Wednesday was the first start of Tim Lincecum's season, which felt worth watching closely because new seasons are new starts. There's a feeling, perhaps justified and perhaps not, that the borders between seasons might actually matter, and that a player might find his former self more easily once a new year has begun.
Watching Lincecum, though, also meant watching—or, at least, seeing, if not noticing—another player's first start of the season. Hector Sanchez was behind the plate, as he usually is for Tim Lincecum, and as he rarely is for anybody else, because Hector Sanchez isn't much of a catcher. He's Lincecum's catcher for reasons that, so far as I can tell, have never really been made explicit by the Giants, but those unexplicit reasons have meant that Buster Posey has left his usual spot behind the plate for 18 of Lincecum's past 20 games. The Giants don't use the exact phrase, but Sanchez has acted as Lincecum's personal catcher.
Sanchez is a young catcher who can theoretically hit but who struggles with some of the more nuanced parts of the game, such as framing. In 56 games last year, Sanchez gave back eight runs on framing alone; apply those runs to his WARP and the Giants' replacement level backup turns into a very questionable major leaguer, for now at least.
So Lincecum's 2013 debut was also Sanchez's 2013 debut. In one way of looking at it, it went great—the Giants won; Lincecum didn't allow an earned run—and in another way of looking at it Lincecum walked seven and Sanchez struggled to convince the umpire that pitches right down the middle were pitches in the strike zone at all. Here's Lincecum's called-pitch chart for the game, with helpful asymmetrical circles drawn around each of the borderline (or, in some cases, not borderline) pitches that were called balls:
It's never easy to say who gets the blame for these pitches being called balls. Was it Lincecum, for missing his spots? Lincecum did miss a lot of spots, but most pitchers do, and part of what we judge good catchers on is their ability to catch those pitches quietly and sturdily. Was it umpire Bruce Dreckman? Certainly, the rulebook doesn't say anything about the catcher's target, or ability to receive a pitch, affecting the strike zone, so in a sense yes, it's his fault that pitches in the strike zone weren't called strikes. But teams don't get to take moral stands on this issue; they need to work with the umpiring culture that actually exists. And Dreckman has been a fair, perhaps slightly pitcher-friendly umpire in his career.
Was it Sanchez? A lot of it was probably Sanchez. Let's take a look at some of these pitches:
Fastball, 1-1 count to Josh Beckett:
In Mike Fast's September 2011 piece on catcher framing, he identified a few negative tendencies that seem to cost catchers calls. One was a catcher who "dropped his head to follow the pitch into his glove and he hunched down slightly, as if he were trying to coax the ball carefully into his glove." Sanchez will do that on nearly every pitch that follows, most notably the third pitch in this piece (though that pitch is a curveball, not a fastball.)
Fastball, first pitch, A.J. Ellis:
My first instinct watching this pitch was that Lincecum missed his target by so much that there was little Sanchez could do to frame it. But in fact Lincecum didn't miss it by nearly as much as Sanchez makes it look like he missed it by, which is basically the point of catcher framing. Here's the target, and the last frame before the ball disappears.
And, for good measure, a picture with both the target and the pitch side by side:
Lincecum doesn't want to throw pitches that leak over the plate like that, for obvious reasons. But if he can't count on that to be a strike—it was 1.8 inches from the very middle of the zone horizontally, and about six inches higher than the bottom of the strike zone, according to Brooks Baseball—then he's doomed. This seems like a convincing case of catcher error, umpire error, or a combination.
Curveball, first pitch, Juan Uribe:
Somehow, Juan Uribe got all the luck Wednesday. Of the 10 balls that Lincecum threw that were closest to the center of the strike zone, but not called strikes, Uribe was the batter for five of them.
Fastball, 1-0 count, Juan Uribe:
It's a borderline low strike that Sanchez stab-stab-stabs at and drags down to the ground:
Obviously, it's not easy to catch a running fastball that is at or just below the knees with heavy sink. You can understand Sanchez's challenge. But as I'm cropping the two pictures above, I look up and that very moment see Jose Molina do this:
Nobody deserves to be held to a Molina standard, but it can be done.
Two-seam fastball, first pitch, Carl Crawford:
This is probably the quietest Sanchez receives a pitch on this list, and it's not very quiet. It's another low strike, and again Sanchez drops his head and doesn't get the call.
Fastball, first pitch, to Josh Beckett:
Slider, first pitch, to Juan Uribe, and Fastball, 2-0, to Juan Uribe:
Consecutive frames: Ball at the knees, glove on the ground.
Jonathan Lucroy talked about his framing strategy on MLB.com, and you can hear him basically say exactly what Sanchez is doing wrong. "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 to give a high target and come down. If you give a high target and come down the ball's gonna take you down, the umpire's going to call it because that's what he sees. I always try to bring the balls up. You can get easy strikes like that." Or lose easy strikes the other way.
Fastball, 3-0, to Carl Crawford:
This one is incredible because it's on 3-0, when just about any close pitch is called a strike. In the few frames after Sanchez catches it, you can even see Lincecum seem to freeze up at the non-call. Sanchez' head drops, for no reason.
There was a time not long ago when we mostly ignored catcher framing, and now we don’t. So it’s not inconceivable that there will come a time when we don’t ignore pitcher-catcher relationships, and the comfort issues that lead to some pitchers getting personal catchers. The reasons Sanchez instead of Posey catches Lincecum are the team's business—shoot, it's even possible that these starts are all a coincidence, or a flimsy excuse to keep Posey from spending too much time behind the plate; see this comment for more context—but Tim Kawakami speculated this spring that there might be tension going back to Posey’s much-hyped call-up.
It’s almost certainly true that Lincecum has never told Bochy he disliked pitching to Posey, and I know Posey wants to catch Lincecum.
But it’s probably just as true that Bochy knew that Lincecum was more comfortable with Sanchez or Eli Whiteside.
And it’s beyond doubt that Posey is nothing like Molina, who coaxed his pitchers, pumped them up, and especially was on the same emotional wavelength as the improvisational Lincecum.
Posey likes to make a plan, stick to the plan, and has been known to utter a few sharp words to pitchers—even Lincecum, even when Posey was young—during games to get them back on the plan.
So we speculate—and that's all it is, speculation, but it's not unreasonable speculation—that Lincecum is simply more comfortable throwing to Hector Sanchez. The price he pays for this comfort is having a worse hitter in his lineup (Posey generally plays first base these days, and Sanchez hits instead of Brandon Belt or an outfielder) and throwing to a catcher who costs him strikes. Maybe it's worth it, for Lincecum and for the Giants. Someday, maybe we won't ignore the comfort stuff when we analyze these things. But for now, catcher framing is what we've got, and for now Sanchez is hard to watch.