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Of all of the recent advances in sabermetrics, catcher framing is likely the one with the greatest impact on our view of the game. Already, it has begun to affect our notions of player value, giving us a new respect for defensively-minded backstops. But even beyond that, our new knowledge of framing re-allocates a huge amount of the value we had implicitly assigned to the pitcher.

Catcher framing, and its effect on the game, are also difficult to measure rigorously. Fortunately, we are lucky enough to have Jonathan Judge, Harry Pavlidis, and Dan Brooks on the case. Their most recent article provided a precise framework for measuring much of the value due to catcher framing.

However, their work has been focused to date on examining the direct impact of the catcher upon the strike calls. Catcher framing quality to date has been measured only in the set of pitches which are not swung upon, whose value is determined by the umpire’s call. But there is another player present in the matchup in the person of the batter, and catcher framing may also impact the batters’ actions.

The batter suffers when there’s a good framer behind the plate, and prospers when there’s a poor one. A good framer expands the zone, making marginal pitches more likely to become strikes. Yet the batter is not a wholly passive observer in this process. If the batter behaves optimally, he must adjust his strategy to compensate for the framer’s quality, changing the pitches that ought to be swung upon.

For example, let’s imagine two batter/pitcher/framer trios in the same situation. In one, there’s a good framer behind the plate; let’s call him Jonathan Lucroy. In another, there’s a terrible framer, say, Josmil Pinto. The count is 2-2, and the pitcher laces a fastball that will land on the black, right at the edge of the rulebook strike zone.

As always, the batter is faced with that pivotal question of whether to swing. Given the location and the count, there is a decent probability of a strikeout if he leaves the bat atop his shoulder. On the other hand, a swing risks making poor contact.

The decision is further complicated by the framers. Lucroy dramatically increases the probability of a strike call, thus enhancing the downside of taking the pitch (increasing the probability of the strikeout). Conversely, Pinto decreases the same probability, making it more feasible to be patient. The batter, if they are taking framing into account, ought to be more likely to swing when Lucroy crouches behind them than when Pinto holds the mitt.

To be clear, the above situation only holds if the batter is 1) aware of the quality of the framer and 2) adjusts his behavior accordingly. So that’s the first question I’ll ask: Do batters adjust their swinging in accordance with the true called strike probability, as affected by the catcher’s framing skill?

Here’s how we can get to the answer. I built two models of called strike probability. In the first model, I considered only the raw coordinates of the pitch, horizontal and vertical, as well as the count. In the second model, I considered the above variables, as well as the identity of the catcher. The latter model, we know from extensive prior research, is more accurate because it incorporates the effect of the catcher.

For each model, I predicted the called strike probability for all of the pitches thrown in 2014. Then, I ran a logistic regression to predict whether a hitter would swing or not, based on the called strike probability, as reckoned by the two models, and the count.

You might have guessed at this already, but hitters, it turns out, are attuned to the skill of the catcher behind the plate. The second model, incorporating the effect of framing, fits the data significantly1[1] better than the first model. In plain English, what this means is that strike probabilities which incorporate framing better predict the behavior of the batter than those which rely only on the physical coordinates of the ball.

This result therefore implies that hitters are able to take into account the framer behind the plate in making the decision to swing or to hold, which answers the first pair of questions I posed. The batters are indeed aware, and they do seem to change their behavior, modifying the probability with which they swing in accordance with the catcher’s reputation. Not that we needed any more evidence in favor of the reality of pitch framing, but I do think that this result is a powerful piece of verification: batters have every reason to perform optimally, and they have clearly judged that to do so, they must consider the framing skill of the catcher in determining when to swing.

Leaving that aside for now, I want to push this line of inquiry a step further. Going back to the example I posed above, the hitter is more likely to swing with a good framer behind him. The swing itself negates the pitch from being counted as a positive outcome for the catcher, but there’s no denying that the catcher influenced the outcome of the at-bat. Specifically, he forced the batter to make a swing he might not otherwise would have, at a pitch that was further from the center of the plate than perhaps the batter would have liked.

That’s important because I have shown before that the closer a pitch is to dead-center, the better the quality of contact the hitter can make. For every inch one travels horizontally from the center of the zone, BABIP and SLG drop dramatically. So, one way in which catchers may be influencing at-bats is by inducing hitters to swing at pitches from the center of the zone, thereby reducing the quality of contact that the batters make.

It’s one thing to posit that this effect may be present, and another thing to show it. Let’s take a look at Jonathan Lucroy, an excellent framer by any standard, and highly rated in particular by BP’s new metric CSAA (at 26 Runs/7k chances). For pitches when Lucroy was catching, the opposing batter swung 45.4% of the time. On average, those pitches were .53 feet from the center of the strike zone horizontally. The same batters, in the other at-bats they saw, swung at pitches .518 feet from the center of the zone. That’s a significant difference[2] (p = .002). Against Lucroy, then, their swings got a little further from the zone’s center, consistent with the scenario I outlined above. The batters are forced, by Lucroy’s exceptional talents, to try to make quality contact with pitches a little bit further outside than they are normally comfortable with.

Now let’s look at the flip side of framing, at those stabbing, noisy receivers who cost their pitchers precious strikes. Last week’s analysis suggested that Josmil Pinto was an exceptionally poor receiver, so let’s look at his pitches. On average, when hitters faced pitchers Pinto was catching, they swung at pitches .51 feet from the center of the zone, near Lucroy’s number. When they faced all pitchers, they swung at pitches .516 feet from the center of the zone horizontally. That difference—-.006 feet—is the reverse of what I noted for Lucroy. That is, they actually swung at pitches closer to the center of zone against Pinto, relative to other batteries they faced.

I went ahead and did the same calculations for a select few other framers marked by Jonathan, Harry, and Dan as either very good or very bad:

Name

Framing Value (CSAA)

Swing Distance With

Swing Distance Without

Difference

Yasmani Grandal

29 Runs/7k

.528 feet

.519 feet

.009 feet

Buster Posey

30 Runs/7k

.532 feet

.516 feet

.016 feet

Carlos Santana

-23 Runs/7k

.461 feet

.515 feet

-.054 feet

From these examples, you can see that a good framer increases the horizontal swing distance of the batter. Meanwhile, a poor framer, like Carlos Santana, can even decrease the swing distance quite substantially (granted, Santana caught relatively few pitches last year, so this number should be taken with a grain of salt).

The effect size is usually quite small, I should note: .12 feet is a bit more than an inch[3]. But also bear in mind that, like Lucroy’s framing, that modest effect is multiplied over many thousands of swings. Putting numbers to it, batters going against Lucroy and his pitcher swung 8691 times in 2014. Consequently, one way to think about it is that Lucroy forced his opponents to swing at pitches a grand total of more than 1000 feet (8691 swings * .18 feet per swing) further from the center of the strike zone than if a poor framer like Santana or Pinto had been behind the plate instead.

More concretely, Lucroy probably forced the opposing batters to swing at pitches they didn’t like just a little bit more, in thousands of separate instances. That has all sorts of negative effects, like increasing swinging strike rate, decreasing BABIP, and preventing hard contact. Fully accounting for all of these effects will wait for a later treatment, because it is by no means a trivial task. We would also need to adjust for all of the batters, pitchers, and parks involved, all of which is perhaps best accomplished within a formal modelling framework.

But what I have established here is that the effect of a good receiver extends beyond the pitches that batters let go by. A good framer, by changing the probability of a strike at the edge, causes the opposing hitter to modify their own behavior, causing them to swing at pitches a little bit further from the center of the zone. In addition to harming the batter’s chances directly, by flipping balls to strikes, a good framer changes the dynamics of the at-bat indirectly as well. This effect suggests that the numbers we’ve generated to date for the value of framing are probably underestimates, which is good news for all the steady receivers of the world.



[1] AIC of the first model: 44819; AIC of the second model: 51459. Relative likelihood of Model 2 = 0.

[2] By permutation test.

[3] Also note that for this initial attempt, I’m only looking at the horizontal distance from the zone center. We would also expect the vertical distance to be affected, so these estimates of swing distance are probably too conservative.

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fawcettb
2/11
This confirms what I always suspected while I was catching: only catchers really matter... Great work.
harrypav
2/11
12 year old me agrees strongly. Stupid pitchers getting all the credit. I want some ice cream.
therealn0d
2/11
Oh, does this bring back 12 year old me memories. On the All Star team they had me play SS full time, claiming they didn't have anyone else that could do it well enough, so I wasn't allowed to pitch...until they needed me for an emergency in an elimination game. Catcher had never caught me before, I hadn't pitched in two weeks, and said catcher had an annoying habit of opening his glove at the last moment to receive the pitch (which kept bouncing off the front of his glove). I was throwing gas straight down the middle and couldn't get a single called strike. Stupid catcher, you owe me ice cream.
harrypav
2/11
Caveat to consider: the way framing is translated into runs is 'aware' of the fact that a called strike expands the zone/leads to weaker balls in play later in the AB. It may be challenging to further isolate an effect beyond this, although it is possible. So far I've thought of - look at first pitch swings - see of good framers have better LWTS (outcomes) than bad framers beyond what would be predicted by the count and other factors
nada012
2/11
That's an excellent point, i.e. that some (but I suspect not all) of this effect is already incorporated into the existing model. An important caveat. I like the LWTS idea, that seems like a good way to go.
belewfripp
2/13
And even if all of the effect were already incorporated, it's still worthwhile to know that the value of framing can be split into different categories of effect. Being able to measure separate components is helpful, especially in quantifying very specific effects seen with a particular catcher, for example. It's also possible that catcher/umpire pairings can also affect some aspects of framing but not others?
frontofficemike
2/11
What effect, if any, do you think the Brewers seemingly team philosophy of pitching low and away has on these results? Does it possibly help skew Lucroy's framing numbers or do Lucroy's superior framing skills help the team effectively execute this strategy?
nada012
2/11
On these results, I suspect the effect would be small. The Brewers might be targeting that area more, but they can't force batters to swing. Lucroy can force them, by making the probability of a strike there much higher. With that said, I wonder if perhaps the Brewers calibrated their down-and-away philosophy to take advantage of Lucroy's particularly excellent skill. Generally, I think looking at how location/pitch type choices are affected by the framer seems like a good area for more research, one that we have been talking about. As to whether the strategy might influence Lucroy's numbers, I will leave that to the framing experts. My guess is that it might affect his cumulative numbers, by giving him more chances to show off his framing skill, but I don't think it would affect his rate numbers, like the one I cited above.
harold
2/12
I think this question touches on the symbiotic relationship between pitcher and catcher with regard to framing that is often overlooked. A good framer provides two main benefits: he "steals" strikes and he allows the pitcher to aim farther from the center of the strike zone. In other words, there are pitches where Lucroy is able to steal a strike even though the pitcher misses his spot a little bit, and there are pitches where he enables the pitcher to throw a low-and-outside strike a little lower and a little more outside. I am not an expert on the various framing models (and to be quite frank the latest iterations of the BP models are beyond my math skills), so maybe they already factor in the latter case. However, from the articles I've read it seems to me that they mostly focus on the former - that every pitch that the catcher "steals" via framing is a mistake from the pitcher. This study is the first I've read that seems to touch on the latter. I would be very interested to see if this can be quantified - how many runs are batters worse when faced with a larger strikezone? That would kind of be a complement to the current framing work, quantifying framing from the perspective of the batter. I'm curious how closely the numbers would match.
davidpom50
2/11
A random, probably untestable and irrelevant thought: I wonder if the hitters are aware that the influence they are reacting to is the catcher's and not the umpire's. Do they think, when playing the Brewers, "Geez, the ump has got an extra wide zone today. Gotta swing, not gonna get those calls" or "Lucroy is behind the plate, I'm going to plan ahead for his excellent framing." If the former is true, I would theorize that the effect would be stronger later in games, and they wouldn't be planning ahead from the start.
nada012
2/11
filing this under 'future article ideas'.
jroegele
2/11
Great article Rob. I like this umpire vs. catcher comment too; this would be interesting to check. Related to this, do you know if anyone has tried to look at whether catchers on opposing teams of excellent framers show larger than normal strike zones in these games? In other words, if Lucroy stretches the zone for an umpire in a game, is the umpire somehow conscious of this and relaxes the zone a little for the other team as well? I suppose the answer would be no, at least my understanding is that framing is accomplished in a way that the umpire doesn't recognize that he is calling the zone any differently.
nada012
2/11
I've never seen such a study. I can definitely buy into the idea that the ump would compensate for one good framer by being lax on the other framer. I think that would be a really cool line of inquiry, actually.
DavidHNix
2/11
Is the issue one of catcher skill or of umpire incompetence?
davidpom50
2/11
Both. The catcher's skill is manipulating the umpire's incompetence.
sbnirish77
2/11
I'd bet a similar study of umpire strike zones might find a difference between them of more than an inch. Perhaps that study would put the framing ability of a catcher in a proper context.
nada012
2/11
In my models, catcher framing (in aggregate) exercises a significantly larger effect on called strike probability than the umpire. Which is not to say that the effect of the umpire is negligible, but don't underestimate the impact of a good or bad receiver.
kalimantan
2/11
Essentially catcher framing is an attempt to 'cheat' the umpire. Studies like this will make umpires will be much more aware of the prevalence and importance of framing this coming season, so we should expect some regression for the top framers. "Lucroy is catching, I'm not going to let him trick me" could lead to a much smaller strike-zone this season. Interesting one to watch.
therealn0d
2/12
I'm not so sure about that. I wouldn't think umpires are paying all that much attention to this kind of research or are being told to be aware of it. I'd like to think they will continue to "call 'em like I see 'em." If they ever did..."see 'em", that is. The secret to catcher framing may well be Umpire Whispering. We know umpires are blind, right?
kalimantan
2/12
Maybe not much, to start with, but umpires do react to things over time. As framing is directly designed to fool them, and no umpire likes being fooled, its not unlikely that they might pay more attention and hit back? a bad framer will always be a bad framer, on the other hand....
brentdaily
2/12
Probably overly simplistic, but could swing rate, say, within three inches out of the zone vs three inches inside the zone more simply highlight the catcher's effect?
therealn0d
2/12
Three inches is kinda a lot, I think. I'm not sure what three inches inside the zone would mean.
brentdaily
2/12
Three inches was (sort of) arbitrary on my part as it's about the width of a baseball. But could easily go inch by inch. By 'three inches inside the zone' I was referring to the space between the inner/outer edge of the plate and the three inches closer to the center. So basically the balls that were a ball-width wide and those that were a strike by barely a ball-width.
nada012
2/12
Which zone? The one at 2-0 or at 0-2? The one with Lucroy behind the plate, or the one with Pinto? The one that's for night games with close scores on the road with a low-strike happy umpire, or the one for day games in Milwaukee against a veteran pitcher? What I'm getting at here is something I've argued before: the idea of there being any single thing that is "the strike zone" is incorrect. Better, at least in my humble opinion, to average over all of the zoneS that exist, in showing the effect of someone like Lucroy. In this way, we avoid the problem of picking some arbitrary threshold which may or may not reflect the actual zone, which as we know moves, grows, shrinks, and changes shape depending on many factors. The other thing is that this ought to affect more than just that fraction of pitches which paint the black. In fact, pitches well inside are sometimes called strikes, and I would bet that they are more often called so when a good framer is receiving than a poor one. So the batter can't rely on his framing knowledge only when the pitch is doubtful, he has to be thinking about it always.
belewfripp
2/13
Great stuff. You noted that the difference between .53 feet and .518 feet is not very large. Is it possible that this small margin is caused by looking at it in the aggregate? In other words, maybe on borderline pitches Lucroy causes as much of an inch in extra swing by batters, while on pitches that would be in anyone's strike zone there's no change at all, and when you put them all together it creates a variance that is artificially small.
playballtexas
2/17
Good stuff, Robert. Catchers have always been my favorite prospects because there's so many levels and layers to them. One thing I saw you hinted at towards the end of the article, but some considerable consideration has to be placed on the batter and his K/BB rate. If he's a free swinger, he's already more likely to take a hack at the .53ft pitch. Conversely, if he's more patient, it's more probable that he sits on one.