Entering this season, BP projected Minnesota’s catching corps to be the second-worst in baseball in the pitch-receiving sense, behind only the Rockies’. Thus far, it looks like we were too kind to the Twins.
According to our team catcher framing report, the Twins are dead last in framing runs added (or first in framing runs lost, if you want to put a more positive spin on it) at -23.9, over 30 percent worse than the second-worst team, the Marlins. Despite limited opportunities, backup Josmil Pinto ranks third-worst among all catchers at -6.9 runs; starter Kurt Suzuki comes in eighth-worst at -5.7 (in over twice the playing time).
When the Twins signed Kendrys Morales, they sent Pinto back to Triple-A rather than have him start sporadically. Of course, the 25-year-old had already been benched more often than not. Today, we got a better sense of why that was so, courtesy of a radio appearance by Twins closer Glen Perkins (as relayed by Pioneer Press beat writer Mike Berardino). When asked about Pinto’s defense by 1500 ESPN Radio hosts Phil Mackey and Judd Zulgad, Perkins didn’t pull any punches.
He’s a long ways away, to be honest with you. Balls close to the zone, balls below the zone—I guess I don’t really know about blocking and all those things—but his pitch framing, he’s got some work to do. … I don’t know what level he’s at, but he’s surely not at the big-league level as far as catching for me.
(Note: Pinto has been a slightly below-average blocker, too.)
Our “Framing Data by Battery” report tells us that Perkins’ catchers have deprived him of 8.5 called strikes this season relative to the average receiver, with 6.1 of them attributable to Suzuki, who’s caught him roughly twice as often. We know that pitchers can tell when their catchers are costing them strikes, and we know that Perkins is among the most sabermetrically savvy players, so it’s no surprise that he’s miffed to be missing out on the frame train (though it is somewhat surprising that he aired his grievances in public). “Pitch-framing ability, I think that makes the biggest difference in the world,” Perkins said.*
Let’s look at a couple instances when it might have made a difference this year. Below are the two called balls from Perkins to Pinto this season that had the highest probability of being called strikes, based on location, count, pitch type, and batter/pitcher handedness. The first, an 0-0 April 5 sinker to Mike Aviles, had a 91.4 percent strike probability, but Pinto stabs across his body to catch the pitch, jerking his head as he does so:
The second, an 0-0 four-seamer to Matt Kemp on May 1, had a 90.5 percent strike probability:
The run on the fastball makes this one look less like a strike; it’s possible that if our framing model accounted not only for pitch location, but pitch angle, the strike probability would be lower, since the fastball runs in on Kemp considerably after crossing the plate, potentially influencing the umpire. However, Pinto accentuates that movement, making it look farther inside than it was when it got to his glove. Pinto also cost Perkins a pair of pitches with strike probabilities in the 80s last September, and he hasn’t converted many likely balls into strikes to make up for it.
As we noted late last year, Pinto was the second-worst receiver in the upper minors last season, finishing an estimated 21.8 runs worse than average. In his September debut in the majors, he sank 4.3 runs further into the red. This is what the Twins signed up for. However, they also signed up for an above-average bat, which Pinto supplied, delivering a roughly league-average line that was above the backstop baseline.
“He’s got a big-league bat,” Perkins said. “That was the toughest part about him going.”
All else being equal, a good receiver trumps a poor one, but it’s rare that all else is entirely equal. If you have a productive offensive platoon behind the plate, as do the Oakland A’s, it might make perfect sense to surrender receiving skills in exchange for big bats. On the other hand, if you have a plus framer, it might not matter that he hits like…well, a backup catcher. As the industry embraces framing, we’re getting a clearer idea of where the breakeven point is.
For the Twins—or at least for Perkins—Pinto’s bat evidently didn’t outweigh his defensive shortcomings, at least as the team is currently constituted. However, it’s possible to stray too far toward the other end of the spectrum. Perkins astutely cites Jose Molina as one of the best receivers in baseball, but Molina is hitting .141/.189/.141 in 108 plate appearances this year. Even though Molina’s manager values his defense, at some point—the point where a player goes half a season without an extra-base hit, perhaps—that value might be drowned out by the things he doesn’t do well. Pitchers enjoy throwing to good defensive catchers, but they’re partial to run support, too. And while framing is worth more than we once thought it was, runs scored are still essentially as precious as runs saved.
*Perkins says that current Twins backup catcher Eric Fryer is “really good at pitch framing,” which hasn’t shown up as of yet in the small-sample stats. Whether Fryer turns out to be tremendous or terrible, Perkins can console himself with two thoughts. First: He has the best whiff rate of any pitcher on the contact-prone Twins (min. 20 IP), so he can get some strikes without receiving assistance. And second: He’s already survived the Ryan Doumit Backstop Experience. It’s all uphill from there.
Thanks to Harry Pavlidis for research assistance and Nick Wheatley-Schaller for video assistance.