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Okay, okay, we get it! Catcher framing is really superduper important. Getting an extra called strike can turn an at-bat, which can turn an inning, which can turn a game, which can turn a season, which can turn someone’s summer from one that they’d rather forget to one that they’ll write a bad novel about 20 years later.

I don’t want to pooh-pooh how important catcher framing is. The good framers really are worth 20 runs or so more per year than the average guys at this point, so there’s plenty of hay to be made here, and teams are clearly jumping on the pitch framing bandwagon. But here’s a question worth investigating. Other than stealing the occasional strike on a ball that was actually just outside (or bumbling in the other direction), does a good framing catcher have any other effects? Maybe if a pitcher knows that he’s got a good framer behind the plate, he knows that he can work the edges of the zone a little more. Maybe in his preparation for the game, he plots out a few sequences in which he will try to exploit that, setting up a pitch where he is likely to get a strike if the batter takes it. Maybe since he knows that the strike zone is a little “wider” with this catcher, the pitcher knows that the batter will have to expand his zone a little (which Rob Arthur has shown actually happens), so he spends more time “baiting the hook” and trying to get a batter to swing at something a little too far away and poke at it. We understand very little about secondary effects in baseball.

But there’s a methodological issue here. It’s not enough to look at a team that has a good framing catcher and compare results for those pitching staffs. What if the catcher just happened to have the pleasure of catching a pitching staff that was just good, regardless of his amazing framing abilities? We need another way to try to tease this out of the data. Thankfully, baseball provides us with a nice natural experiment.

Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!

We’re going to take advantage of the fact that baseball teams usually carry two catchers and that the backup backstop is usually the member of the bench who is mostly likely to see game action. After all, catchers need more breaks than do most players. It’s bad form to let your catcher don the tools of ignorance in a day game after a night game or on both ends of a doubleheader. Some pitchers have personal catchers, usually the backup, so the regular guy has a scheduled beat that he skips.

Now, framing is one of those skills that has been talked about for years by teams, and there was at least some idea that it existed, but part of why it took so long to break into the public consciousness is that it’s something that’s so hard to miss unless you’re looking really really hard. Still, even before catcher framing became a big thing, there were catchers who were well known as “good to throw to” and a few backup catchers who were beloved by their pitchers and had curiously long careers given that they were awful hitters. While the guys on the extreme edges were apparently wellbknown, I wonder how many pitchers could have picked apart the shades of grey in the middle, to the point where it would have entered their minds to fashion a strategy that incorporated that idea.

Instead, to answer the question of whether a good framer can make a pitcher better (or at least, different), we’re going to look at the edges.

I looked for situations that met the following criteria:

· It was somewhere between 2006 and 2015.

· A pitcher who had faced at least 250 batters in the season in question faced off against a batter who came to bat at least 250 times that season.

· The pitcher had not switched teams during the course of the season. This allows us to rule out cases where a pitcher was traded from a good catcher to a bad catcher (or vice versa), but where he also went to a less (or more) favorable park or was put in front of seven other guys who were better (or worse) at fielding.

· The pitcher and catcher in question worked together for at least 100 batters that year.

· The pitcher worked with two different catchers for at least 100 PA that year. One of them was in the top fifth of the league in BP’s called strikes above average (CSAA) metric. The other was in the bottom fifth.

All in all, it left me a data set of nearly 25,000 plate appearances to work with. As is my custom, to control for the quality of the batter and pitcher involved in the plate appearance, I controlled for their relative strengths using the log-odds ratio method. This creates a control variable based on the expectation that the plate appearance would have ended in a strikeout (or walk or whatever) anyway.

I set up a series of logistic regressions which used this control variable as a predictor and also an indicator of whether the pitcher was throwing to the good or the bad catcher. So we have the same set of pitchers in front of the same (basic) defense in the same home park and are controlling for the hitters they faced, with the only difference being whether the catcher is the good one or the bad one. If the pitcher is somehow getting better (or different) results than we might otherwise expect, we can at least make a good case that we should blame the pitcher.

I looked at a series of outcomes, including walks, strikeouts, singles, home runs, outs on balls in play, along with BABIP, OBP, and different types of batted balls. Did the catcher make a difference?

Not surprisingly, a good framing catcher did exactly what you might think for a pitcher when it came to strikeouts (they went up) and walks (they went down). Remember, this is compared to the pitcher’s own baseline, controlling for the hitters whom he is facing. But did any other outcomes change? Actually, no. The pitcher was just as likely to give up a single, double/triple, home run, or record an out on a ball in play. BABIP was also unaffected. OBP did go down, but that was largely the effect of the walk and strikeout effects. But something did emerge from the chaos.

When there was a good framing catcher behind the plate and the batter put the ball into play, it was more likely (again compared to the pitcher’s baseline rate and the batter’s whom he was facing) that the ball would be a grounder and less likely that it would be a fly. (Line drive rates appeared unchanged.) How big of an effect was it?

Let’s say that we have a situation where a pitcher with an overall 40 percent GB rate (roughly league average) is facing off against a batter who hits a worm burner 40 percent of the time. In front of a good framing catcher, we would expect that to jump to about 41.1 percent. In front of a poor framing catcher, we expect a grounder rate of 39.4 percent. There are similar effects (in the opposite direction) for flyballs.

Again, that 1.1 percent bump up in groundball rate might not seem like much, but let’s do a little math. In 2015, the average MLB team saw 4,349 balls hit into play. Let’s assume that the no. 1 catcher for a team handles 75 percent of the playing time, and so he sees 3,262 of those balls hit in front of him. One-point-one percent of that would be 36 balls in play that would be “transformed” from flyballs into groundballs. Not necessarily groundouts, mind you, but even hitting the ball on the ground, rather than in the air has value. Research by none other than Harry Pavlidis suggests that turning a flyball into a grounder is worth between .12 and .15 runs. (One main reason, flyballs have a chance of going over the wall…)

Even taking the low end of that range, 36 “extra” groundballs times .12 runs is 4.32 runs saved above the average catcher. A good framing catcher can add about 20 runs of value above average just by snagging a few extra strikes. It looks like he adds four or five more, likely by getting a hitter to swing at a bad pitch or two and getting a groundball, rather than a flyball, as a result.

Or does he?

There’s a problem. The finding on groundballs doesn’t directly square with the findings about rates of HR, extra-base hits, singles, and outs in play (as well as BABIP) not being significantly affected. Here we might have to dig a bit deeper to explain that. In general, groundballs are less likely to produce an out than a flyball, but perhaps the “extra” groundballs are from the batter reaching a bit more and making weaker contact, enough that the rough number of singles and outs would stay the same. Home runs and extra-base hits are relatively rare events to begin with. They can also be very park dependent, although my method tries to control for that. Maybe there’s just not enough signal and a lot of noise in there. I thought that might be the case until I noticed that while the effect of a good framer for home runs wasn’t significant, the trend line actually pointed up. A good framer, despite “generating” more groundballs than we might expect, actually also generated more home runs.

There might be a more sinister explanation that might be going on as well, one that might effectively wipe out what we’ve gained. The Peltzman Effect, which is the idea that when something comes along that reduces the risk of something, people respond by taking more risks in some other related area. For example, people wearing bicycle helmets are without a doubt safer if they have an accident on their bike and hit their heads. However, when people wear bike helmets, they tend to ride their bikes into riskier situations. And a helmet only protects your head.

In the same way, a pitcher throwing to a good framer might realize that he has a little extra margin to work with, and so he decides to get a little more swashbuckling in painting the edges. And sometimes you when you work around the edges, you miss and catch a bit too much of the plate. And someone hits a flyball that goes really far. Sure, the batters hit more grounders, but they also get a few more chances to unload when they do hit a flyball.

The Dark Underbelly of Pitch Framing

I have no doubt that pitch framing is a valuable skill, and value beyond just the extra strikes that a catcher can steal for a pitcher. Having a good framer behind the plate means that the pitcher is working with a slightly larger strike zone. In isolation, that’s a great thing, but there are few things in baseball (or life) that happen in isolation. When you push a button, it changes all of the other buttons.

Pitchers might become a little too enamored of the bigger strike zone and essentially give up a few extra home runs because there’s a good framer behind the plate! In theory, that shouldn’t be happening. Pitchers do induce more groundballs when they are pitching in front of a good framer. But they aren’t actually getting better results on their balls that go in play. So, we’re left to either explain that away as randomness or reckon with the fact that catcher framing actually has an unfortunate downside.

With that evidence in mind, may I ask a somewhat contrarian and unsettling question. Might we find evidence that even the “called strike” portion of catcher framing, while undoubtedly real insofar as how we have defined it, might have a kickback effect that we aren’t accounting for? For example, is it possible that Milwaukee pitchers looking into Jonathan Lucroy are tailoring their pitching plans to Lucroy’s framing strengths, rather than focusing on an optimal strategy for pitching? And while we can see the PITCHf/x plot of where the ball crossed the plate and see that Lucroy “made” it a strike, could it also be that a fastball on the edge should never have been called in the first place?

Thank you for reading

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kalimantan
2/02
Can framing be long for this world, at least at the current level? This is now a baseball skill that is well known, is the basis of stats, commentary and articles like this - so is now surely well known to umpires. And what framing really is, is an attempt to fool the umpire, nothing more, nothing less. I can't imagine there is an umpire who likes being fooled, so I'll be astounded if good framers don't find their zone shrunk next year. Catchers who built their value on framing will be cursing you!
huztlers
2/02
Framing has been around for as long as catchers have been catching. The only thing that has changed is increased awareness to those who previously knew nothing about catching. People had to start attaching numbers to it before casual observers could understand.
bhacking
2/02
The implication of the fact that the umpire's strike zones can be reviewed accurately is an increased awareness of when the catcher 'stole' a strike.

The argument is that with the umpire aware of this data his strike zone will be more consistent over time and I agree this logic makes sense.
Richie
2/02
My understanding is that this is already happening. I'd have to cite a competing site for where I read it, and there are ethics regarding competitive site citing. (sorry, I couldn't resist; OK, I'm not sorry) But Lucroy's last year was their clearest example. (evidence went beyond just him, mind you)
pizzacutter
2/02
The idea is that the "problem" that "causes" framing effects is a base neurological problem. The human eye can't see exactly where a ball going 90ish MPH crosses a small area (home plate) and resolve that in three dimensions. The human brain just can't resolve images that quickly. The umpire then uses other clues as to what happened. If the catcher's glove is moving away from the plate, the brain naturally uses that information to say "I guess it was tailing away from the plate." If your best guess was that it was on the edge of the zone anyway and your brain is already thinking it must have been moving away, then you are more likely to call a ball. This isn't something that's done consciously. All of this takes place much too fast to involve conscious thought.
therealn0d
2/02
Aren't catchers doing this very thing (resolving an image in three dimensions)? Consciously? Isn't that what framing is?
pizzacutter
2/02
Well, a catcher doesn't need the same level of precision in mentally tracking that pitch that an umpire does to do his job. All the catcher really has to do is get his glove in front of the ball so that it doesn't fly to the backstop. The umpire has to be able to tell whether -- in mid-flight -- it ended up in an imaginary box and often when the pitcher is specifically throwing a pitch that is on the very edge of that imaginary line. If the catcher's glove is a two inches to the right, it doesn't much matter. If the umpire is missing calls by two inches, he'll be given a coupon for the nearest optometrist. For a catcher, it's much more about how he positions his body when he receives the ball.
therealn0d
2/02
The catcher is closer to the pitch than the umpire (obviously not by much.) Obviously, if pitch framing is a thing, and we acknowledge it is, the catcher would be doing far more than simply getting his glove in front of the ball. Let's play the substitution game here...the catcher has to be able to tell whether--in mid-flight--it ended up in an imaginary box...

I'll grant you that catchers have the advantage of knowing the specifics of the pitch coming, but I'm not buying the argument that umpires can't process the information fast enough to know the differences. Maybe the vantage point is disadvantageous.
therealn0d
2/02
Just to be clear, I'm not trying to be a jerk or simply contrarian. I think what we are really talking about here is that what the eye doesn't "catch" the mind fills in the blanks.
kalimantan
2/03
Well, that sounds a reasonable argument, but perhaps supports my original take more - if the umpire is 'guessing' based on glove position, he'll be taking other pieces of information into account as well, such as 'oh, this is lucroy, he must be framing my ass, I'll call it a ball'
markpadden
2/03
Exactly. There is an outer limit to how aggressively a catcher can frame a pitch (even if he has the skill to do it). Once he goes too far, most umps will know he is a framer and adjust. It's only starting to happen recently (perhaps in part due to the ~10 framing articles a season BP et al. put out). The sweet spot of being a good framer but not too good is shrinking every season. It will all be moot within 10 years, once ball/strike calls are automated.
ggdowd
2/02
I'm not understanding how these results suggest that pitching to a good framer might lead to "a few extra home runs." The rate of home runs (and other results) are not significantly changed, so the pitcher can't be giving up more home runs in absolute terms (which is what I think the "few extra home runs" quote appears to be suggesting). It sounds like the pitchers who are pitching to good framers must have a higher HR/FB. But isn't it the case that groundball pitchers in general tend to have higher HR/FB? If having a higher groundball rate causes an increase in HR/FB, we should probably expect the marginal increase in GB% caused by good framers to lead to some marginal increase in HR/FB. Whether that leads to more actual home runs would depend on how much HR/FB increases, and it sounds like since the overall HR rate isn't significantly different between good/bad framers then pitchers pitching to each should expect to give up the same number of home runs.

If I'm understanding correctly, pitchers have the same results on balls in play regardless of catcher quality, but get those results with different GB/FB mixes. Is this inherently bad for some reason? I'm just not seeing this as sinister; what am I missing?
pizzacutter
2/02
The regression coefficient was pointing upward, though not significant. It's in the strange area where we have to say "We can't statistically distinguish it from zero, but what small effect there might be is more likely to mean more home runs than fewer home runs."

I think your alternate explanation is reasonable, although the regression equation already "knows" the pitcher's baseline HR rate, and the only thing that's really varying in these equations is the framing capabilities of the catcher.

The sinister piece is that the pitcher is giving up fewer fly balls, but the same number of HR. We generally just assume GB = good for pitchers, and if it were just a random sampling of fly balls turned into grounders, then that's fine. But the point is that it doesn't seem to be a random sample. And I think the Peltzman Effect is at least a reasonable hypothesis as to why.
ezrawise
2/02
If a pitcher were over-swashbuckling, based on his confidence in a catcher's receiving ability, wouldn't he be be doing his over-swashbuckling toward the edges of the zone--low yield regions for a hitter that aren't likely to result in HR?
pizzacutter
2/02
The problem is more that maybe he should have thrown that pitch low and away and nowhere near the plate. Pitching on the edge is great if it works. If your ball doesn't get as much break as you hope for, it will hang over the plate and politely be deposited in the left field seats.
LlarryA
2/02
So the question becomes, are we simply substituting one sort of weak contact (can-o-corn fly balls) for another (GB), leaving the HR behind, or are we turning a proper random selection of fly balls (including HR) into grounders, and then engaging in an altered behavior that ends up putting the homers back in?
ggdowd
2/02
Thanks for the response!

My main point is that I don't think we should consider the increased groundball rate to be a bad thing when the changes in results on BIP are statistically insignificant (we should consider the increased groundball rate neutral). If the results on BIP are the same, I don't think it matters what BIP mix is leading to those results. I don't generally assume that groundballs = good, since there is evidence that groundball pitchers tend have some worse results on flyballs (higher HR/FB, lower IFFB%; see http://www.hardballtimes.com/are-groundball-pitchers-overrated/). This could be related to some of the results you're seeing here.
bsolow
2/02
Russell, I don't doubt that there could be negative unforeseen consequences of having a good framer behind the plate, but I'm struggling to understand the intuition behind your argument. Given that I (as a pitcher) know I'm working with a good framing catcher, shouldn't the incentive be to throw, on average, further away from the center of the strike zone? Is your claim that there's potentially something about those pitches that are easier to hit for home runs, or that simply pitchers with good framing catchers throw to the same spots, but with less effort to control the location in any direction? Could we think about testing the second one in the data (e.g. using some function of the variance of the distribution of pitch locations)?
pizzacutter
2/02
My concern is that the type of pitch which is most benefitted by a good framer is the pitch which paints the edge. Now, it's perfectly reasonable to play "paint the edge" as a pitcher. That's one way to get hitters out, especially if you are good at it. But it's also a higher risk pitch. Of course, throwing further away from the strike zone is likely to suppress HR rates, but the problem is that you always run the risk that the ball doesn't do what you think it's about to do. Pitchers screw up every now and then, and having a ball break 4 inches instead of the 5 you were hoping for can be disastrous when you are playing that game. Instead, a pitcher could opt to play "Let's see if he'll chase this one low and outside." A good framer isn't going to affect that one in either direction but if you miss an inch of movement, you've just thrown a ball that was slightly less outside than you had planned.

My concern is that having a good framer behind the plate tempts the pitcher into playing the more dangerous game more often. Combine that with an optimism bias. It's easy to say "If I nail the location on this pitch, Lucroy will frame it and it's strike 2!" but not thinking about "If I screw this up, I'll give up a home run."
BillJohnson
2/02
The Peltzman Effect observation is interesting, and it evokes a moment in a game I watched on TV many years ago. The unforgettable Tommy Lasorda was making a mound visit to some pitcher -- I want to say Orel Hershiser but I'm not sure -- who was doing a lot of "nibbling" at the strike zone and working himself into trouble. You didn't have to be a proficient lip reader to see what Lasorda was saying; he had the kind of lips, and face, well suited for reading. What he said was "THROW THE BLANK-BLANK BALL OVER THE PLATE!" -- with the obvious substitutions for blank-blank. The pitcher got the message, got the next guy out, and proceeded to work normally for the remainder of his (successful, as I remember it) start.