PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Tigers manager Brad Ausmus was sitting on the edge of his desk earlier this spring when he was asked about the skill, or perhaps a better word would be art, of pitch-framing. What are some of the finer points of receiving a pitch, of turning a ball into a called strike? Can you teach it to younger catchers?
Ausmus said it's definitely a skill, and to a certain extent, it can be taught. And the first name that came out of his mouth says a lot more about the value of the Rays' backup catcher than his .233 batting average last season.
"I think across baseball, they're still trying to figure out what exactly, for instance, does Jose Molina actually do that makes him get calls?" said Ausmus, a three-time Gold Glove Award-winning catcher. "I think they're still trying to figure that out."
Over the past few years, various studies have attempted to measure and quantify the impact pitch-framing can have on a team's run prevention. During his time in the Padres front office, Ausmus said, they spent a lot of time looking into it, talking about it and breaking down film.
If there's one consistent theme, however, it's that Jose Molina is among the game's elite pitch-framers. So, what did the Rays go out and do this offseason? They traded for Ryan Hanigan, another catcher who's well regarded for his ability behind the plate, specifically when it comes to stealing strikes.
Harry Pavlidis and Dan Brooks of Baseball Prospectus published a study in early March about the value of pitch-framing. Their report found that from 2008-13, Molina earned the second-most runs in baseball (116) solely through that skill, while Hanigan saved the fifth-most (74). Molina ranked first among all catchers in terms of the most runs saved via framing per 7,000 opportunities, or roughly a season's worth of work, with 35.9, and Hanigan (23.3) finished eighth, according to the study.
It's not exactly the game's most glamorous stat. Most fans would rather point to the 38-year-old Molina's two homers in 2013 or his 11 double-play grounders and jump to conclusions. But these numbers certainly satisfy Molina.
"That's my game right now," Molina said. "I need to use it, got to use it. [Pitchers] like it. ... Right now, it's just about doing the best I can do to give my pitchers strikes. I've got to do whatever it takes."
Molina also said he's pleased to see that people are attempting to quantify the impact of such a skill, and not just for himself. The 14-year veteran pointed out that catchers used to be judged solely by their caught-stealing percentage, which is hardly a fair indication of their overall ability behind the plate.
"I've done it for many years, and guys just noticed it lately," Molina said. "Now, we can add another number out there and another thing to help us, whatever you want to see from it. I'm glad to be a part of it."
The thing is, it's not an easy skill to pass on, as Ausmus noted. Molina said he'll talk about it to anyone who's willing to listen, but he had a hard time explaining and showing how to successfully frame a pitch while standing next to his locker in the home clubhouse at Charlotte Sports Park.
Molina said he stresses consistency above anything else when instructing catchers how to receive the ball. Beyond that simple rule, though, he has to look at the way a catcher lines up behind the plate, the way his hands move, how his body is positioned and so on.
"There's certain similarities and things that they do that seem to cross-match," Ausmus said of Molina and several other catchers among the game's pitch-framing elite. "You can probably teach some of that to catchers, probably better off at a younger age at the Minor Leagues so they're not trying to learn it and catch a 95-mph fastball at the same time. ... I guarantee Jose Molina never practiced it. It's just the way he catches the ball."
"He's right," Molina said, laughing that he didn't know exactly how to teach a younger player. "It's hard to teach, to put [other catchers] in a position where those guys can be the same way. But you can learn and try to pick up different stuff about that and use it in the game and become better."
Fortunately for the Rays, they shouldn't have to worry this season about teaching a young catcher how to frame pitches like Molina. They have two of the best in baseball, statistically, when it comes to helping out their pitchers.
Rays manager Joe Maddon said Friday that he hasn't decided yet how to deploy his catchers. Molina started 87 games last year, with Jose Lobaton getting the nod in 76 games. It seems Hanigan will get the majority of the starts this time around, but Molina won't just be a once-a-week starting catcher.
Either way, their ability to steal strikes figures to be a boon to Tampa Bay's pitching staff.
"I haven't gone deeply into that, regarding if there is a benefit for one guy over the other. I think it's going to be more based on hitting matchups," Maddon said. "If I had to guess, I'd say Hanigan should get 51 percent or more of the snaps.
"Having both of them back there is a benefit for us."