Your Newest Texas Ranger: Bengie Molina

A first look at new Rangers catcher Bengie Molina.

In case you have a life and didn't obsessively keep up with this story yesterday (and I don't blame you if you do), the Rangers last night traded Chris Ray and a player to be named later to the Giants for catcher Bengie Molina and cash.

.257/.312/.332

That's Molina's slash line so far in 2010. There's a lot more to a player than that, and I'll get to it immediately, but I figured I'd give you the basics first if that's all you really want to know.

Here's a chart comparing Molina to what the Rangers have been getting at catcher this season. "Catcher" is the composite production from everyone who has played the position this year, not just the "Max Treanor" platoon.

 

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

wOBA

wOBAr

wRAA

DRS

WAR

Molina

221

.257

.312

.332

.284

.312

-7.4

-1

0.3

Treanor

182

.237

.315

.378

.308

.329

-3.2

-1

0.6

Ramirez

82

.227

.354

.364

.327

.318

-0.2

-2

0.2

Catcher

299

.215

.313

.339

.296

N/A

-9.1

-3

0.5

Keep in mind that San Francisco is a very suppressive park for hitters, but the last four columns are park-neutral.

What you'll immediately notice is, by these measures, this wouldn't have been an upgrade for the Rangers so far on the year. By all the best objective evidence we've got, the Rangers would be just about exactly where they are with Molina all year. Treanor, however, has been at least twice as productive here as Molina this season, despite his actual wOBA being 21 points behind where it should be given his batted ball rates.

And while Molina has a better track record, the horrible offense here isn't necessarily a fluke. Other than a slight uptick in 2008, Molina's offensive production has been in a pretty steady decline every year since his 2006 season with the Blue Jays. Some of that is the ballpark, but most of that is just declining skills. It fell to the point where his production last season was right in line with where Treanor has been this year (.309 wOBA), before yet another decline so far through 2010.

However, the Rangers are, I've come to assume, a smart team. And I'm sure they're aware of this and have a good reason for making the trade.

One possibility lies in there being some hope for Molina's offense going forward. For one, as you'll see, his regressed wOBA is right in line with what Ramirez has put up, meaning there's a good bet switching out the two, at the very least, won't result in a loss of offense. Molina's 6.3% walk rate is up from his career average and way up from his San Francisco performances. There's nothing remarkably different in his line drive, ground ball or fly ball rates. He has been a little more selective than in recent seasons, swinging at just 35.3% of pitches out of the strike zone, his lowest since 2007. And he's also making contact at a much better rate than he ever has before (84.8% vs. a 75.8% career).

The biggest culprit of his decline is also, encouragingly, one of the few areas of offense that could still be considered subject to a small sample size this deep in the season: his power. Molina's .074 ISO is barely better than half his career average and way below what he put forth just last season (.177). His 3.7% HR/FB rate is also way down from last year (8.8%) and his career average (8.5%). It could be a total loss of power, but if it's not, there is a very legitimate reason to think Molina can be a better offensive weapon going forward than Ramirez, maybe even Treanor.

If Molina and Treanor become the same platoon Treanor/Ramirez was, this would all suggest the Rangers are probably no better or worse going forward if nothing much changes. ZiPS, as one form of projection, feels Molina being roughly a one-run downgrade from Ramirez going forward. Given a more established track record, the upside offensively may just outweigh the downside.

And I assume it will be a Molina/Treanor platoon. Treanor has played better than Molina has in a while, and there's not much suggestion it's a facade. Until he shows some hard regression that probably should not be expected, Treanor probably deserves at least half of the playing time.

The likelihood from this evidence is still a pretty small gain at most, though, so why make a move? It's probably due to something we can't produce strong evidence for: defense. Defensive metrics have gotten most of the way to telling us what's happening when the ball goes in play, but they haven't gotten all the way. At least for most position players. For catchers, how much they produce with their glove and game calling is still a very nebulous science.

With perhaps a sixth sense for timeliness, Beyond the Boxscore just covered this Tuesday. They've got Molina's defense at 2.4 runs below average this year. That's 0.4 runs behind Ramirez, but at a better rate. Treanor has been at +1.6. Even then, though, this is merely the best evidence we have, not necessarily strong evidence. And it doesn't even cover something like pitch framing, which another Beyond the Boxscore post suggested might be even more important than conventional wisdom holds.

We as fans just don't know much about the value of what catchers do when they're not hitting. That makes arguing for or against this trade extremely difficult, and it becomes a matter of faith. Faith that the front office is confident they know something that we do not about how important Bengie Molina's skills behind the plate are for this team going forward. Fortunately, the difference in offense between Ramirez and Molina is likely not so large that they can't take that risk.

As long as the player to be named later is someone no one cares about, not much is lost, and the gain may just be huge. There's been talk before that the organization just does not trust Ramirez at catcher, and they have more information than we do. It may make for a weak argument, but just because we can't prove it does not mean they're wrong.

It's sad to see a prospect seemingly rise from the ashes and play well, only to then lose his job. It's head scratching when the team seemingly makes a move for no reason, and it would be nice to give a strong and reliable projection for how much of a difference better pitch calling and framing will make going forward. And it's difficult to put your faith in something you can't objectively verify on your own.  But just because we can't verify it doesn't mean it's not there. At the very least, if what we see is very little change, then we can probably afford to give the team that's delivered 47 great wins the benefit of the doubt and wait on screaming at the front office.

And, yes, I should take my own advice.

 

Glossary: wOBA, WAR, DRS, ZiPS

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