ST. PETERSBURG — The concept seems incredibly simple, especially for a man of his vocation. But in a Rays offseason that is more than half over without anything close to a big deal, the one significant improvement they're certain of is the addition of veteran catcher Jose Molina, known (of all things) for his ability to catch.
Even though Molina turns 37 in June, likely won't start more then half their games and isn't going to do much with his bat, the Rays expect him to have considerable impact and influence.
"Significant," manager Joe Maddon said.
Some will be obvious, like how opponents won't try to steal as much against him, fearing a quick release and arm that can stymie any running game. And some will be less tangible, like the presence Molina will provide in the clubhouse and serving as a mentor to the team's younger catchers.
But most telling will be his work behind the plate, where Molina is noted for his expertise not only in calling pitches, but also catching them — and the additional benefits it can reap with umpires.
"He's got such soft hands, and the ability to position himself sometimes on a little bit of an angle to give the umpire a little bit of a different view," said Toronto manager John Farrell, for whom Molina played the past two seasons.
"So the catching for him is clearly an art rather than just being the receiver. When you're looking at the ability to frame a pitch or the ability to receive like he can, he's one of those guys that begins to set the standard for just how good his hands are."
Quantifying just how much Molina can help is an inexact science. One analysis of pitch framing posted on Baseball Prospectus calculated Molina would save his team a major-league most 35 runs over a full season by getting borderline pitches called strikes. On the scale of ERA when he's behind the plate, Molina's 3.94 ranks fifth of all active catchers with 500 games.
While the data is subject to considerable interpretation, it only enhances Molina's reputation as a pitcher's best friends.
James Shields said he and other Rays pitchers used to "be jealous" watching Molina from the opposing dugout.
Dave Eiland, the Yankees' pitching coach when Molina was there in 2008-09, said there's good reason: "He steals you a lot of strikes."
Also, "He's on top of everything," said Eiland, now with the Royals. "I can't say enough about him. He's very good at adapting to a game plan, navigating a pitcher through a game and making adjustments on the fly. … He's very good at knowing each pitcher's makeup and their stuff. … He's got very soft hands. He receives the ball really good."
One of three catching brothers (Yadier with St. Louis, Bengie last with Texas in 2010), Molina said the emphasis on defense seems rather obvious. And he takes considerable pride in it.
"That's what got me to the big leagues, and that's why I'm still in the big leagues, because I can catch and throw," Molina said. "I'm never going to let that get away from my game. That's my game. … I take a lot of pride in it. Defense is most important. That's how you win games, pitching and defense. And you see it and I see it with the way the Rays played in the past years."
While the Rays are still looking for a couple of bats to improve their offense and fill holes at first base and DH — and ponder whether to make a big deal by trading one of their starters — they figure to already be in better hands.
"Jose is one of best receivers, game callers and handlers of a pitching staff I've been around in my 26 years," said Eiland, a Rays special assistant in 2011. "Tampa Bay has had one of the best pitching staffs the last few years, but as crazy as it sounds, he's going to make them even better."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]