PORT CHARLOTTE, FL. – Here we go, Jeff. Get this pitch lower. Get this pitch down.
The voice behind the mask was stern and assertive.
Rays 6-foot-9 starter Jeff Niemann nodded and followed directions, hurling a fastball into the mitt of Jose Molina down around the area where a batter’s knees would be.
After the 40-pitch session on Tuesday, the first workout for pitchers and catchers, Niemann approached Molina with the two meeting in the middle of the mound area at the Charlotte Sports Park – next to the other six pitchers and catchers going through their routines – where the 36-year-old native of Bayamon, Puerto Rico held a coaching session of sorts with the 28-year-old native of Houston, Texas.
|Newly-acquired catcher Jose Molina talks to starting pitcher Jeff Niemann during a bullpen session on the opening day of Rays' camp. |
"It was great for him to see me and to get an initial impression and we immediately had a rapport with each other," Niemann said. "He talked about pitch selection and keeping the ball low with my fastball. It sets up everything else. He’s going to be a huge factor in helping all of us because of how good a catcher he is. With a guy like that, it will be a lot easier to trust him and what he says than it would with a young guy."
This scene duplicated an earlier back-and-forth the newly-acquired catcher had with highly-regarded reliever Matt Bush.
"It’s pretty awesome that he can pick up on little things really quickly like with my arm slot and making sure that I’m on top of the ball and getting to the knees,” said Bush, who is a top prospect in the organization. "He kind of mentioned to me in the end there - when I dropped down just a hair - that the ball tends to rise some and you don’t want that. He wants his guys to keep the ball down at the knees. I think it was very cool that it was my first ‘pen and I got to throw to a guy that’s been around and seen every pitcher. The way he receives the ball, you can just tell that he’s been doing it for his whole life."
By now, the baseball world knows of Molina, more so because of the brotherly-connection with Bengie and Yadier and the collective post-season success (five World Series rings between them). Recently, though, the one known as J-Mo received a bit more acclaim with the publication of an article written by Max Marchi on Baseball Prospectus in which Marchi makes the claim – after crunching numbers with Pitchf/x data – that Molina is the third-best catcher in framing pitches since 2008.
According to Marchi’s analysis, Molina has saved 62.8 runs with his ability to frame pitches over this period with the Braves’ Brian McCann (79.3) and the Yankees’ Russell Martin (70.0) as the only catchers excelling in this area. While McCann (138.5) and Martin (130) have both averaged well over 100 games a season since 2008, Molina has played in just 66 games each year.
The numbers don't lie in this case. But Molina's true value is how good of a battery-mate he is.
"He’ll have a big impact on the starting staff and I’m sure the relievers as well," said James Shields, who had a career-best 2.84 ERA in 2011. "I'm not really sure about the game calling, because I haven't thrown to him yet. From what I have heard from other players on other teams and stuff, his game calling is superb. From what I've seen on the other side, his receiving has been unreal. He gets strikes that might not be strikes on a normal basis for other catchers. He's a veteran catcher man. He knows how to catch. Anytime you put a Molina back there, you should be in good business."
Molina could catch more innings than in the past and he could also add to the efficiency of the starters based on this information, but both of these criteria are obviously still to be determined and Joe Maddon indicated today that he is not going to push it with Molina this season.
"I don't think you want to push him much further than that because you don't want to break the guy. I would say that's a legitimate number, right around 80 to 90 games," said Maddon about Molina who has never played in more than 100 games in a season."
"He's played on some pretty good teams, caught some pretty good pitchers. I know how he operates. I know how much pride he takes in what he does back there. ... One thing about him, even back in the day, he always wanted to be considered more of a regular, everyday player as opposed to a backup."
One thing that has become very clear about Molina though, is his innate ability to positively affect the players he interacts with.
"Last year, when I was up, when we were playing against the Blue Jays at home, and I was having trouble throwing to second base, he gave advice and it helped me when I went down to Durham," said Robinson Chirinos, who is competing for a back-up spot after playing in 20 games with the Rays last season. "It was let the ball travel, catch it a little bit deeper. Don’t worry about getting up and the transfer of the ball. If you catch it deep, you don’t have to worry about transferring the ball. When I saw the news that we signed him, I was so happy that I was going to be around him. We’re lucky. From a guy like him, you can just take something from him to get better."
Molina, who has played for five teams over his 13-year career, looks forward to working with each of the starters over the next 10 days before the first Spring Training game against the Twins on March 3.
"Some guys are quick, some guys it takes a little bit of time, but that’s what Spring Training is for," Molina said when asked how quickly it would take him to gel with the pitchers. "The spring is to get after those things, to work with them, regarding what they like to do, what they like and where they want me behind the plate. Some guys want the catcher to be more in the middle of the plate. Some guys want the catcher in the corner, so I think just talking to them will be a good beginning."
|Molina signing autographs for fans during 2012 Rays Fan Fest at Tropicana Field. |
It is apparent the conversations have already played huge dividends.
"I could definitely tell,” Bush said when asked about if Molina frames pitches well. "His body position and the way he kind of surrounds the plate - even though he’s setting up away - it’s almost like even if you don’t hit that spot you can tell that you’re going to get calls because of the way he positions himself. Where he wants the ball - if you hit it there - his glove doesn’t move. You can definitely tell that he has been doing it for a very long time."
Shields, who had a Major League-high 11 complete games with a team-high four shutouts, said Molina will even be advantageous in putting the clamps on a former teammate.
"I know Carl Crawford - when he was here - he didn't like stealing off him and he doesn't say that very often," Shields said. "He's a big guy back there. He's a good target. He gets low. You want a guy back there that has a good target. He's a big target back there and knows how to catch. He throws out runners with the best of them. He shuts down the running game. The way that our pitching staff controls the running game, between us and him, I think we're going to be ok."
Based in St. Petersburg, Fla., Chris Girandola has been a sports journalist for over eight years and is currently the Rays Senior Writer for RaysDigest.com. His other writing credits include MLB.com, the Associated Press, St. Petersburg Times, Naples News, Florida Football Magazine, KentuckyBasketball Magazine, and Tampa Bay Business Journal. You can follow him on Twitter at @crgrand
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