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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.

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geer08
4/05
On "fastball, first pitch, to Josh Beckett," doesn't Dreckman signal a strike? I looked back at the box, and Beckett had a ball and a bunt foul on his two first pitches seen from Lincecum, but Dreckman gives a strike call on whatever pitch that was above. That's not to say this isn't another great piece, Sam, and a real concern for the Giants. When other pitchers have gone with "personal catchers," they've usually been pretty damn good defensively, no?
lyricalkiller
4/05
Huh. How the heck did I miss that. Give me a few minutes...
lyricalkiller
4/05
I just grabbed the wrong pitch in the AB, it's fixed now. Thanks, John
saigonsam
4/05
Fascinating article. I am a huge Lincecum fan and have watched nearly every start of his since he entered the league. I have always thought that his catcher made a big difference to his pitching performance. When Molina was traded to Texas a few years back, his performance dropped immediately. However, he bounced back once Chris Stewart started catching him again. It doesn't seem like he has been comfortable with anyone else.
bornyank1
4/05
Chris Stewart, maybe not coincidentally: very good framer.
PMcDade
4/05
Great article...what do the colors mean on the brooksbaseball pitch location graph? I'm assuming type of pitch (fastball, change-up, etc.), but I'm not sure. Screen captures are excellent and I'd love to know how to do that...Edward Tufte would be proud with the way this data was presented.
lyricalkiller
4/05
The colors are for the different results -- ball, foul, swinging strike, ball in play (runs), etc. Light blue and green are good, orange, maroon and dark blue are bad
NoHeroes
4/05
I hope someone in the Giants organizations reads this. Well done.
Johnston
4/05
I hope that someone in the Giants organization reads this AND PAYS ATTENTION TO IT. And then brings it up to the management.
MikeyVoges
4/05
I've never seen Sanchez catch before, and those gifs made me cringe. Sanchez's receiving reminded me of a dude I sometimes play pick-up basketball with; every time he catches a pass or gets a board he does it with this flamboyant, half-spinning jump as if he's trying to look like Derrick Rose or something. He always ends up turning the ball over. I can't help but see my buddy's imagined fluidity in Sanchez's framing. There is too much sweepy movement from glove to ball.
maphal
4/05
My head is spinning. Nice work, Sam.
jfranco77
4/05
Outstanding analysis.
BeplerP
4/05
Sam: Thank you. This is devastating. Hope somebody on the Giants asks how Sanchez could be allowed to reach MLB with so deficient a skillset. Great woprk.
rweiler
4/05
At the time he was called up, Sanchez was the best available option offensively. The Giants were well aware that he wasn't much of a catcher. The problem now is that catching every 5th day he isn't going to get any better at catching and it is going to set back his development as a hitter as well. Given the spring that Johnny Monell had and the fact that at 26 he isn't much of a prospect, they probably would be better served by giving the job to Monell. However he apparently isn't a very good catcher either.
potterjd
4/05
Excellent article, Sam. Given the importance of exploiting any competitive advantage, no matter how subtle, I hope the Giants are reading your words, too.
oakwcj
4/05
Posey was going to catch Lincecum on Wednesday, but Belt is sick. The Giants are well aware of this issue. Mike Krukow pointed out a bunch of Hector's framing problems during the broadcast. Posey caught most of Lincecum's appearances this spring, including the last game against the A's. They didn't seem to have any issues. What you didn't mention is that Hector's passed ball caused one of Lincecum's runs and Posey's error led to the other. I think this was a one-off and that Posey will catch Lincecum's next start. I'm hopeful that Sanchez will be sent down for further development.
jfranco77
4/05
Do you think Sanchez would be a better catcher with someone else behind the plate? If he really is the best option, framing issues aside, would he be more suited to catching Zito or Vogelsong? I know those guys need every possible call, but maybe their relative lack of stuff would make Hector less stabby.
Synchronik
4/06
He caught Zito fairly regularly last year, and Zito was enthusiastic about him, but he still had the framing issues -- the movement, the stabbing, etc. It would be interesting to see what impact he had on Zito's calls.
juiced
4/06
Yes, I heard a radio pre-game interview with Bochy where he said that they were abandoning Sanchez as Lincecum's personal catcher this year but were starting Sanchez due to Belt's flu bug.
juiced
4/11
Ugh Sanchez caught his 2nd start too
jdeich
4/05
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.
carligula
4/05
I took the top 5 (Molina, Lucroy, Zaun, Martin, and Torrealba) and bottom 5 (Doumit, Posada, Rob Johnson, Laird, and Johjima) from Mike Fast's study. The top 5 have 14,079 career PA (though the study only looked at 2007-2011 framing performance), 9.2%
carligula
4/05
Would anyone else appreciate the ability to edit comments? I took the top 5 (Molina, Lucroy, Zaun, Martin, and Torrealba) and bottom 5 (Doumit, Posada, Rob Johnson, Laird, and Johjima) from Mike Fast's study. The top 5 have 14,079 career PA (though the study only looked at 2007-2011 framing performance), 9.2% BB/PA, and 16.1% K/PA. The bottom 5 have 14,810 career PA, 9.5% BB/PA, and 18.2% K/PA. Not much of a difference. Granted, Posada is responsible for about half the bottom 5's PAs, so he may be skewing matters.
rweiler
4/05
I think it is almost entirely catching technique. It seems fairly obvious to me that you are going to get more calls if you set your target slightly outside the strike zone and move your glove into the zone (from any direction) than you will if you set up in the strike zone and move your glove out. The umpire is going to perceive that movement into the strike zone as evidence that the pitch is more closely centered in the zone than it really is. From the GIFS, Sanchez works almost entirely the other way. His glove is always moving away from the strike zone when he catches the ball, and that creates the converse impression that the ball was farther outside the zone than it really was. Notice also that the glove doesn't hit a brick wall and stop when the ball hits it due to momentum, so by the time Sanchez's glove finally stops moving, he is 6 inches outside the strike zone. If his glove was going the other way he would be centered.
frankopy
4/05
Incisive article. Have a fantasy partner/pal who was bitten by the umpiring bug a couple of seasons ago. This elicits in me a question: Do umps get into proper position to make calls virtually all the time, or is a lack of diligence on their part at work here? Anyway, pitching is an exacting science in some cases, i.e., Maddux had his druthers at the expense of Javy Lopez's bat. Anyway, it's doubtful the Giants aren't painfully aware of the goings on, and Boche's certainly no stranger to what happens around the plate.
gjhardy
4/05
I'll go out on a limb here and suggest that this site is the only baseball site with a reference to Edward Tufte today. Great article. I must confess that I have been ignoring all the catcher framing discussions over the past couple of years, thinking the issue was fairly insignificant, and also because I absorb a lot of my baseball over the radio (for you non-oldtimers, radio is a magic box that somehow allows me to hear what some people are saying at the actual stadium. Crazy, I know! You can read about it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio) Anyway, this article -- and the terrific graphical presentation -- has forced my eyes wide open. When I watch a game, I'll be watching it a bit differently from now on. And it looks like I have some back-reading to do.
alwaxman
4/05
On a positive now Lincecum has quite a bit of late motion on his pitches, maybe he can rebound if had had a better framer to work with. At least until he throws out his back again as that follow-through can't be good for the spine.
PiechP
4/05
I love these pitch framing articles. Along with the excessive head movement and awkward glove rotation when receiving pitches, Sanchez doesn't "frame" or "freeze" the glove after the pitch. I've noticed that Molina holds the glove within the strike zone as if he's giving the umpire more time to decide the call.
beerd90210
4/05
great article. another thing I've noticed that is completely unrelated to this but perhaps not his results, having seen many lincecum starts in person or on tv, is that he flinches very noticebly every time a batter swings. he appears to be terrified of balls back up the middle. you can see a little bit of it in the end of some of the GIFs. I'm not smart enough to know if that means he's not finishing his pitches property.
chrisw
4/05
The bigger problem I just noticed is how far Lincecum was falling off the mount towards 1B. His posture is so bad right now compared to 2010. Its night and day, and probably has something to do with the couple of miles per hour he's lost on his fastball. Please do the Giants a favor and write an article comparing his pre-2010 and current motion. PLEASE!!!!! Thanks!
Shankly
4/05
Another fantastic article. Like Ben's piece on Molina. Thanks, I have learnt a lot about framing today.
tombores99
4/05
Awesome work, Sam. Thanks for delivering such rich context to the Lincecum situation, and I am stoked for this season and the increasing spread of in-game evaluations at BP. Framing, mechanics, PITCHf/x ... these all add to the enjoyment of watching the game, and they bring out the inner coach/scout in all of us. (*bookmark*)
chabels
4/07
Very much this. Sam's gif work and analysis would be fantastic in game stories that use to run here from time to time. Hoping they return.
KerryHofmeister
4/05
This article will be mandatory reading for all my high school catchers. Thanks Sam!
fawcettb
4/06
Agree completely with the last comment. Brilliant. At least part of Linsecum's problem is his catcher...
warpigs
4/08
Great article, Sam. Eye-opening. Thank you.

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