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July 02, 2010

Molina Acquired, Main Traded

Texas traded reliever CHRIS RAY and minor-league pitcher MICHAEL MAIN to San Francisco for catcher BENJIE MOLINA. Texas will receive about $2 million to make the deal “cost neutral.”

Michael Main
The Departed

Who is Benjie Molina?

Molina turns 36 in a few weeks and is suffering through his worst season at the plate since 2002. Is he undergoing a half-season aberration or the beginning of the end?

Molina’s offensive production depends heavily on power. From 2007-2009 with the Giants, Molina averaged 26 doubles and 18 homers. This year, he’s on pace for 12 doubles and six homers. His rate of homers per fly ball has plummeted, and his .332 slugging percentage ranks 24th among the 30 MLB catchers with the most plate appearances. Conversely, Molina is drawing nearly twice as many unintentional as usual. Per Fangraphs, Molina is swinging at fewer pitches and making more contact. Sometimes, improved patience is the last refuge of the dying hitter, though complaining about it seems absurd.

Molina’s improved contact has not resulted in a higher batting average. He’s hitting .257, the lowest in eight years. Also, Molina might be the slowest player in baseball, so those extra balls in play are of little benefit if not contacted firmly. He’s hitting a paltry .155 on grounders compared to .233 for the National League. Based on his current grounder rate and frequency of play, he’ll achieve 12 fewer ground-ball hits than average hitter, not an insignificant number. Surprisingly, only once has he ranked in the NL top ten in double plays.

Defensively, he’s no improvement on Matt Treanor in terms of shutting down the running game. He’s thrown out 23% of opposing runners, not the worst of his career but close, and is on pace to allow nearly 100 stolen bases, easily his most.

Without the homers, he’s not much. In essence, he’s a replacement-level catcher, no better than Treanor or Max Ramirez. So, why bother? I see three reasons:

1) Texas can’t rely on Treanor to catch the vast majority of games in the second half. The 34-year-old Treanor missed most of 2009 with a bone spur in his hip and hasn’t appeared in more than 70 games since 2003. In 2010, he’s already appeared in 56 games.

2) Texas expects a mild return to form from Molina, though I wouldn’t count on it. Whatever benefit he receives from the hitter-friendly Ballpark should be countervailed by his move to the tougher league.

3) What Texas really wants is his pitch calling and veteran leadership. Yes, I went there. Per GM Jon Daniels: “He brings a veteran presence. He's a guy that's been back there and caught quality pitching in some big games… This guy is a winner. He takes a lot of pride in his game calling and working with the staff and understanding the game plan… He's a great guy in the clubhouse.”

Such praise from the acquiring party is required. But what of Molina’s former teammates Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain? Lincecum, from the same article: [No player has] had the effect, at least on me, that Bengie has. He helped me mature and succeed. I've said time and time again, he deserves half of those awards that I've gotten." And Cain: “The things he's done for me -- from calling a game, to giving me confidence to throw different pitches in different counts -- really, really, really benefited me.”

High praise, indeed. Now, “veteran leadership” is an epithet in analyst community, partly because it’s immeasurable, and partly because front-office types, managers and players so often use the term to gloss over obvious shortcomings. However, that’s not reason enough to completely deride and discount it, particularly when the praise for Molina is so effusive and widespread. Even manager Mike Scioscia of the Angels, Texas’s chief combatant in the AL West, lauded the deal. If Molina can hit as well as Treanor and Ramirez while providing aid and comfort to Texas’s pitchers, he’s an improvement. I can’t say I’m excited Molina’s presence in Arlington. But I’m not writing him off.

What kind of prospect is Main?

When reports narrowed down the second player in the Molina deal to an pitcher in A ball, I assumed a lower-level prospect like Wilfredo Boscan, Carlos Pimentel, Jake Brigham, or perhaps Neil Ramirez. I’d have traded any of them in a heartbeat. That’s what they’re for.

Main is another matter entirely.

The estimable Jason Parks presented his take on Main in early May. Freak injuries limited the 24th-overall pick of the 2007 draft to 119 innings in 2008-2009. After a strong end-of-season showing in high-A Bakersfield and autumn instructional campaign, Main showed up to Surprise this spring having filled out to a startling extent. Like fellow 1st-rounder Blake Beavan, he’s lost some of his high-school velocity and is slowly reacquiring it.

With the caveat that we shouldn’t place too much emphasis on a statistical analysis of 91 high-A innings, here’s how Michael Main’s 2010 ranks among the 48 Cal League pitchers with eight or more starts:


Not to suggest that Main has pitched badly, but his 3.45 ERA is deceptive. First, Main’s BABIP is an unsustainable .279. I’m willing to ascribe more control over BABIP to high-A pitchers than their Major League counterparts, but not 59 points. Second, Main has allowed a league-worst 14 homers, and only three of 47 starters have allowed more on a per-batter basis. Yet, he’s suffered remarkably little damage from them:

Homers: Runners On Base

Note: I don’t have runner data for the Cal League (except grand slams), so I’m comparing his homer distribution to the American League. Based on runs scored per game, I doubt the distributions of the Cal League and AL are wildly dissimilar. The percentage of grannies is nearly identical (2.7% in the AL, 2.6% in the Cal League).

Main has a allowed a miniscule total of 16 runs on his 14 homers. 12 of 14 came with the bases empty, none with more than one on. A more typical 21 runs (based on 1.5 per homer) would add 0.50 to his ERA.

Nevertheless, Main had largely regained his upper-level prospect status. He’d pitched every fifth day without fail. He was effective enough to earn a promotion to AA, where, despite his setbacks, he would have been the third youngest pitcher on the staff and seventh youngest in the Texas League. Though he likely would have been knocked around in Frisco, he undoubtedly possessed the fortitude to withstand the rough outings.

What does Texas think of Jarrod Saltalamacchia?

Not much. That Texas parted with a first-round pick of the 2007 draft rather than promote Saltalamacchia is a depressing indication of his value to the Rangers. Molina’s arrival pushes him to fourth on the depth chart. How did he fall so far?

Saltalamacchia certainly didn’t let his rehab assignment and eventual full-fledged demotion to AAA affect his bat. Not at first. He walked twice in his first game in Oklahoma City, then embarked on a 16-game hit streak. However, in the waning days of his streak, he exhibited a terrible case of the yips. Me, on May 4th:


On May 12th, per Bob Hersom of okcredhawks.com:

Tuesday night at AT&T Bricktown Ballpark, 12 of [Saltalamacchia’s] throws back to the pitcher landed either short of the mound or in center field. He had five errant throws in the first inning alone.

Saltalamacchia evinced no hesitancy or inability to throw cleanly to the bases. Only on return throws to the pitcher did he struggle. After the 12th, Saltalamacchia missed four days. Upon his return, he threw with confidence.

Unfortunately, Saltalamacchia has batted a dire .186/.263/.382 since his time off. He’s clubbed six homers in that span, but the remainder of his offense has disappeared. Arguably, he’s suffering some bad luck, as his BABIP is a paltry .188. On the other hand, Saltalamacchia has become extremely fly-prone in Oklahoma City. Flies that stay in the park tend to become outs. Bad luck or not, he’s walking less, striking out more, and not swinging in a manner conducive to a high batting average.

Worse, in my opinion, his throwing has degraded since his initially promising return from four days of inaction. He’s not short-hopping or overthrowing the pitcher, but neither is he putting any zing on the ball. Saltalamacchia faces the pitcher with his torso fully perpendicular to the mound and returns the ball purely with his arm. (You’ll better understand what I mean if you stand up and try throwing that way yourself. It’s awkward.) He’s not using his body at all. Perhaps it’s not important, but I don’t see other catchers (or even umpires) throwing that way. They hum the ball back to the pitcher. When I’m watching on the internet, Saltalamacchia’s return throws frequently exit the top of my viewing screen before reappearing to land gently into the pitcher’s glove. Whatever the reason, it sure looks odd.

Moreover, his already subpar performance at gunning down potential base stealers has declined further. Of the 26 Pacific Coast League catchers facing at least 30 stolen base attempts, Saltalamacchia ranks dead last with a 16% caught rate (6 of 37). To be sure, Redhawk pitchers aren’t helping – OKC ranks 15th in the 16-team PCL is nabbing runners. Still, other Redhawk catchers have a 24% success rate; not great, but better than Saltalamacchia. When comparing each catcher to the aggregate rate of the his teammates, he still comes in 22nd of 26.

What does Texas think of Max Ramirez?

The front office and Ron Washington prefer a defense-oriented catcher, which Ramirez most certainly is not. He gets on base at a nice rate, especially for a backstop, and in time he could fulfill some of the contact-plus-power potential displayed in the minors.

It’s not enough. Again, Texas surrendered Michael Main rather than endure Ramirez as a backup. Keeping him as a right-handed bench bat makes some sense, but I’d say his days as a catcher in Texas are essentially over unless Molina or Treanor suffer an injury.

What about Chris Ray?

I hadn’t mentioned Chris Ray previously, because, frankly, I don’t have much interest in him. He was adequate but unworthy of his 3.41 ERA. He doesn’t rank among Texas’s top seven or eight bullpen arms, so exchanging him for an upgrade elsewhere makes perfect sense.


Molina doesn’t thrill me. Perhaps he’ll swat ten homers in the second half, and the pitchers will rave about him. That would thrill me. More likely, he’ll provide only a modest upgrade on whom he’s supplanting. It’s also possible he’ll be worse. Look at his page at Baseball-Reference.com and envision a line of .240/.290/.320 for Texas in 2010, followed by a blank in 2011 and beyond. That’s not a far-fetched prediction, in my opinion.

While not of the level of Martin Perez, Tanner Scheppers, or (I’d argue) Blake Beavan, Michael Main is a tremendous athlete, outstandingly competitive, and has made up for lost time. I don’t begrudge Texas for trading him in order to improve a team with its best chance at the postseason in a decade. That said, I would have expected him to depart as the second or third piece in a blockbuster, not as the lynchpin of a deal for someone who might not improve the team at all.

That the Rangers apparently couldn’t assume Molina’s not-outrageous salary and had to surrender Main to consummate the deal is yet another taint on the stewardship of Tom Hicks, as if one were needed.

Posted by Lucas at July 2, 2010 06:51 PM