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April 19, 2013

Overthinking It

This Week in Catcher Framing, 4/19

by Ben Lindbergh

Before we get to the rankings and GIFs, a brief detour. In the comments section of Sam Miller’s article about Hector Sanchez’s poor framing in Tim Lincecum’s first start of the season, reader “jdeich” floated the possibility of a link between good receiving skills and a selective approach at the plate:

I can't help wondering if Hack-tor just doesn't recognize pitches well out of the pitcher's hand (in general), and that leads to both his framing problems and his ridiculously poor batting eye. (2012: 5 BB in 227 PA, vs. 52 K.)

Does good framing ability correlate with a good batting eye? Obviously the catcher has the advantage of knowing what pitch was called, but he still must react to the precise location and break of what is thrown.

Josa Molina certainly isn't selective at the plate, but I'm wondering about a larger trend.

When you ask people who work in baseball what makes a good framing catcher (which I’ve been doing a lot lately), good eyesight and pitch recognition tend to be pretty far down the list. But I have heard those qualities mentioned, so it’s not just jdeich wondering whether the same skills can serve catchers well both at the plate and behind it.

We can check! Over the past five seasons, 86 catchers have caught at least 1000 pitches and made at least 500 plate appearances. The top 20 framers of those 86, in terms of the ratio between out-of-zone strikes and in-zone balls, have an average career walk-to-strikeout ratio of 0.501. The bottom 20 framers have an average career BB/K of 0.480. The correlation between OZoneStrike/ZoneBall ratio and BB/K is a weak 0.11, and the correlation between OZoneStrike/ZoneBall ratio and contact rate is an even weaker 0.07. Framing standouts Jose Molina and Jonathan Lucroy have below-average BB/Ks.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that the connection is so tenuous. BB/K ratio and contact rate are themselves imperfect proxies for pitch recognition and, as jdeich acknowledges, catchers have a much better idea than batters of where a pitch will end up. Presumably, a catcher could be bad at picking up a pitch when he’s at the plate and doesn’t know what’s coming, and perfectly fine at tracking a pitch that he calls for himself from a pitcher whose stuff he’s seen often. Knowing what velocity, movement, and approximate location to expect removes a lot of the guesswork from receiving, allowing other attributes—body movement, glove placement, angle relative to the umpire, etc.—to take precedence in distinguishing the good framers from the bad.

***

League Leaders

Starting this week, in addition to monitoring Jose Molina, I’ll be keeping a running tally of the 10 top and bottom backstops in terms of OZoneStrike/ZoneBall ratio and total runs saved (subtracting 0.13 runs for every ball in the zone and adding 0.13 runs for every strike outside the zone). Let’s start with the two top 10 lists through Wednesday’s games. And keep in mind: it’s early.

The Best

Ratio

Catcher

OZoneStrikes

ZoneBalls

Ratio

Carlos Corporan

24

6

4.00

Jonathan Lucroy

82

26

3.15

Martin Maldonado

14

6

2.33

Hank Conger

16

8

2.00

Evan Gattis

48

29

1.66

Francisco Cervelli

53

34

1.56

Yadier Molina

74

48

1.54

Jose Lobaton

35

25

1.40

Wilson Ramos

29

22

1.32

Erik Kratz

56

44

1.27

Runs

Catcher

OZoneStrikes

ZoneBalls

Runs

Jonathan Lucroy

82

26

7.3

Yadier Molina

74

48

3.4

Evan Gattis

48

29

2.5

Francisco Cervelli

53

34

2.5

Carlos Corporan

24

6

2.3

Erik Kratz

56

44

1.6

Jose Lobaton

35

25

1.3

Martin Maldonado

14

6

1.0

Hank Conger

16

8

1.0

Wilson Ramos

29

22

0.9

  • I wrote about Jonathan Lucroy last week. I hesitate to call him the best framing catcher, since Molina, at least prior to this season, has been better on a per-pitch basis. But Lucroy, unlike Molina, is young and has the potential to play more, so he stands an excellent chance of finishing the season with the most runs saved from framing. He’s already well on his way. Anything low, with Lucroy catching, you should probably swing.
     
  • Between Lucroy and Martin Maldonado, Brewers pitchers can count on throwing to a skilled receiver every time out. The Brewers have allowed the most runs per game in the National League. Imagine how many runs they might have allowed without all those extra strikes.
     
  • In the comments section of last week’s edition, reader “pobothecat” asked about Evan Gattis’ framing skills. Well, so far, so good. Also, I hear he can hit a little.
     
  • It’s not surprising to see an Astros catcher on the list, in light of where Mike Fast has his office these days. But if you scroll down to the bottom 10, you’ll see an Astros catcher there, too. Of course, both catchers predate the Luhnow front office.
     
  • The presence of two good framers on one team doesn’t prove that that team is studying these stats (or at least emphasizing framing) more than most, but it’s certainly suggestive. Lucroy/Maldonado, Molina/Lobaton, Cervelli/Stewart, and Martin/McKenry have all been pretty potent combinations, framing-wise.

The Worst

Ratio

Catcher

OZoneStrikes

ZoneBalls

Ratio

John Baker

6

19

0.32

Yorvit Torrealba

8

22

0.36

Ryan Doumit

7

19

0.37

Jesus Montero

23

62

0.37

Gerald Laird

10

26

0.38

A.J. Pierzynski

22

51

0.43

Nick Hundley

37

78

0.47

Hector Sanchez

10

21

0.48

Miguel Olivo

11

23

0.48

Kelly Shoppach

12

25

0.48

Runs

Catcher

OZoneStrikes

ZoneBalls

Runs

Matt Wieters

41

85

-5.7

Nick Hundley

37

78

-5.3

Jesus Montero

23

62

-5.1

A.J. Pierzynski

22

51

-3.8

Chris Iannetta

30

59

-3.8

Rob Brantly

35

64

-3.8

Ryan Hanigan

35

60

-3.3

Wilin Rosario

23

47

-3.1

Kurt Suzuki

25

48

-3.0

Jason Castro

35

58

-3.0

  • A little strange to see Wieters, Torrealba, and Hanigan here—again, it’s early—but the rest of the names look about right.
     
  • Doumit has now caught three of the Twins’ 13 games. That prorates to 37 games over a 162-game schedule. Joe Mauer has topped 119 starts at catcher only once, and not for five years. Either the Twins are planning to work him hard, or they’re going to deal with more Doumit at some point this season.

This Week in Molina, 4/11-4/17

Weekly Net Strikes: 2
Weekly Net Runs: 0.26
Weekly Playing Time:
5 G, 2 GS, 30.0 innings
Yearly Playing Time: 12 G, 8 GS, 72.3 innings
Yearly Net Strikes: 5
Yearly Net Runs: 0.65

Another solid-but-unspectacular week from Molina, who ranks 11th in runs saved. We’ve yet to see him rack up the kind of runs saved totals he had last season, but there’s plenty of time. Here are his three best frames since last week, with some commentary:

3. Date: April 14
Batter: Shane Victorino
Pitcher: Alex Cobb
Count: 0-0
Pitch type: 79-mph curveball
Distance from Strike Zone: 0.196 feet

Note how Molina drops to his knee to receive this pitch. Presumably, he’s trying to drop his target for what he knows will be a low breaking ball (and maybe get into a better position to block the ball). One wonders whether he drops the knee only on low breaking balls, and only with the bases empty (since with a runner on second relaying signs, the knee drop could be a giveaway that the curve is coming). One will check before next week.

2. Date: April 17
Batter: Nolan Reimold
Pitcher: Fernando Rodney
Count: 0-0
Pitch type: 96-mph four-seam fastball
Distance from Strike Zone: 0.242 feet

This time, Molina knows a high pitch is coming, so he adjusts his pre-pitch crouch again. Compare his height off the ground before this pitch to his height on the pitch you’ll see next, a low two-seamer:

Since Molina is higher to start with, he doesn’t have to raise his glove to the ball as much as he would have otherwise. That makes the pitch's elevation a little less obvious, and Molina comes away with the call.

1. Date: April 14
Batter: Daniel Nava
Pitcher: Alex Cobb
Count: 2-0
Pitch type: 88-mph two-seam fastball
Distance from Strike Zone: 0.32 feet

Nava was not happy.

So that’s two low pitches, and one high pitch. As discussed last week, Molina is a multi-purpose framer, not a Mauer/Lucroy-like specialist: he’s adept at presenting pitches as strikes no matter what border of the strike zone they approach. And given how he adjusts his setup prior to each pitch, it’s not hard to see why.

Best Frames of the Week

5. Date: April 16
Catcher: Jonathan Lucroy
Batter: Hunter Pence
Pitcher: Mike Fiers
Count: 3-1
Pitch type: 90-mph four-seam fastball
Distance from Strike Zone: 0.483 feet

Well, whad’ya know. A low pitch to Lucroy.

4. Date: April 13
Catcher: Evan Gattis
Batter: Ryan Zimmerman
Pitcher: Tim Hudson
Count: 0-1
Pitch type: 89-mph sinker
Distance from Strike Zone: 0.497 feet

Gattis has a wide stance, which makes him more stable, and he hardly moves as the pitch makes its way to the plate. He looks the part of a solid receiver.

3. Date: April 12
Catcher: Rob Brantly
Batter: Laynce Nix
Pitcher: Steve Cishek
Count: 1-0
Pitch type: 94-mph sinker
Distance from Strike Zone: 0.531 feet

Brantly stays very still here, too. He’s on the bottom 10 list above, but he could work his way off with more frames like that.

2. Date: April 12
Catcher: Erik Kratz
Batter: Juan Pierre
Pitcher: Mike Adams
Count: 1-0
Pitch type: 88-mph four-seam fastball
Distance from Strike Zone: 0.563 feet

Kratz was fourth on last week’s list of the best low-pitch framers. He was also fifth on the list of high-pitch framers. Kratz is a good defensive catcher (who hasn't hit at all through his first 50 plate appearances).

1. Date: April 14
Catcher: Humberto Quintero
Batter: Juan Pierre
Pitcher: Roy Halladay
Count: 0-0
Pitch type: 79-mph splitter
Distance from Strike Zone: 0.607 feet

It’s hard to tell, since Halladay’s upper body is blocking the plate, but this one was outside. Pierre wasn’t pleased, and with good reason: he was the batter for the past week’s best, second-best, and sixth-best frames. Poor Juan Pierre.

Worst Frames of the Week

5. Date: April 11
Catcher: A.J. Ellis
Batter: Nick Hundley
Pitcher: Zack Greinke
Count: 2-1
Pitch type: 93-mph four-seam fastball
Distance from Center of Strike Zone: 0.479 feet

The bulk of Ellis’ body doesn’t move much while the pitch is in flight, but seemingly on every pitch, he initially lowers his glove, then brings it back up, which has to distract the umpire. He also catches this one awkwardly, rolling the glove over instead of just shifting it toward the inside part of the plate without changing its orientation. Greinke didn’t miss the target by that much.

4. Date: April 17
Catcher: Kurt Suzuki
Batter: Donovan Solano
Pitcher: Ross Detwiler
Count: 0-0
Pitch type: 94-mph four-seam fastball
Distance from Center of Strike Zone: 0.448 feet

Suzuki is a stabber. Detwiler missed the target, but Suzuki seemed slow to react, snapping the glove out to intercept the pitch at the last second. That’s not a great way to get calls.

3. Date: April 17
Catcher: Derek Norris
Batter: Marwin Gonzalez
Pitcher: Bartolo Colon
Count: 0-0
Pitch type: 90-mph four-seam fastball
Distance from Center of Strike Zone: 0.447 feet

Not the worst technique; maybe a bit too much movement, or maybe the umpire’s view was blocked by Norris’ shoulder.

2. Date: April 12
Catcher: A.J. Ellis
Batter: Cliff Pennington
Pitcher: Clayton Kershaw
Count: 0-0
Pitch type: 91-mph four-seam fastball
Distance from Center of Strike Zone: 0.433 feet

Ellis again. Once more, we see the lowering and raising of the glove, followed by a stab at a pitch that didn’t miss its target by as much as Ellis made it appear.

1. Date: April 17
Catcher: Jonathan Lucroy
Batter: Ryan Vogelsong
Pitcher: Kyle Lohse
Count: 0-0
Pitch type: 72-mph curveball
Distance from Center of Strike Zone: 0.32 feet

Well, this is embarrassing. After all my compliments about Lucroy, he ends up with the worst frame of the week. But this one isn’t as much about poor framing technique as it is a lack of intent to frame: Lucroy was more concerned with checking the runner back to first than he was with getting the call. It didn’t help that Vogelsong was almost on one knee himself.

Thanks to Ryan Lind for research assistance.

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

15 comments have been left for this article.

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