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May 7, 2014

Overthinking It

Catcher Framing: The Season So Far

by Ben Lindbergh


Throughout last season, I ran a series called “This Week in Catcher Framing.” Every Friday or Saturday, I put up a post about the best and worst “frames” of the previous week, as determined by distance from the center of the strike zone. (The called strikes farthest from the center were the “best,” and the balls closest to the center were the “worst.”) I also included leaderboards of the catchers who’d gained and lost the most strikes and runs, some framing-related statistical studies, and regular looks at a few framers of note, like Jonathan Lucroy, Jose Molina, and (for completely different reasons) Ryan Doumit.

I don’t need to do that this year. For one thing, if you read that series, you probably have a good idea of what solid receiving skills look like, and you don’t need me to keep hammering that home. For another, we’ve come up with better ways for you to get your framing stat fix. We now offer three framing-related reports on our statistical sortables page (as well as historical framing stats for each catcher on his player card):

Advanced Catching Metrics: Complete pitch framing (and pitch blocking) stats for individual catchers
Catcher Framing – Team Totals: Total strikes/framing runs added or subtracted for each team
Framing Data by Battery: Strikes/framing runs added or subtracted for each pitcher-batter combination

All three of those reports are updated daily and based on the “Regressed Probabilistic Model” (RPM) of framing that Dan Brooks and Harry Pavlidis published at BP earlier this year, which is far more sophisticated than the simple stats I provided in my leaderboards last year.

Still, even if we know what good framing looks like, it can’t hurt to have an occasional refresher to illustrate what the names on those leaderboards look like. So while we’re not bringing back “This Week in Catcher Framing,” we are planning to make it a monthly thing, with both better data (courtesy of Dan and Harry) and a better layout (thanks to BP data display whiz Nick Wheatley-Schaller).

Before we focus on particular pitches, let’s look at a few tidbits from the aforementioned leaderboards.

Advanced Catching Metrics
Some familiar names appear near the top of the leaderboard for framing runs added: Miguel Montero, Brian McCann, Lucroy, (Jose) Molina, Ryan Hanigan, David Ross, Russell Martin. However, there’s also a lot of new blood. Mike Zunino leads all catchers with 5.1 framing runs added (through Monday’s games), and both Padres catchers, Rene Rivera and Yasmani Grandal, crack the top 15. We’ll take a closer look at those three at the end of this article.

Other names of note: Travis d'Arnaud has sustained his early success, and Hank Conger and Yan Gomes have backed up their positive rating from 2013. John Jaso brings up the rear, costing the A’s 4.9 runs, and perennial offenders Kurt Suzuki, Carlos Santana, Chris Iannetta, and Wilin Rosario have offended again. (Santana ranks fifth-worst with only 334 framing opportunities.) Josmil Pinto, who had the second-worst estimated framing rating in the upper minors last season and a negative RPM in his brief 2013 major-league time, has cost the Twins a couple of runs already this year.

Catcher Framing – Team Totals
One piece of evidence that framing stats describe a real skill is their stability from one season to the next, so it’s no surprise to see some of the same teams that ranked high in framing last season excelling again. Three of last year’s top four teams by framing runs added—the Padres, the Brewers, and the Yankees—make up this season’s top trio so far. The Padres, who ranked fourth last year, have taken over the top spot with 10.1 framing runs added, thanks to the combo of Rivera and Grandal. The Yankees have swapped out Chris Stewart for Brian McCann, but the results are similarly strong. And the Brewers keep riding the Lucroy/Martin Maldonado tandem to success.

I’ve already drawn your attention to the perils of Minnesota’s Pinto-Suzuki catching crew, so you won’t be surprised to learn that the Twins trail the rest of the league with -9.5 framing runs added. The Marlins rank 29th, which takes us to…

Framing Data by Battery
When we look at individual pitcher–catcher combinations, we’re dealing with much smaller samples than we are with full catcher seasons or collective team totals, so it’s rare to see numbers much bigger than roughly four runs in either direction. Last year, Justin Masterson–Carlos Santana and Jon NieseJohn Buck were the most-squeezed batteries; David Price–Jose Molina, on the other hand, enjoyed an easily league-leading 57 extra strikes, or 9.4 runs.

This year, Andrew Cashner and Rene Rivera lead the pack with 22 extra strikes, or 2.9 framing runs. And on the opposite end? Jose Fernandez and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Yes, just like last season, when Fernandez–Rob Brantly was the 12th-worst battery in terms of extra strikes, Fernandez has had to deal with an abnormal number of calls going against him, which makes you wonder how good he’d have been to this point with a normal-sized strike zone.

***

Time to take a spin through the best and worst frames of March and April, sorted by strike probability, which is based on park-adjusted pitch location, handedness, count, and pitch type. (Although the RPM values you see on our stats pages also account for umpire and pitcher, those adjustments are applied in aggregate, not on a per-pitch level.) At the top of each section, you’ll find five pitches plotted on a diagram of the strike zone; mouse over the plotted points to see a pop-up GIF of the catch. Below, you’ll see the pitch details and strike probability, a zoomed-in video of each reception (mouse over to play), and a graph of the pitch location that includes three rings representing the zones in which 3–7 percent of pitches are called strikes (red); 45–55 percent of pitches are called strikes (black); and 93–97 percent of pitches are called strikes (green).

Best Frames of April (and March)

5. Catcher: Bryan Holaday
Strike Probability: 0.4%
Date: 4/24
Batter: Jose Abreu
Pitcher: Max Scherzer
Umpire: Jeff Kellogg
Count: 1-2
Pitch type: Four-seamer

In 1254 framing opportunities over the past three seasons, Holaday has been 4.0 runs below average, which would translate to 19 runs lost over a full season. Of course, Holaday hasn’t had a chance to catch anyone regularly; perhaps the sporadic starts have disrupted his rhythm. He looks fine on this pitch, though, even with what appears to be an aging Terminator scanning him from behind home plate. It helps that Scherzer hit his glove.

4. Catcher: Wilson Ramos
Strike Probability: 0.3%
Date: 3/31
Batter: Juan Lagares
Pitcher: Stephen Strasburg
Umpire: Tim Welke
Count: 3-1
Pitch type: Curveball

This slider from Strasburg had plenty of movement, which Ramos tried to counteract by keeping perfectly still when it got to the glove. Instead of reaching out to snag it, he lets it get deep and fall a few more millimeters. Of course, the umpire is supposed to call the pitch according to where it crossed the plate, but not every ump can ignore the influence of that last look. Strasburg leaned to the left after landing as if he could put some extra English on it through body language alone, and Lagares’ body language spoke even louder.

3. Catcher: David Ross
Strike Probability: 0.3%
Date: 4/24
Batter: Jacoby Ellsbury
Pitcher: Mike Carp
Umpire: Phil Cuzzi
Count: 3-1
Pitch type: Four-seamer

Ross catches this one nonchalantly, gloving, dipping, and transferring almost in one seamless motion rather than holding the ball in place for the ump to get a good luck. Either he felt it would be best to fly casual and dispose of the evidence quickly, or he didn’t expect to get the strike call himself. Ellsbury thought he’d seen ball four, but Cuzzi’s call brought him back.

2. Catcher: Russell Martin
Strike Probability: 0.3%
Date: 4/2
Batter: Emilio Bonifacio
Pitcher: Jason Grilli
Umpire: Bob Davidson
Count: 0-1
Pitch type: Four-seamer

Old framing friend Martin sets up outside here, so even though the pitch is well off the corner, he catches it in the middle of his body, which likely influences the umpire’s call. He also brings it back toward the zone slightly with a minimum of glove and head movement. At the end, we again see the telltale sign of a strong reception: the hitter isn’t happy.

1. Catcher: Dioner Navarro
Strike Probability: 0.1%
Date: 4/26
Batter: Will Middlebrooks
Pitcher: Aaron Loup
Umpire: Dan Iassogna
Count: 0-0
Pitch type: Sinker

Navarro’s career framing runs total rests at -33.2, but most of the deficit came in his rookie season; since then, he’s been only a little below average. He doesn’t do anything wrong here, although as we’re about to see, he’s far from perfect.

Worst Frames of April (and March)

5. Catcher: Wilin Rosario
Strike Probability: 99.1%
Date: 4/9
Batter: Tyler Flowers
Pitcher: Matt Belisle
Umpire: Joe West
Count: 0-0
Pitch type: Four-seamer

This is nothing new for Rosario, whose glove movement carries the ball far outside of the strike zone, even though it crosses the plate well within its borders. When you’re watching the slow-motion GIF above, move your cursor away from the video at the moment the ball gets to the glove. Notice that it’s on the outside corner. Then move your cursor back to the video and marvel at how far outside it ends up because Rosario, who was set up outside, was so slow to adjust to the change in location.

4. Catcher: Dioner Navarro
Strike Probability: 99.2%
Date: 4/26
Batter: Mike Carp
Pitcher: Brandon Morrow
Umpire: Jeff Kellogg
Count: 0-0
Pitch type: Four-seamer


There are poor frames, and then there are completely failures to catch the ball. This is one of the latter, and on a four-seamer more or less right down the middle of the plate.

3. Catcher: Yadier Molina
Strike Probability: 99.4
Date: 4/11
Batter: Mike Olt
Pitcher: Kevin Siegrist
Umpire: Gabe Morales
Count: 0-0
Pitch type: Four-seamer

There are poor frames, and then there are completely failures to catch the ball. This is one of the latter, and on a four-seamer more or less right down the middle of the plate.

Although RPM has always liked him (if not to the extent that it adores his older brother), Yadi has broken even as far as extra strikes this season. This is a less exaggerated version of the Rosario reception above; Molina doesn’t send the pitch sailing out of the strike zone the way Rosario did, but he does have to reach across his body, which makes the pitch look less like a strike than it would have had he gotten his glove into position before it arrived.

2. Catcher: Jarrod Saltalamacchia
Strike Probability: 99.6
Date: 4/25
Batter: Curtis Granderson
Pitcher: Henderson Alvarez
Umpire: Andy Fletcher
Count: 1-0
Pitch type: Sinker

Saltalamacchia hasn’t been a good receiver this season, according to RPM, but we probably can’t hold this one against him. Anecdotally, it seemed like a lot of the “worst frames” I highlighted in last year’s series came on attempts to throw out a baserunner, like this one. We’re currently investigating what the typical called strike zone looks like when the catcher comes up throwing; it may be that it would make sense to discard these pitches or adjust for them separately when calculating receiving runs.

1. Catcher: Dioner Navarro
Strike Probability: 99.7
Date: 4/8
Batter: Jason Castro
Pitcher: Aaron Loup
Umpire: Mike Estabrook
Count: 1-0
Pitch type: Sinker


It’s that man again. This pitch cuts across the heart of the strike zone, but Navarro doesn’t do a great job of anticipating where it will end up. The head turn didn’t help, either.

Catcher Spotlight

As promised, a quick look at March/April’s top three frames by Zunino, Grandal, and Rivera.

Mike Zunino, Mariners

Pitch 1 Strike Probability: 6.3%

Zunino relaxes his glove as Rodney delivers, then brings it forward again to receive the pitch, which is similar to a movement Martin makes. When I asked Martin about it, he explained:

To relax, yeah. I’m trying to get underneath the strike zone to where, when I do catch it, I can kind of bring it back up. Because if I give the target and leave the target here, and then the ball is down, if I go down to catch it, it looks like a ball. If I’m giving a target at the bottom of the zone, and I leave it there and I go down, it looks like a ball. If I give the target, relax my glove, come back and catch it up, it just gives the illusion of a strike.

Otherwise, Zunino is pretty quiet and still: his legs and body don't shift, and his head and glove stay almost stationary after he catches the pitch.

Pitch 2 Strike Probability: 6.1%

That's a Lucroy-esque reception of a low pitch that's rarely called a strike. Zunino catches the ball, tugs it up slightly, and parks it there so quickly that it's tough to tell that there was any movement at all.

Pitch 3 Strike Probability: 4.2%

As Martin did in his "best frame" above, Zunino sets up outside for this outside offering, "framing" it by centering it between the shoulders.

Yasmani Grandal, Padres

Pitch 1 Strike Probability: 6.5%

When Grandal gloves this one, his arm is already moving back toward the zone. Any movement after the catch is in the direction that makes the pitch more like to be ruled a strike.

Pitch 2 Strike Probability: 4.7%

Here Grandal doesn't pull the glove back toward his body so much as he reorients it, catching the ball with the leather in a horizontal position and then snapping it up almost 90 degrees to leave a little less of it hanging off the outside edge.

Pitch 3 Strike Probability: 2.7%

Outside edge on a lefty, outside edge on a righty, and now a pitch down below the zone. Grandal does it all.

Rene Rivera, Padres

Pitch 1 Strike Probability: 8.5%

Like Martin and Zunino, and unlike Grandal, Rivera relaxes the glove, then moves it to the appropriate spot and flicks it back toward the center of the zone.

Pitch 2 Strike Probability: 7.2%

Rivera's lightning-fast wrist snap brings down a pitch that's right in the umpire's eyes. When I talked to Hanigan about framing high pitches, he told me:

Framing pitches at the top of the zone, you want to be a lot more subtle, because you’re right in the umpire’s eye right there. So if you move your glove all around and really try to do any of that [makes exaggerated glove movement], it’s right in his face. You’re just going to look like you’re trying to get pitches.

Rivera doesn't make that mistake.


Pitch 3 Strike Probability: 2.1%

Cashner misses his spot here, but Rivera is quick enough to prevent the pitch from looking wild, which wasn't the case with a few of the season's "worst" frames so far. I'll be back with more like this in June.

Thanks to Harry Pavlidis and Nick Wheatley-Schaller for research and image-making assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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