Pitch Framing – Myth or Magic?

Back with a stonker is UK Baseball Blog‘s Ben Carter.

Pitch framing began to enter the baseball lexicon around the 2011 season, and by the time Ben Lindbergh wrote this wonderful piece in 2013  most sabermetrically inclined baseball fans had at least a working knowledge of what pitch framing is. Today, pitch framing is widely accepted as an important part of the game and catchers that are considered quality framers are beginning to develop an elite reputation. But what exactly is it that they do?

Put simply, pitch framing is the act of catching a pitch in such a way to ensure a favourable call: that is, a strike. The strike zone in baseball is a subjective shape and size, and although research suggest that it has been getting considerably bigger, especially at the bottom for several years the ability of a catcher to present a pitch in a certain way has been proven to affect the likelihood of that pitch being called a strike.

Of course, there are a lot of variables at stake for a statistic like pitch framing. Unlike batting average, home runs or pretty much any quantifiable baseball stat, there is no widely accepted way of calculating the worth of pitch framing. We have to go off the eye test and off information about which balls should have been called strikes and vice versa.

Different umpires tend to have different strike zones, and the ability of a pitcher to locate well can have a huge effect on pitch framing too, as we will see later on. There are still plenty within the baseball industry who argue that pitch framing is not a skill, but instead an inability of umpires to call the strike zone as the rulebook dictates it should be called and this argument has decent traction.

Going off several years of data, however, it becomes clear that some catchers have a consistent ability to earn more called strikes and fewer called balls and that the value of this can be enormous. In 2011 and 2012, thanks to his ability with the glove, 37 year old Jose Molina was worth as much to the Rays framing pitches as Giancarlo Stanton was worth whilst mashing 70 home runs for the Marlins.

If that statistic sounds ridiculous then that is because it is. It’s hard for any baseball fan to believe that a journeyman catcher could possibly provide as much value with his glove as one of the most feared power hitters in the game can with his bat.

What catchers like Molina have to their advantage however, is that they can impact the game on every single pitch. There are roughly 150 pitches for a catcher to frame each game, and whilst the vast majority of these pitches are obvious balls or strikes a good number are on the edges of the rulebook strike zone where good pitch framers can have their impact.

As well as earning a vital strike three call on a close pitch, a good framer can provide value in quiet ways, through earning 0-1 rather than 1-0 counts or 1-2 instead of 2-1. In 2013, hitters had a .932 OPS in 2-1 counts, but just a .412 OPS in 1-2 counts. Of course, pitches in high-leverage situations matter more, but the old adage that ‘every pitch matters’ works to the advantage of good pitch framers who can impact the game in every at-bat without the viewer even noticing.

Still not convinced? I don’t blame you. All of these statistics are impressive and persuasive, but statistics about called strikes and balls have a lot of noise in them – which umpire was calling balls and strikes, who was on the mound, what was the count and game situation?

Let’s review some game footage of good and bad pitch framing to get a better idea of how these catchers earn their team so many runs.

Buster Posey has rated out as a solid pitch framer for several years now, and is one of the three best in the Majors this year according to StatCorner. On this inside pitch from Matt Cain, he steals strike one.

posey-encarnacion-gif

He sets up inside off the plate, which means that a pitch off the inside corner is right at him and he barely has to move the glove from its starting point on his left knee. To Posey’s credit, he receives the pitch far back in front of his body allowing the movement to take the ball closer to the plate, instead of jerking his glove out and trying to yank the pitch in closer to the zone. There’s a tiny, subtle movement of the glove as he snaps it shut just an inch or so closer to the plate but that and the total stillness of his head and body gives the umpire the impression that Cain has thrown the pitch exactly where desired: over the inside corner.

Encarnacion’s reaction makes it clear he disagrees, but neither broadcasting team made mention of the pitch: a credit to Posey’s ability to frame the pitch with such ease. Whilst a forgettable pitch in the context of the game, these small differences add up from at-bat to at-bat and explain how catchers like Posey can provide their teams with so many runs behind the dish. This graphic made by the fantastic Mark Simon shows exactly where Posey is able to steal so many strikes for his pitchers.

posey-strikes
Former White Sox Dioner Navarro, now of the Blue Jays has, by contrast, been one of the poorer receivers in MLB this season, costing his team both his teams in few balls turned into strikes and many strikes turned into balls. The below GIF is an example of the latter, as a first pitch slider from Jennings receives no dice from the home plate umpire.

jennings-navarro-gif

On first view the pitch may look a little low to the naked eye, but that has a lot to do with the way Navarro receives it.

Instead of reaching out to take the pitch in front before it can drop, he pulls his glove down away from his body, over-emphasising the downward action on the pitch and making it look less accurate than it was. Although he was set up over the outside corner and the pitch crossed the centre of the zone, he should do a better job of receiving this instead of basically giving up on it once it became clear the pitch wasn’t in the desired location.

Jennings isn’t visibly upset about the call, but the momentary stop after it becomes clear that the pitch isn’t a strike is noticeable if you look for it. Again, in the context of the entire game, this isn’t a notable moment, but if Navarro is losing his pitchers one or two strikes a game through poor pitch presentation then he is costing them runs in the long run.

One thing that these two clips makes clear is the importance of pitcher location in pitch framing. In the first GIF, Cain drills the cutter into Posey’s target, missing just slightly up and inside which allows Posey to present the ball perfectly and earn a strike call on a pitch that in reality was a good few inches off the plate.

In the second GIF, Jennings’ pitch doesn’t miss his spot by much – it actually hits the zone instead of possibly being outside – but Navarro has to reach out to grab it and drags his glove down with the ball, giving it the appearance that Jennings missed not just his spot but the zone entirely. By definition, the job of the umpires is to call strikes strikes and balls balls but the way pitchers hit the glove that catchers present for them is crucial in earning close calls.

Well reputed pitch-framing practitioner Francisco Cervelli talked about how much easier framing A.J. Burnett was thanks to his reduced velocity and impressive command compared to someone like Francisco Liriano who has fantastic stuff but poor control which makes it hard for a catcher to sell strikes.

In fact, the best way to show you how important pitcher location and speed is to pitch framing, is to take a look and how brilliantly Dioner Navarro himself was able to frame a Mark Buehrle start a few years ago. Jeff Sullivan wrote a wonderful piece which shows how important hitting your spot is to a pitcher like Buehrle, and instead of just plagiarising his GIFs here I’ll encourage you to read that article yourself.

What Sullivan’s article helps show is that a ‘poor’ pitch framer like Navarro can earn his pitcher some strikes when that pitcher is locating well. Pitches that are off the plate but hit the glove, such as Matt Cain’s from earlier in this article look like strikes, whereas strikes that miss their spots such as the 2-0 pitch from Matt Boyd below look like balls.

salty-bad-take-gif
That was a strike and by a reasonable margin too, but the way Saltalamacchia reaches down to take the pitch underhand deep in his crease instead of presenting the glove out front makes it look low in an even more pronounced way than Jennings’ pitch earlier.

Okay, so you’re starting to come on board with this idea of pitch framing. The catcher has to set up still and balanced, keeping the pitch nice and steady in his glove rather than snapping it back to the zone and using the break of the pitch to determine how deep to receive the ball in the glove.

Pitchers play their part too: framing Bartolo Colon is going to be significantly easier than Noah Syndegaard just because of the different characteristics of their individual stuff. With all that said, which catchers slot in as the best framers in the game, and which catchers are costing their teams valuable runs?

Francisco Cervelli has long been the poster boy for pitch framing, and his stellar reputation behind the plate has carried on into this season where he is fifth in the Majors at earning strikes and is tied for the ML lead at turning low-percentage pitches into strikes, as the terrific heatmap from Mark Simon below shows.

cervelli
Miguel Montero of the Cubs, Yasmani Grandal of the Dodgers and Jason Castro of the Astros, also all grade out as terrific framers whilst at the other end of the spectrum, Salvador Perez, Stephen Vogt and J.T. Realmuto may have cost their teams over five runs with poor glove-work behind the dish.

Is pitch framing a good thing? Ultimately, pitch framing preys on the inability of umpires to call a rulebook strike zone, and the increasing importance attached to framers will not have escaped the notice of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred who presumably would like to make pitch framing redundant through better strike calling.

Although the technology for instant ball/strike calls is actually here already thanks to Pitch F/X, baseball’s love of antiquated tradition makes anything other than the current umpire judgement system of balls and strikes likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future.

And whilst that is the case, I see no reason why teams shouldn’t try to squeeze value out of good framers, especially whilst they remain seemingly undervalued if they provide as many runs as they seem to behind the plate.

Overall, pitch framing remains a controversial and poorly understood area of the game, but its impact on results cannot be ignored. Once you start to watch how catchers receive the ball, you begin to notice how good framers can impact the game at all times, and you can understand why certain pitches are called strikes whilst others are not.

With quality of data improving so fast in baseball, it undoubtedly will not be long until we can quantify the impact of good pitch framing much more precisely, although the challenge for Major League Baseball is assessing how good it is for the game that catchers can take advantage of umpiring mistakes to impact results so heavily.

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