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Hispanic Yankee Greats of Days Past: José Molina

The stats say the former Yankee backup is one of the greatest defenders of all time.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty Images

For the next installment of our Hispanic Heritage Month celebration, I want to go all the way back to 2007 to reflect on the acquisition of former Yankees catcher José Molina. In an attempt to alleviate the knees of the 35-year-old, Jorge Posada, Brian Cashman and the front office traded for the catching savant, Molina, from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Posada was in the midst of one of his best seasons where he hit for a 157 wRC+ and .338 batting average. Even so, you can never have too much catching, leading to the Yankees’ acquisition of the veteran, Molina.

You might be a little confused, because Molina isn’t necessarily known as a typical Yankee great. However, I’m here to remind everybody that he is actually a bit of a unicorn and his time with the Yankees was wildly impressive. On a rate basis, Molina has some of the best framing numbers of all time. He has the smoothest hands I’ve ever seen from a catcher — even smoother than his two major league brothers, Yadier and Bengie Molina. But before we dive a bit deeper into that, let’s learn more about the life of Molina.

Like the last two players we celebrated, Molina is a Puerto Rican native. Bayámon, Puerto Rico has given us many great Puerto Rican players, including Molina and his brothers. Like his family, he has some World Series rings of his own. José won his first ring as a member of the Angels in 2002, along with his brother Bengie. Then of course, he won his second as a key member of the Yankees in 2009, serving as A.J. Burnett’s personal catcher.

Since 2015, Molina has been the catching coordinator for the Angels. In that time, he has helped several Angels catchers improve their receiving abilities according to both traditional scouting and advanced analytics. In my opinion, Molina’s catching philosophy is the best there is.

In a recent interview on Effectively Wild, Molina discussed the importance of staying quiet behind the plate. He believes the best way to steal strikes is to stay silent with your hands and body. That’s the path to ultimate deception. It’s easy to trust him, given his track record of playing and helping catchers improve.

In Molina’s first full season with the Yankees in 2008, he had one the best framing seasons of all-time. Across 100 games and 737 innings, Molina accumulated 32.4 framing runs above average. That was good for second in MLB that season, trailing behind Brian McCann by just 2.1 runs. However, McCann caught 1,143.1 innings that season. If we use Molina’s rate that season and multiply out to 1,143.1 innings, Molina would have accumulated 50.3 framing runs. The point is that Molina blew away the field during that season when it comes to catcher defense.

Despite a 51 wRC+ (that’s about 50 percent worse than the average hitter), Molina was worth 3.6fWAR. That is absurd! As quite possibly the worst hitter in the league with that many plate appearances (297 PAs), he was still a 5.8-win player on a per-162 rate. In 2009, he caught 52 games and was worth 2.8 wins per-162. It wasn’t quite the feat that he reached in 2008, but it shows the value he brought to a team even if he was a very unproductive hitter. (Although he did belt the final homer in old Yankee Stadium.)

Since Molina, there really hasn’t been another comparable catcher. Yeah, there is the Austin Hedges type of catcher who seems to stick around solely for his defense, but I’m not sure the numbers back that up like they did for Molina. His player-type is unparalleled in most eras, especially now. With the strong potential for a robot umpire inbound, it’s likely we will lose the defense-first backup catcher. For that reason, it is only right we cherish the legacy of José Molina, one of the best defensive catchers of all-time.