A Frame of Reference

A Frame of Reference

Writing about baseball is a distraction from real life.  I don’t want to make light of the day, and I won’t bore you with the details, but hopefully you paid enough attention tonight to realize that there is a pretty volatile situation in the Midwest right now, and I hope everyone remains safe and civil through all this…

Anyway!  On to stuff that, relatively speaking, don’t matter as much.

Andy and I were discussing catching the other day and considering whether Welington Castillo could handle the job after the Chicago Cubs missed out on Russell Martin.  My previous blog argued in favor of using Beef Castle as the starter and I hope you read it.  In short, I think that, yes, Beef can handle it, and has handled it superbly.  Not everyone agrees, but it wouldn’t be a fun discussion if we agreed on everything.  I believe the central disagreement lies in Beef’s ability to frame pitches.  For example, if you look at the 2014 data from StatCorner, Beef is nearly the worst catcher in terms of framing pitches, just barely ahead of Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

Pitch framing as a philosophy has been around for probably as long as baseball has been played, and has been analyzed as a true skill since at least 2008.  It might be of interest to you that former Cubs catcher Geovany Soto was actually among the leaders in this skill.  If we look from earlier this year, the idea has been growing for quite some time as folks like Harry Pavlidis and Dan Brooks attempted to build better models to study framing, and seems to be the new sabermetric soup du jour:

Catching pitches is how Jonathan Lucroy might be a better catcher overall than Buster Posey. It’s a controversial opinion, but knowing that at least one team believes it gives the opinion some legitimacy. And there are numbers to back the opinion up. Pitch-framing is a skill that’s highly valued by at least the Tampa Bay Rays. Probably, it isn’t just them. Probably, the industry will grow more and more confident.

Indeed, as I did some more scouring with Andy’s help, I discovered that in addition to the Rays as indicated in the FanGraphs article, the Padres and Pirates may also be somewhat concerned with a catcher’s framing ability.  Russell Martin, for example, was often cited as an improvement because of his ability to frame pitches and thus steal strikes and save runs.  However, despite a lot of smart people whom I respect blasting Beef for his framing, I feel that he is still a solid enough catcher who has room to grow despite going into his age 28 season.

When we look at the numbers again, we find that Beef loses about 1.8 strikes per game according to Matthew Carruth’s data.  So we’re talking about two pitches out of something like 150 (between the starter and subsequent relievers) per nine innings.  The data appears to be based on umpire calls (not swinging strikes or fouls) and thus is prone to some umpire bias, though umpires not named Angel Hernandez get things right for the most part.  In 2014, Beef was behind the plate for 916.1 innings, so the loss of 183 pitches in 916.1 innings which equates to 0.2 lost strikes per inning, or essentially one lost strike every five defensive innings.  If you look at it that way…then if Beef is that poor of a pitch framer that the game is lost in those one or two pitches, there must be something devastating about those two rare lost strikes.  I don’t think that is the case.  Of course, any deficiency that causes the pitcher to have to throw an additional pitch can lead to disaster (injury, run-scoring hit, etc), but the context-neutral nature of this pitch framing data doesn’t let you know what happens right after each of Beef’s 183 lost strikes.  I’m not equipped or knowledgeable enough to sift through that and find out, but I’d bet quite a large sum of your money that in the bulk of these cases, nothing bad happened on the pitch after the “botched” strike, and that you can find examples of where something not so fun happened after Beef pulled a ball back into the zone to steal a strike.  I think pitch framing is important, especially since so many intelligent people (including front offices) are seriously considering it in their evaluations, but I’d like those questions about context to be answered as well.

Catchers are supposed to act as the field general for the defense since he initiates play by calling pitches and getting the pitcher to buy into the plan to retire the batter.  There are other components that are necessary for an effective catcher and they’re talked about in the FanGraphs catcher defense article.  What I note from reading the FanGraphs catcher leaderboard and perusing the statistics is that Beef is among the best in the majors at blocking pitches and controlling the running game.  I’ll readily admit that I don’t know the full effect of Beef’s deficiency in pitch framing on his battery mates or the game as a whole, but he is rated very well by the other metrics and he seems to be a hard enough and proficient worker that he can learn to receive pitches to get more favorable calls; there’s always room for improvement.  This isn’t to say that pitch framing is bullshit, however, because I think there’s something there.  I just don’t necessarily think that it has as enormous an effect on the game as people believe, and even the pitch framing gurus say you can’t push all the blame on the catcher.  If we’re talking about less than two pitches a game on average, then it’s almost like the odds of a pitcher making a mistake on a delivery, and either he gets away with it or he doesn’t.  That’s baseball.

 

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  • Maybe I'm missing something, but "framing the pitch" and "placement of the mitt" seem characterized by the announcers (especially Stone) as "if he better framed the pitch the ump would have called a strike." If the ump is that easily fooled, wouldn't QuesTec and Joe Torre eventually catch up with him?

    I also doubt that framing the pitch has much to do with Maddux, Glavine, and Mariano Rivera getting called strikes on something obviously 6 inches off the outside corner.

    On the other hand, throwing out the steal at second is a pretty measurable skill, and unless one has a bad second baseman, fairly objective. Similarly, blocking the pitch and avoiding the Wild Pitch or Passed Ball seems pretty objective.

  • In reply to jack:

    It is very difficult to determine how much of this is umpire blindness and how much is skill, but the data appears to be quantifiable. The data should probably come with a caveat, i.e. is the catcher incompetent or was the ump just having a particularly bad day. This is in addition to the context we discussed in the article.

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    Seeing as the difference between the BEST catcher at pitch framing and Castillo is 3.28 strikes lost, I just can't see how pitch framing is THAT important. Not every one of those statistically can be strike 3 calls. Maybe I am not completely understanding it, but I just don't put all that much stock in it.

  • In reply to Drougs:

    I don't think I understand it perfectly either, but losing a strike could affect pitch sequencing which affects the complexion of an at-bat, particularly if the battery decides they can't go there to get a called strike to set up the next pitch. This is why I'm arguing that the contextual part is important.

  • 2 years ago Molina for the rays saved the rays 50+ runs from his pitch framing according to calculations.. so just on framing alone he was a +5war. there are plenty of fangraphs articles on molina with gifs showing his artistery.. to see it is amazing

  • In reply to CubfanInUT:

    I don't doubt that Jose Molina is a good defensive catcher. What I'm wondering is whether the runs saved calculation is off an aggregate or took something into context, which is why I think that needs to be explored further.

  • In reply to Rice Cube:

    It probably has an effect, but I would bet a marginal one. Where it would have an effect is something like near the end of Kerry Wood's career, where the umps called a bunch of pitches balls because they were too low, but PitchTrax said they all hit the line, so theoretically they were strikes.

    I would think that what would have the bigger effect is the batter fouling off 6 or 7 in a row until either he gets a hit, or more likely, the pitcher and catcher finally figure out how to get him out.

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