The Rays have reportedly made their first foray into free agency by signing AL East stalwart Jose Molina. One of the lesser acclaimed Flying Molina Brothers, Jose, has made a living as a solid defensive catcher in mostly a backup role for the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays over the last three years. Molina will turn 37 next season so there is not much of a reason to expect his playing time to extend much beyond the 50ish amount of games that he's played the last three years, but the Rays are bringing a real weapon when it comes to shutting down the opposition's running game.
Since 2008, Jose has thrown out 39% of would be base-thieves. To put that into perspective, the Rays finished sixth worst in 2011 throwing out base runners 24% of the time. The dearly departed Kelly Shoppach led the way with a 41% caught stealing rate, but John Jaso (17%), Robinson Chirinos (9%), and Jose Lobaton (30%) combined to only nab a measely 16% this past season. That's unacceptable so the Rays seem to have filled a real weakness in what amounts to the early dawn of this free agent season.
Molina isn't just a pocket cannon as research by Mike Fast shows that Molina is also one of the craftier squatters. Fast's look at how well catcher's frame pitches had Jose Molina as the best catcher in MLB since 2007 at stealing calls for his battery. Anyone that has swung a stick knows how big it is to have a batter 1-2 instead of 2-1. Factor in that Rays pitchers like James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson must be very fine with where they are spotting their pitches and you see how important a few extra strikes are so that these guys can work off their other pitches instead of becoming predictable with the heater.
It's not all sunshine and lollipops though as Bojan Koprivica found in his research at blocking balls in the dirt. This study seems to indicate that Jose is one of the worst catchers at blocking balls in the dirt. Perhaps the silver lining to Molina coming in at 5th worst is that Kelly Shoppach (9th worst) and John Jaso (13th worst) weren't all that far behind so it's not as if there will be a tremendous drop off here. One nice thing that I've yet to find research on is that Molina should be relatively familiar with the batters of the AL East which should combine with his strong attributes to make him a valuable defensive contributor behind the dish.
All this talk about defense might lead you to surmise that Molina isn't much of a stick. You'd be right. Over the last four seasons Jose has put up a slash line of .238/.296/.343. This equates to around a .280 wOBA which means that Molina's bat has been "worth" around -34 runs over this period of time. Once again, we see that the bar really isn't that high as Rays catchers combined for a slash of .198/.280/.331 (4th worst wOBA of .274) in 2011. Another plus is that Molina is essentially coming off a career year with the bat driven by an unsustainably high BABIP this past season. Known as one of the slowest mammals on the planet you should not expect him to be legging out too many hits, but a simple Marcel projection shows that a slash of .250/.311/.365 (.296 wOBA) would leave him as an upgrade over what the Rays have received over the past several years.
He doesn't help himself much by walking, and he'll strike out a bit more than league average, but unlike Shoppach he doesn't have massive platoon splits. Molina is going to hit lefties slightly better, but by regressing his platoon splits and projecting him to have a .296 wOBA overall, we can see that you would expect him to hit lefties around a .302 wOBA and righties around .293. Shoppach was pretty good against lefties, but utterly useless against righties which led to much frustration as he was still seeing a lot of same-handers. Molina may not have the upside, but the downside is far preferable and Mr. Maddon's hands won't be tied as much.
Considering the free agent catcher market looked more like Mother Hubbard's cupboard than a well-stocked pantry it's refreshing to see the Rays strike out with a player that clearly has a lot of things to like. Especially when you consider their normal pattern of waiting out the market and signing players that look like they've already been thoroughly poked and prodded by the rest of the Goodwill shoppers. It's not flashy, but Molina would fill several needs, and afterall, substance over style is a hallmark of The Rays Way.