Memorable home runs from Yankee backup catchers

Ramon Castro. That is the list of backup catchers who have a spot because they can run into one. Maybe Miguel Olivo counts, depending on his role at any given time. With very few exceptions, not only are backup catchers remarkably poor hitters, but they specifically lack pop. Francisco Cervelli might not be a remarkably poor hitter — he does have a .272 BA and .340 OBP in 434 career PA — but he certainly does lack pop. That’s why it came as such a surprise when he finished a stellar at-bat with a grand slam.

Just because backup catchers hit home runs infrequently doesn’t mean they lack gravitas. In fact, Cervelli’s homer conjured images of backup catcher home runs from recent memory. There were only five from 2008 through 2010, but three of them stuck out particularly in memory.

Jose Molina’s farewell blast: September 21, 2008 (video)

(Julie Jacobson/AP)

I can picture the scene now. In a decade or so I’ll be sitting in my recliner while my kid is sitting in the middle of the floor, looking up at the Yankees game on TV. He’ll love catchers, of course, since his old man, and his old man, and his old man before him all played the position. On this day the Yankees backup catcher will hit a home run, and I’ll pull out the trivia question: Who hit the last home run at old Yankee Stadium?

We all know the answer now, since it is such a recent memory. On Sunday, September 21, 2008, the Yankees played their final game at the old ballpark in the Bronx. Andy Pettitte took the mound; I’m fairly certain he would have gone even on two days’ rest if it meant throwing the last first pitch in the Stadium. He ran into a little trouble, as he did so frequently in the second half of 2008, allowing three runs in the first four innings. Johnny Damon helped him out with a three-run homer in the third, but he needed a little more help later on.

Robinson Cano got on to lead off the fourth, and Molina came to bat with one out. On a 2-0 count Orioles starter Chris Waters laid one out over the plate, and Molina put the bat head on it. Out it went to Monument Park in left-center, which, because of the historical occasion, was still open to fans at the time. Those fans browsing through the plaques were lucky enough to see that final home run coming right at them.

Francisco Cervelli’s motivational homer: June 24, 2009 (video)

In mid- to late-June the 2009 Yankees had some issues. They got swept by Boston, needed a dropped pop-up to win two of three against the Mets, and then lost two of three to both Washington and Florida. Things only got worse when they arrived in Atlanta, as they failed to score a run in the series opener against the Braves. That’s when Brian Cashman stepped in, flying down and talking to the team prior to that Wednesday’s game. Apparently he reached Cervelli.

Everything happened so fast. The Yankees trailed 1-0 heading into the sixth, when Brett Gardner drew a leadoff walk. Things started to look optimistic. That is, until Gardner got picked off. That ignited Joe Girardi‘s ire, and he gave the ump an earful and got tossed. Even at the time it felt like one of those ejections that managers use to fire up their teams. Who knew that it would actually work? On a 2-2 pitch Cervelli popped one out to center, fist pumping as he rounded the bases. The crazy part is that he wasn’t even the backup at that point. He was the backup to the backup; Molina was on the DL at the time.

Lost in the narrative is A-Rod‘s two-run single later in the inning that gave the Yankees the lead. But it matters little. Cervelli was the unexpected hero in that one, breaking a long scoreless streak and injecting some life into the Yankees. That game started a seven-game winning stream, and the Yankees would win 13 of their next 15.

Molina caps a huge inning with a granny: April 28, 2009 (video)

(Duane Burleson/AP)

April, 2009, was a forgettable month for the eventual World Series champions. Mark Teixeira didn’t hit. Alex Rodriguez was out recovering from hip surgery. Chien-Ming Wang got whacked around in historical fashion. This led to some up-and-down baseball, with the down coming right before a trip to Detroit. The Yankees dropped three straight to the Red Sox, and then lost the opener to Detroit, despite CC Sabathia throwing a complete game. They were then 9-10, already four games out of first.

The first six innings of the game felt like another typical listless day for the offense. They managed just four hits in that span, and didn’t score any of them. The only thing that made the game reasonably bearable was Phil Hughes‘s performance; he, too, was shutting out his opponent through six. But them came the seventh, and it was as though the Yankees had found new life.

It took an error to get things really moving, but from there the Yankees singled and walked the Tigers to death, picking up six runs in the process — the sixth of which coming on a Melky Cabrera bases loaded walk. That brought Molina to the plate, though with the game 6-0 and the bullpen ready to close this one out, no one thought much of the occasion. That is, until Molina popped the first pitch over the fence in left, capping the huge inning and sending the Yanks to an 11-0 victory. That sparked a mini streak, though it would be squashed two series later when the Yanks again ran into the Boston juggernaut.

(Fun fact: even though they didn’t score until the seventh inning, the Yankees still had more home runs in that game than they did in the entire Detroit series last week.)

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A (somewhat) informed look at Posada vs. Molina

"For the love of Mo, please let this debate end."Last week I linked to a THT article looking at the difference in pitch selection between Jorge Posada and Jose Molina whenever CC Sabathia was on the mound last year, but I wanted to see if I could dig a little deeper into this debate. I don’t claim to be any sort of statistics whiz, but I definitely know my way around a slide rule. Frankly, I’m sort of embarrassed to be posting this because I’m not 100% confident in it’s accuracy, but whatever.

Over the last three years, opponents have hit .268-.343-.420 off Yankee pitchers when Posada was behind the plate (9,345 plate appearances), compared to .248-.309-.381 when Molina caught (5,285 plate appearances). There’s no denying that’s a pretty drastic difference, and I went back far enough – Molina’s entire time in pinstripes, actually – to ensure that sample size wasn’t an issue.

Using Dave Pinto’s Lineup Analysis Tool, we know that a lineup of nine hitters with a .343 OBP and a .420 SLG would score 4.896 runs per game, while a lineup of nine .309 OBP and .381 SLG batters would score 3.915 runs per game. We’re going to normalize everything over 120 games in this post, because that’s how about how many games you’d expect your number one catcher to play in a given season. So, over 120 games, opponents would have scored 587.52 runs when Posada was catching, and 469.80 runs when Molina was behind the plate. Big difference.

American League pitchers have allowed 2,310 runs per 486 games over the last three seasons, or 570.37 over 120 games. That means Posada’s “game calling” was worth 17.15 runs below average during that time, while Molina’s was worth 100.57 runs above average. I put game calling in quotes because it’s a vague term and there are a million variables involved. In the end, it’s up to the pitcher to execute, but for our purposes we’ll hoist all of the blame/praise onto the catcher.

Okay, so right now we’re saying that Posada’s game calling is worth -17.15 runs above average while Molina’s is worth +100.57. Let’s come up with a fancy acronym for this … how about GCRAA, or Game Calling Runs Above Average? Works for me.

At Beyond The Box Score today, Dan Turkenkopf posted last year’s catcher blocking percentages, which tells you how many runs a catcher saved or cost his team with his ability to hande balls in the dirt. You can click on the link for a more detailed explanation, but Posada’s and Molina’s blocking ability was worth 4.66 and 4.30 runs below average, respectively. Those totals are already normalized to 120 games, so that’s nice and easy.

I don’t think anyone would have argued that Molina’s defense and ability to handle pitchers was better than Posada’s, however that’s just part of the equation. During the last three seasons, FanGraphs says that Posada’s offense has been worth 62.5 runs above average in 1,222 plate apperances while Molina’s has been worth a whopping 26.2 runs below average in 523 plate appearances. Normalizing both to 500 plate appearances (approximately 120 games worth), Posada’s offense is worth 25.57 runs above average, Molina’s 25.05 runs below average.

The last piece of our catching debate pie is baserunning. Since FanGraphs considers stolen bases and caught stealings in their wOBA calculation, which is in turn used to determine wRAA, we don’t need to worry about them. Instead, we can use the same EqBRR-EqSBR calculation I presented here and here to determine how each player’s non-stolen base baserunning effected the team. Over that same three year time period, Posada’s baserunning cost the team a staggering 16.81 runs while Molina’s cost them just 0.13. Such are the benefits of hitting at the bottom of the lineup I suppose, no one behind you is ripping extra base hits requiring more than station to station baseball. Normalizing both to 500 plate appearances, we get 6.88 runs below average for Posada and 0.12 runs below average for Molina.

Catcher defense is practically impossible to quantify, so I’m not even going to bother trying to figure it out. Let’s just assume it’s included in our GCRAA and Turkenkopf’s block pecentage stats, which give Molina a humongous advantage anyway. Alright, let’s sum it all up:

Posada Molina
GCRAA -17.15 +100.57
Block Percentage
-4.66 -4.30
wRAA +25.57 -25.05
EqBRR – EqSBR -6.88 -0.12
Total -3.12 +71.10

So based on everything we did above, Jorge Posada playing full time is essentially a league average player because his inability to handle pitchers and awful baserunning negates his offense. Molina, meanwhile, would have resulted in an extra 71 runs assuming equal playing time, or basically seven wins. It’s a big difference, basically the difference between Derek Jeter and Ramiro Pena last season.

Obviously, you shouldn’t consider this to be any sort of definitive proof that Molina’s ability to work with pitchers is so superior to Posada’s that it would have been worth playing him every day despite the difference in their bats. Remember, I didn’t adjust the GCRAA for league are anything like that, I just hammered out an old school back of the envelope calculation, if you know what I mean. There is certainly evidence that pitchers get better results with Molina behind the dish, I never denied that, but I’m still not convinced it’s enough to make up for the difference in offense despite everything above. I just can’t see Molina being a friggin’ seven win player because of his game calling; there has to be a way to improve GCRAA.

Maybe one of these days someone a whole lot smarter than me will take a stab at this. Mo knows we’ll deal with it again next year with Frankie Cervelli.

Photo Credit: Elise Amendola, AP

The difference between Posada and Molina’s game calling

One of the most notable and certainly most annoying storylines from last season was Jorge Posada‘s apparent inability to do anything right behind the plate. He’s slow, can’t frame pitches, can’t block a ball in the dirt, he goes out to the mound too many times, can’t do anything right, especially call a game. Just look at the stats:

Yankee pitchers with Posada catching: .264-.347-.426 against, 18.4 K%
Yankee pitchers with anyone else catching:
.234-.298-.385 against, 22.5 K%

See? That right there tells you everything you need to know about Posada’s game calling ability. [/sarcasm]

Actually, yeah there’s definitely a difference between how certain catchers call games, but you can’t tell that based on just simple observation, or Joe Girardi‘s idiotic decision to let Jose Molina catch certain pitchers (he sure helped A.J. Burnett in Game 5 of both the ALCS and World Series, right?). We now have the tools to dig deeper into this phenomenon, and Max Marchi at THT did just that.

Using PitchFX, Marchi broke down the how Posada and Molina called games for CC Sabathia last season, noting that the biggest difference is that Posada tended to rely on the big guy’s four-seam fastball while Molina favored the sinking two-seam variety. Here’s the breakdown so you can see for yourself:

CC's pitch selection by catcher, 2009

That’s the percentage of total pitches, so Posada called for 49% fastballs, 33% sliders, and 18% sinkers against lefty batters. Of course, there are many more factors in play here than just what the catcher calls for. Sabathia could shake them off, and certainly players evolve during the course of the season and may change up their patterns. Posada also caught CC’s first four outings, which were part of his customary slow start, and that probably skewed the results.

In general, a catcher’s ability to work with pitchers is over-stated. Saying a guy handles pitchers well is usually something reserved for catchers who can’t do anything else even decently, like Molina. What makes Posada so great is his bat at the most premium of positions, and moving him to designated hitter to let someone like Molina catch full time makes the team worse. A league average DH with Posada catching is greater than Posada at DH and a defensive specialist like Molina catching. It takes an awful lot of defense to make up for the complete lack of offense.

At 38-years-old, Posada’s not getting any better defensively, and chances are his offense will take a hit next season. However, the best team the Yankees can field features him starting behind the dish, even if it means sacrificing an extra 90 OPS points to the opposition. The difference in offense – 325 OPS pt advantage over Molina, for example – makes up for it.

Jose Molina and the Game 5 DH debate

With A.J. Burnett taking the mound later tonight to try to secure a Fall Classic face-off against the Phillies, his personal caddy, Jose Molina, will be behind the plate. Although the offense suffers, I’ve come to terms with this decision. After all, Burnett is sporting a 2.19 playoff ERA in 12.1 innings and has struck out 10. If he truly does pitch better to Jose Molina, then the Yanks should, by all means, make Burnett comfortable in a potential clinching game.

Were the Burnett start ever so simple. As with every other A.J. Burnett outing, this one is not without controversy. Yesterday, Jorge Posada went 1 for 3 and was on base two other times while Hideki Matsui walked away from a 10-1 win as the other Yankee without a hit. For this short series, Posada is hitting .308/.471/.615 to Matsui’s perfectly respectable if powerless .286/.412/.357. Over the two games in Anaheim, Matsui has not looked particularly comfortable at the dish, but I’d hate to lose either player’s bat in Game 5.

So what are the Yanks to do? Would they DH Matsui behind Alex Rodriguez and prepare Posada for a mid-game pinch-hit appearance? Would they DH Posada, use Matsui to pinch hit and then either burn the DH spot or go with Francisco Cervelli behind the plate for the final few frames?

Marc Carig posed these question to Joe Girardi yesterday, and Girardi was nocommittal. “That’s something we’ll talk about,” the Yanks’ manager said. Posada issued a similar statement: “I don’t know yet. They haven’t said anything yet.”

The Star-Ledger reporter offered up this take on the situation:

Posada has hammered Angels starter John Lackey in the past. In 32 lifetime plate appearances against the Angels right-hander, Posada is 12-for-29 (.414) with three walks, a homer, and three RBI…Matsui hasn’t been bad against Lackey either. Though his .286 average in 32 plate appearance against Lackey pales in comparison, Matsui has two doubles, a homer and seven RBI against Lackey.

Based on some very limited numbers that generally don’t mean too much, Posada should start. He’s the hotter bat right now, and he has more success off of Lackey than Hideki Matsui does. Of course, the easy answer is to start Posada behind the plate. Although Jose Molina said he doesn’t know if he’ll be catching Burnett, I’m not going to mess with a good thing this late into October.

And so we await the lineup card. I predict Posada batting behind A-Rod. Jorge right now gives them the best chance to win, and with the Angels so close to elimination, the Yanks are going to apply as much pressure as they can later tonight.

Dissent in the ranks over Molina-gate

For 12 years, the stories about Derek Jeter and Joe Torre told a tale of deference. Jeter, a rookie during Torre’s first year in the Bronx, had a special bond with his manager. He would call him Mr. Torre and rarely, if ever, questioned his decisions in public.

While Torre was managing the Yanks, Jeter played with a back-up catcher named Joe Girardi. Jeter and Girardi captured three rings together, but for Derek, Girardi’s presence on the team and his amount of playing time must have raised an eyebrow or two. After all, the Yankees had Derek’s very good friend Jorge Posada, a far superior offensive catcher to Joe Girardi. In the end, of course, it mattered little, as the Yanks plowed through the opposition during the latter half of the 1990s.

Today, Joe Girardi is Derek’s manager, and for the first time in a while, Jeter is publicly questioning the man who holds the Yanks’ reins. When asked about Girardi’s decision to start Jose Molina in A.J. Burnett‘s starts, Jeter had a diplomatically loaded answer. As Jim Baumbach first reported yesterday, Jeter called the situation strange. “It will be kind of awkward not having Jorge in the lineup,” he said.

For Derek, the Yanks’ loyal solider and all around good guy at handling the media, that statement amounts to sheer mutiny. As Baumbach and others have pointed out, Jeter’s statement is also a bit hyperbolic. Posada wasn’t the only catcher during the Yanks’ World Series years, and as recently as 2005, Joe Torre used John Flaherty to catch the ornery Randy Johnson. The Unit lasted just three innings in a disastrous Game 3 start, and Jorge quickly entered the game in the 4th.

I have to wonder then if Joe Girardi is risking his respect by making an unpopular and questionable decision. Does Derek Jeter think Girardi is off his rocker? What about the other younger players who look to Jeter for leadership? Ken Davidoff claims all was calm at Yankee camp yesterday and offers us some translations of the players’ sound bites. Derek, he claims, is just trying to keep Jorge happy while not offending his manager, and Jorge has accepted it.

In a way, then, this move is certainly an experiment. If Burnett comes out and dominates the Twins and the Yanks handily win as they did on Wednesday, Joe Girardi will look good — or at least he won’t be subject to rampant first- and second-guessing. But if Burnett struggles through a start, those around the club — those whose respect Girardi needs — may wonder about the decision. Ken Davidoff doesn’t expect Molina-gate to “blow up these Yankees.” Here’s to hoping.