Jose Molina, Ryan Doumit and Snatching Strikes
Up until a few years ago, sabermatricians were calling for players like Jose Molina to be sent to the glue factory. Molina is old (37), can't hit even by catcher standards (his career OPS+ is 68) and runs as if he's giving both Bengie and Yadier a piggyback ride at all times. However, recent work by brilliant researchers like Mike Fast has validated Jose's reputation as a master pitch-framer. There's a reason the Rays play Molina: he snatches enough extra strikes to make up for his slack bat.
Players like Ryan Doumit, on the other hand, have been hurt by the progress made in quantifying catcher defense. Doumit has always carried a poor defensive reputation -- they didn't call him "No Mitt" in Pittsburgh for nothing -- but we now have a better idea of just how much his glove nullifies his offensive advantage (108 career OPS+) over other backstops.
Now, Baseball Analytics has new catcher heat maps that help us visualize the difference in getting called strikes between the Molinas and Doumits of the word. Where does Molina get those extra strikes? Where does Doumit fall short? Here are their called strike rate heat maps since 2008:
Molina is especially adept at extending the strike zone vertically. With Doumit behind the dish, pitchers practically have to locate belt-high to get a guaranteed call (if the pitch isn't knocked into orbit, that is). Overall, 10.2% of pitches taken by hitters outside of the strike zone were called strikes over the past five seasons. Molina had the highest called strike rate on should-be balls (13.7%) over that time frame (minimum 10,000 pitches caught), while Doumit finished second-to-last (8%). The MLB average called strike rate on pitches thrown inside the strike zone was 77.8%. Molina had the sixth-highest rate among backstops (82.5%). Doumit? Dead last, at 70.4%.
Granted, catchers are not soley responsible for a pitch being called a ball or a strike. The type of pitch thrown, handedness of the pitcher and hitter, and the zone of the ump behind the plate that night are some of the other factors that influence balls and strikes. But over the course of many seasons and thousands of pitches, stark differences emerge among the best and worst catchers when it comes to stealing strikes on pitches thrown off the plate and getting strikes on pitches thrown over the plate. Here are the leaders and laggards in called strike rates among catchers over the past five years:
Highest called strike rate on pitches located outside of the strike zone, 2008-12 (minimum 10,000 P caught)
Highest called strike rate on pitches located inside of the strike zone, 2008-12 (minimum 10,000 P caught)