Here is part one that introduces this three part series.
Catchers and Pitch Framing
Pitch framing has been a hot topic in the stats community for more than a couple of years now. The research exploring how much catchers can influence the game is staggering. Baseball Prospectus suggests that the best pitch framer, Jose Molina, was worth two wins based solely on his ability to earn extra strikes for his pitchers. Some front offices value this new research or at least have proprietary data that suggest something similar. One baseball executive rated excellent pitch framer Jonathan Lucroy as the best catcher behind Yadier Molina. The Cubs clearly are not that franchise.
The Cubs have traded away any catcher that has shown positive abilities in that regard: Geovany Soto and, surprisingly, Steve Clevenger. Soto and Clevenger were far from Jose Molina. Molina last year saved 23.9 runs just by his ability to frame pitches according to Baseball Prospectus. Soto has saved 30.4 runs in the past five seasons. However, the Cubs are simply not placing the same value on this skill as teams like the Tampa Bay Rays.
Instead, the Cubs have added players that have shown little ability in terms of their pitch-framing skills; Welington Castillo’s struggles with it have been well documented and are now supported by objective measures as well. The Cubs brought in Dioner Navarro, who had a rather mixed track record in that area last season. According to Baseball Prospectus, Navarro was above average in earning strikes for pitchers, which might explain some of the preference for him by some starting pitchers. The Cubs have replaced Navarro this year with George Kottaras, whose ability to frame pitches is just bad. The only player the Cubs have added that has strong numbers in this area is Eli Whiteside, but he is unlikely to make it as more than a catcher in Iowa.
It is pretty clear that the Cubs front office doesn’t place a lot of value on this area of the game. Or, rather, that they at least do not agree with the value that Baseball Prospectus and others have ascribed to it.
The Cubs have collected the game's best collection of power hitting prospects and Jason Parks talked about those power hitters with Tom Loxas. Jonathan Mayo and Jim Callis each think that a Cubs prospect will lead the minors in home runs next year. This is not news to anyone who has paid attention to the Cubs, but this has been a conscious effort by the Cubs front office for three years now. The farm system was barren of power hitters prior to the 2011 draft, but the Cubs have added major power threats each season.
Power has always been valued in the game, and so including it as a market inefficiency seems like a mistake. However, the value and rarity of power has not been recognized by many at this point. Power has been declining for several seasons by any objective measure.
The Cubs surprised many by drafting Kris Bryant over Jonathan Gray last year. Stocking up on power actually has a number of benefits, including the fact that hitting prospects are safer. "There is no such thing as a safe pitching prospect" is a commonly-cited saying due to the fickle nature of the position. The Cubs are eschewing that risk by focusing their major investments in amateur talent acquisition on power hitters, from Bryant and Soler to last year's top international amateur Eloy Jimenez.
Part three of this series will look at platoon advantage and what, if anything, can be gleaned from this information.
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