April 12, 2013
This Week in Catcher Framing, 4/12
Each week, before we get to the rankings of the best and worse frames and the GIFs that go with them, I want to talk briefly about some general-interest aspect of framing. In the first installment of this series, I mentioned, just as an aside, that “catchers differ in their ability to get calls in certain sections of the zone in a way that persists from year to year.” Let’s look into that a little more.
We classified pitches within two inches above the strike zone as “high,” within two inches below the strike zone as “low,” and within two inches to either side of the strike zone as “side.” Then we looked at how each catcher did at getting called strikes in each area from 2010-2013. Here are the baseline called strike rates for each section:
Let’s go one by one, starting with the “high” section.
Molina is of above-average height, but he might just be on there because he’s Molina. The other guys are all among the tallest catchers in the game. Height is no guarantee of being among the best at framing high strikes, though: Matt Wieters, the other 6’5” catcher, was just barely above average in high strike rate, at 21.8 percent.
The correlation between catcher height and called high strike rate is a moderate .35, indicating that as catcher height increases, called high strike rate tends to as well. It’s not a given that a tall catcher will be good at getting high strikes, but it certainly seems to help.
Whether because of his height or for some other reason, Mauer is well below average at getting called strikes low, and only a bit above average on the sides of the zone:
High: 35.4% (86.3% above average)
On the whole, Mauer is a good framer, but his framing skills aren’t well-distributed throughout the zone. As the Twins ration his appearances behind the plate in the years ahead, it might make sense for them to have him catch primarily pitchers who work up in the zone (Kevin Correia, Vance Worley) and try to skew his starts at first base or DH toward the days when someone who works low in the zone is starting (P.J. Walters, Scott Diamond). Incidentally, Francisco Liriano is one of the lowest throwers among starters, so throwing to Mauer may have made his control look even worse than it was.
Lucroy isn’t tall, by baseball player standards, but the other guys on this list are—Kratz shows up again—so the link between height and low called strike rate seems a little less clear. This correlation is a weak -0.12, which suggests that shorter catcher are better at getting low strikes (or taller catchers are worse), but not by much. Why do tall catchers have a greater advantage at getting high strikes than short catchers do at getting low strikes? Maybe because it’s easier to bring the glove down than it is to bring the glove up. Keep that in mind for the next few sentences.
Like Mauer, Lucroy excels at framing in one area much more than the others, though he’s good enough everywhere to make him excellent overall.
High: 14.0% (26.3% below average)
I linked to this video last week, but now that we have these numbers, I want to draw your attention to it again:
Here’s the relevant quote:
I give a real low target, so I’m really down here. For me, it’s a lot easier to come up to a ball and make it look like a strike than it is if you have a high target and come down. When you have a high target and you come down, the ball’s going to take you down and the umpire’s going to ball it because that’s what he sees. However, if you start low and come up to it, then you can keep it more in the strike zone, you can control it better. So I always try to bring balls up, a lot. You can get easy strikes like that.
First observation: “The umpire’s going to ball it” is just the best expression. I’m stealing it.
Second observation: It’s always nice when the numbers back up what a player says so perfectly. Lucroy’s comments suggest that it’s not so much player height that controls called strike rates for high and low pitches as it is height of the target, but player height is probably correlated pretty strongly with glove height. So far, I’ve been unable to obtain the COMMANDf/x data from Sportvision that would enable us to determine the exact relationship between where the glove starts out and framing skill in each area.
Pitches on the Sides
As we’d expect, the correlation between catcher height and called side strike rate is .008—in other words, there isn’t one.
Molina shows up on only one of the top five lists, but he’s seventh on the “sides” list and 19th on the low list. He’s not the best in any one area, but he’s among the best in every area:
High: 31.8% (67.4% above average)
The anti-Molina is Ryan Doumit, who’s bad at everything and makes umpires ball it more than anyone else:
High: 13.3% (30% percent below average)
Some of you are visual people, so you might find this helpful. These are plots of balls and called strikes in the high, low, and side zones. I had to make them sort of small so they could fit side by side, but you can click on each one to enlarge. (Note: You don’t see a clean cutoff across the top and bottom of the plotted points because the top and bottom of the strike zone shifts based on the height of the batter. Another note: the sides of the strike zones have two “edges” because the horizontal boundaries vary by batter handedness.)
Mauer and Lucroy are on the top row, and it’s easy to see how different their distribution of called strikes is. Molina and Doumit are on the bottom row, and it’s easy to see how many more strikes Molina gets.
Here, have comparison GIFs:
On to the recap of the past week in framing.
This Week in Molina
Here’s a larger, more detailed image of called pitch outcomes with Molina catching (click to expand). Look at it. Learn it. Love it.
It was a solid week of framing for Molina. He played in five games, starting four and coming in as a defensive replacement in the ninth inning with the Rays up by two runs in the fourth. All told, he added four net strikes, with 18 pitches in the zone called balls and 22 pitches outside of the zone called strikes.
Weekly Net Strikes: 4
Here are Molina’s best three frames of the week (not counting a couple on Chris Davis, which I showed last week, when I was including Thursday’s games in the Friday article). A few programming notes: last time, we ranked frames by distance from the center of the plate; this time, and in future editions, we’ll rank frames by distance from the closest point in the strike zone. (This way makes more sense, since it accounts for the height and strike zone boundaries of the batter. Using distance from the center of the zone, a low pitch to a short batter rates the same as a low pitch to a tall batter, but getting a strike on the latter is harder to do.) We’re not calculating strike probability per pitch yet, so there’s no adjustment for the count or the umpire, but we are correcting for PITCHf/x park calibration.
Molina set up inside, and the pitch drifted over the middle, so it wasn’t the cleanest reception—probably less smooth than the top two GIFs. He still got the strike. Last week I talked about how enjoyable the reactions generally are when batters get framed by Molina more than once in a plate appearance. Here’s Gentry taking an inside strike immediately after the low strike called on him above:
Best Frames of the Week
One of the best frames of the week belongs to Ryan Doumit, who still managed to seem surprised that he'd caught the ball. Even a blind backstop finds a frame once in a while. In Doumit's defense, the Royals and Twins were apparently playing in London, circa 1952.
Thus far, Doumit has caught two games and DHed in seven. That seems like the right ratio, if you have to have him catch.
Soto stayed almost perfectly still, except for his glove, which moved as little as possible.
That called strike must have either prompted that discussion or made the announcers look smart. Unlike Arencibia, Avila is quiet behind the plate, with no noticeable head dip, but he caught that pitch casually, almost as if he didn’t expect a strike. Judging by Arencibia’s double-take, he didn’t expect a strike either.
Worst Frames of the Week
5. Date: April 10
Doumit is on the worst frames list, too. That's more like it, although this pitch didn't look all that much like a strike. Then again, Doumit isn't very good at making pitches look like strikes. That's the problem with Doumit.
4. Date: April 10
I received one more relevant Twitter tip:
None of Saltalamacchia’s frames for Hanrahan on April 10 showed up as particularly poor, but he did have three of the 22 worst frames for the week. Lester missed his spot, but flipping the glove isn't a great way to disguise that.
This doesn't seem like terrible technique. If anything, Iannetta seems to move the glove up, slightly but unnecessarily, before the ball reaches him.
It may be the worst, but it's not the worst. But if you ignore the glove, it looks like it might've caught the inside part of the plate.
Thanks again to Ryan Lind for his research assistance, without which this article would have been way worse.