerk reaction  to the question above would be that Molina was hitting the ball really hard, hitting 21.4% of his batted balls for line drives and 8.37% of his plate appearances ended in an extra-base hit. Let’s see if we can support that theory. Moving from left to right now, we see that Molina’s BAbip on groundballs was an incredibly high .286. But we also can justify that because he hit extra-base hits on groundballs at a ratio about double the league average and not far off from five times his career average. Let’s take that as an answer at least for right now. Moving over to flyballs, we see the same story: a higher BAbip for Molina in 2011 (.225) and also a ton more extra-base hits. But this one as a clear asterisk: when more of your flyballs go for hits, since most flyball hits are extra-base hits, your XBH% will certainly go up. And then there’s line drives where we see a clear problem. Molina’s XBH% on line drive was significantly below the league average, but nevertheless his BAbip on line drives was average (unlike his career BAbip on line drives, which was way behind at .678). That looks like a clear fluke.

Let’s investigate Molina’s BAbip on groundballs and flyballs a little more. We saw the insane spike in Molina’s XBH% on groundballs. What’s the probability that the increase was by chance alone? To remove some amount of bias (in this case luck), we’ll do a test on a similar stat to XBH%, percentage of hits for extra-bases (X/H%). Doing a one proportion z-test compared Molina’s X/H% on groundballs in 2011 (.125) to his career marks excluding 2011 (.0283), we get a p-value of .01, indicating that while not unfathomable by any stretch, it’s very unlikely that it occurred by chance alone, even in such a small sample. Doing the same test for flyballs, comparing Molina’s X/H% on flyballs in 2011 (.75) to his career mark (.63), we get a p-value of .202, indicating that while Molina’s X/H% on flyballs was a somewhat extreme value, it was still within the range of normal. So it appears that Molina hit his groundballs harder while getting lucky on flyballs. But what about his line drives?

Going by X/H%, we see that Molina’s X/H% on line drives in 2011, .25, was actually less than his career mark of .262 and the league mark of .278 in 2011. A one proportion z-test doesn’t give us anything here because the values are so close and Molina doesn’t have enough 2011 data to offset that. But intuitively, his higher BAbip on line drives despite less extra-base hits raises a red flag.

It’s relatively safe to conclude that Molina’s batted ball tendencies and therefore his ability as a hitter are the same as they have been his entire career, only luck interfered in 2011. But it could be that there at least a little something going on here. Molina’s strikekout rate of 23.0% of his plate appearances was the second-highest of his career and highest since 2004. Maybe he was swinging a little harder. We do have a fourth sample of data, Molina’s spring training stats. In spring training 3 of Molina’s 10 hits (.3) went for extra-bases, actually tied for fourth among all the Rays miniumum 20 at-bats behind Elliot Johnson, and a tie between Ben Zobrist and Oscar Salazar, and Molina was actually tied with Stephen Vogt. Molina did hit just .233, however. I think that will be the case for Molina’s 2012 season as well.

I expect Molina’s batting average and OBP to return to about his career norms in 2012, coming in at .241 and .300, while his SLG stays a little bit higher and comes in at .376. Molina is swinging harder and although that didn’t cost him points on his batting average at all in 2011, it should in 2012, especially as he plays more often. Jose Molina is not an incompetent hitter. He’ll definitely frustrate us a little more than the most of the Rays when he comes up in big spots, but he’ll also deliver some key extra-base hits that could help the Rays win a game or two. At the end of the day, Molina’s offense is gravy considering his stout defense. We’ll be happy with whatever contributions he’ll give us with the bat. But we certainly wouldn’t mind a few more extra-base hits.