Report: Tampa Bay Rays Sign Jose Molina; Question: Why?

TORONTO, CANADA - SEPTEMBER 05: Jason Varitek #33 of the Boston Red Sox bats in front of catcher Jose Molina #8 of the Toronto Blue Jays and Home Plate Umpire Mike Estabrook during MLB game action September 5, 2011 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Brad White/Getty Images)

After the Rays reportedly signed Jose Molina to a one-year deal, people have begun asking: "Are the Rays running out of options at catcher?" Well, they dumb.

Rumor has it, the Tampa Bay Rays have signed catcher Jose Molina to be, presumably, their backup catcher behind John Jaso. Jon Hanford is saying it is a 1-year deal with an option (likely a team option; the Rays love team options). DRB was the first to report it, to my knowledge, but they won't be the first to try to explain it though.

Jose Molina sports a disgusting .241/.286/.344 slash in his 12-year career. He is the 13th worst hitter of the 98 catchers with 800 PAs since 1999. He's an epicly bad hitter. That is fact.

In 2011, he actually had a near-career-year with the bat, hitting .281/.342/.415 and three homers with the Toronto Blue Jays. But expecting anything from Jose but hitting frustration is crazy. The man is a verified liability as a hitter.

Against right handed pitchers, Molina has hit .234/.279/.328 on his career -- good for 41% below league average (using wRC+). Facing lefties, he has hit a less terrible .254/.301/.377 (25% below league average), so presumably the Rays would benefit from platooning him with left-handed John Jaso,  but Jaso has hit .188/.330/.275 (or 20% below league average) against lefties - and Jaso is a lefty!

So, look, there's no way to sugar this turd: Jose Molina cannot hit. He knows it. The Rays know it. The league knows it.

But what Molina can do: Frame some pitches and play some defense. And play it well.

The Rays Method, for years now, has been to take advantage of cheap players who field exceptionally well. Year after year, the Rays lead the league or live near the top in all advanced fielding stats and in run prevention. They shift their outfielders and infielders more -- far more -- than any other team, and they find cheap guys -- like Gabe Gross in 2008 -- who field exceptionally and hit, eh, they hit kinda.

Molina fits that category, and -- like Gross -- he will not be expected to play every day. At age 37, Molina will likely only get 200 or so plate appearances, starting against tough lefties and coming in as a defensive replacement.

Which is fine, because, I repeat, Molina can play some series defense. Earlier this year, Mike Fast of Baseball Prospectus executed some phenomenal research in which he determined Molina was unrivaled in framing pitches. Fast's research indicated that from 2007 through 2011, Jose Molina saved 73 runs for his teams -- just through framing alone!

Per 120 games, Molina saved his teams 35 runs. The next closest was Jonathon Lucroy, who saved 25 runs per 120 games. No one else was above 20.

In a single season, 35 runs is worth almost 3.5 victories. Tack on the fact that extra called strikes means fewer pitches thrown, which means more innings pitched by starters, which means better-rested bullpens.

Look at Molina's strikezone according to Fast:

Molina_2011_lhb_called_pitches_medium

From Fast's article:

Compare Molina and [Ryan] Doumit’s movements in the following pitch animations. Despite Doumit’s solid stance and subtle glove movement, he dropped his head to follow the pitch into his glove and he hunched down slightly, as if he were trying to coax the ball carefully into his glove. Molina’s head stayed mostly stable as he received the pitch.

20110521_molina_bogusevic_medium

20110521_doumit_avila_medium

Molina has a gift. There is no one like him in the majors right now -- and because of that, he's dirt cheap and pretty much only like three other teams even realize he is. He is exceptional:

Molina_plot_medium
Again from Mike's article.

Altogether, Molina could be worth 3.0 to 4.0 wins -- even if he's unable to hit oxygen with his bat. Last year, John Jaso and Kelly Shoppach -- neither of them defensively above average -- combined for 1.6 wins of value (according to FanGraphs WAR).

Suddenly, the catching situation looks less like a tutor-tutee relationship between Molina and Jaso, but more of a possible legit competition for playing time.

Jaso is coming off a bad offensive season, and his defense is so ugly he needs good offensive seasons. Were near-prospects Robinson Chirinos and Jose Lobaton not on the cusp of the majors, one could reasonably expect Molina would earn full-time PAs if Jaso gets hurt or remains ineffective.

Don't listen to the oxygen suckers who will spout on about how the Rays are desperate and obviously couldn't afford anything better.

The Rays aren't desperate. They're brilliant.

And Jose Molina is special.

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