Is Catcher Pitch Framing Fully Appreciated Yet?

Last night when I was watching the Gold Glove awards being announced, I started thinking about how the awards were doing a much better job this year of going to people with actual good defense. That is opposed to the past trend of giving out an award because of a good offensive season, or highlight reel plays that would be routine plays by better defenders. Basically, there weren’t as many Nate McLouth’s this year.

Then it came to the catcher awards, where I figured Jonathan Lucroy or Russell Martin would have received the award. I would have gone with Lucroy, getting the edge over Martin. The actual winner, Yadier Molina, would have been my number three choice. When Molina was announced, I figured it was a case where as long as he spends time behind the plate, and does fairly well defensively, he will win the award. After seven years in a row, we’ve reached the point where you can’t just be better than Molina defensively to win the award. He has to be removed from any consideration for someone else to win.

I didn’t want to write much about it, other than a quick tweet last night, because honestly it doesn’t even matter. If the Gold Glove awards were announced in a week or two, they would be easily over-shadowed by the qualifying offer decisions, Rule 5 additions, or free agency rumors. Any commentary on Gold Glove decisions can usually be broken down as saying “nothing else is happening in baseball right now.”

But then I saw that SABR released their SDI rankings, which is their analytical approach that makes up 25 percent of the voting for the Gold Glove awards. At the top of the leaderboard was Yadier Molina, who had an 8.9 SDI, versus an 8.7 for Martin. Lucroy had a 5.2. That ran opposite of the numbers I came up with, which had Lucroy first, Martin a close second, and Molina third. So I wanted to dig a bit deeper into SDI.

According to SABR, the SDI rankings are made up from the following:

Within the batted ball location-based category, we’ve included 3 measures — Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) from John Dewan’s company, Baseball Info Solutions; Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), authored by noted sabermetrician Mitchel Lichtman; and Runs Effectively Defended (RED) from Chris Dial. The play-by-play based metrics include two measures: Defensive Regression Analysis (DRA) from Michael Humphreys and Total Zone Rating (TZ).

I couldn’t find UZR or RED for catchers. I also couldn’t find DRA or TZ for catchers. The only metric available was DRS, which had Martin ranked first (12 DRS), Lucroy second (11) and Molina tied for third (8).

There was also this addition:

For catchers, blocking balls in the dirt and stolen bases/caught stealing are also included in their ratings.

That gives us two more stats to go on. The first would be rSB, which measures runs saved on the bases by catchers. Russell Martin ranked tied for first in the NL with six. Yadier Molina was right behind him with five. Jonathan Lucroy was way down the list at -1.

There are two ways to determine value for blocked pitches. The first is RPP, via FanGraphs. Lucroy ranks first at 7.4. Molina was seventh in the majors with a 1.6. Martin was 11th with an 0.9. Baseball Prospectus looks at passed balls and wild pitches saved. They had Molina with an 0.9, Lucroy at -1.4, and Martin way down the list at -7.6.

I’m not sure how SDI is calculated with the other metrics, but based on the ones we have above, it seems that a big weight goes to stolen bases (which really hurts Lucroy), and the blocking issues for Martin were enough to put Molina ahead. That said, here is the final thing about SDI for catchers.

Pitch framing by catchers is not currently included in the defensive metrics that comprise the SDI.

When I had Lucroy and Martin ahead of Molina, it was because I incorporated pitch framing. Lucroy was the best at that, worth 23.7 runs this year, or just shy of two and a half wins. Martin was also near the top at 19.3, just shy of two wins. Meanwhile, Molina was down the list at 3.7, which is barely half a win of value. The difference between Lucroy and Molina was two full wins, which would easily trump the value of the difference between the two in stolen bases.

This raises a question: is pitch framing fully appreciated yet? You might argue that SABR is behind the times on this one. You could also argue that pitch framing numbers aren’t gospel yet, since the (outstanding) work by BP is the only thing we have to go on at the moment. But what about the things we’re seeing on the open market?

Sure, Russell Martin will get a contract that says “Texa$” under the amount, but it’s hard to tell how much of that is due to framing. What about David Ross? BP says that he has been worth about 10 runs per year in pitch framing as a backup. That’s a win, or about $5-6 M on the open market. Yet he will probably have trouble making more than $1 M this off-season. Or, to put it another way, let’s look at the 2014 numbers in the following comparison.

Russell Martin: 7810 framing chances, 19.3 runs added

Chris Stewart/David Ross: 6686 framing chances, 19.5 runs added

Martin will probably cost at least six times as much as Ross and Stewart. And for a very good reason. Stewart and Ross, in their best offensive years at this point, couldn’t match a normal year from Martin. Martin’s value trumps their value in other areas behind the plate, such as caught stealing numbers. I’m not saying at all that Stewart and Ross are equal to Martin.

What I am saying is that they are equal to Martin in terms of pitch framing. In fact, they’re better than Martin in that area. And if the Pirates miss out on Martin (which seems likely), there won’t be another catcher available who can provide the pitch framing, plus the offense, stolen base prevention, and other things Martin does so much better than the alternatives. The Pirates will then have to choose a catcher who can excel in one of those areas, and make up for the other areas with the rest of the team.

Based on the projected price for Stewart and Ross, it seems the best value would still be pitch framing. The Pirates could get both catchers for around $2.5 M. That’s the price you pay for, at most, half a win on the open market. If you take the 2014 numbers and assume Stewart and Ross would combine for 10,500 chances as starting duo, you’d get 30.6 framing runs out of the duo. That’s three wins of combined value, even if both catchers will be replacement level in every other area.

Even though pitch framing has gotten so much attention, it still seems that there is value to be had.

  • The Astros traded for my boy Conger.. sniff

  • No one has offered a reasonable explanation why Tony Sanchez’s defensive skills went on the fritz this season. He was drafted for his defense. How do those skills disappear? I can see hitters losing the ability to see the ball and make contact. I don’t see how they lose the ability to throw or catch.

    • They were overrated in the first place ? I’m just guessing. I heard somewhere that he had the yips in college.

    • To be fair, i havent seen anyone make the argument that ALL of those skills are gone. I remember one article remarking his throwing has issues and at times his blocking is inconsistent, but he still receives the ball well (frames it well) and calls a good game/handles pitching good.

      • Athletes who have talent always have that ability until things like an injury, a lack of confidence or age gets in the way. Tony had a serious injury and didn’t play as well after that injury and that probably led to a lack of confidence. So he has the potential to be a good catcher again but now age is becoming a enemy.

    • I think there’s a focus on his throwing.. then i heard he sorta lost his will to play the first part of the year after he found out he’ll be in indy.. so he only played half heartedly.. I’m holding out hope that he gets the job though

  • who is to say that David Ross (other pitch framing) isn’t due to fall off a cliff like Barajas? He is a zero on offense, He is going to be 38 in March. His line was 184, 260, 368 last year. The last time he appeared in over 62 games was 2007.

    counting on a combination of Ross and Stewart would be very risky. I could see one or the other being a backup and playing in 40 or 50 games max. Anything over that and either one is likely to be a flop.

  • I think almost everyone agrees on the effect, it is the magnitude that is up for debate. Is there truly a five win yearly spread in talent? And if teams aren’t valuing 10 farmings runs at the free agent market rate the Pirates should not.

    However that said if there are suitable replacements for Martin going exclusively for defense at catcher isn’t the worst idea, this is what the Rays have done, just need to find offensive upgrades in other areas to combat loss of Martin and regression.

  • Any analysis that concludes a backup catcher can add a full win worth of value by the manner in which he catches the baseball should be taken extremely lightly.

    • Why?

      • Because that would essentially be saying the manner in which a pitch is caught is the most valuable single skill in the entire game of baseball. By far.

        Does that sound like it makes sense? Do you think there are many GM’s lining up to put their money behind that kind of assumption?

        SABR is all about skepticism. Some guys didn’t think the way we traditionally thought about baseball was very accurate, so they went about proving it wrong. For us to just go ahead and assume Baseball Prospectus got this right on the first go would be the exact opposite of SABR thinking.

        • And note that one can “fully appreciate” the act of pitch framing while being skeptical of the value Baseball Prospectus applies to it.

          • I am not totally impressed with pitch framing. I have umpired through the high school level and really rarely even pay attention to the catchers glove. In fact most umpires set up on the inside corner of the batter and it is very difficult to see the catchers glove on an outside corner pitch.

            • I believe fault is partly in the terminology, DP.

              “Pitch Framing” often makes people think of the kid in high school trying to fool the ump by pulling in a pitch six inches off the plate. That’s not working at the big league level.

              But I do fully believe receiving the baseball properly is a skill and can influence calls. Receiving a 90mph+ pitch with movement or a sharp breaking ball quietly, without stabbing at it, is really, really difficult. Catchers who do this well are almost certainly better than those who do not.

              Up for debate is how accurately this skill can be quantified and what value it provides.

            • You realize that, in general, people’s experience with high-school level baseball probably don’t correlate all that well to MLB, right?

              If it did, every successful HS baseball player would make it to the majors.

            • That is why you are umpiring high school games. Framing would mean nothing with pitchers that barely have any control, let alone command.

              • You do realize people umpire and officiate sporting events because they enjoy the game and it’s a way to put a few extra bucks in your pocket. Not all umpires or referees aspire to referee or umpire at the collegiate or professional level.

                Why do you feel the need to mock someone because they “only ” umpire high school? Maybe that’s the highest level in his area and it’s the most convenient for him to work games.

                I’d take someone’s opinion who sets up behind a catcher in high school than someone who sets up his seat cushion behind home plate or behind the dugout at a AA baseball game, unless they were a scout. I keep forgetting you’re a scout in your own mind. My bad

          • Do you think the fo has a completely different set of tools/sabermatrics to evaluate pitchers/catchers then are available to the public?

      • Little different angle than NMR:
        What’s the pitch framing value of a replacement level catcher? Seems when we are talking about wins added by pitch framing, we are comparing a catchers pitch framing stats vs 0. All catchers have some sort of pitch framing value – is it accurate to consider “replacement” level to be a null?

        Secondly, what constitutes a good sample size for pitch framing? There seems to be variance across years – Molina has often been very good at it, yet seems to have slipped some this year – I doubt his actual ability has gone down. How reliably can we make projections based on the stat? How much of it is driven by pitchers, by umpires?

        Excellent article Tim. I do think there is still some hidden value in pitch framing, but I don’t think all the questions that need to be answered have been answered to make a “wins added” type of projection. Although to be fair, I’ve never been a big fan of WAR based projections to begin with (doubly so for catchers) as its ultimately an imperfect meta-stat,

    • You are dead wrong, and way behind most professional baseball people.

      • When you make that statement, shouldn’t you be required to dispute why he’s dead wrong? I know it’s been a tough 24 hours for you.

        • Lol.. if he called me out like that it wouldn’t. . I make most of my stuff up… nmr seems to know what he’s talking about though

          • I’m waiting for a severe beat down to be inflicted by NMR on one Mr. Walter. LOL

            • I like leo. You just have to understand his delusions of grandeur.

              If he truly believes that “most professional baseball people” believe pitch catching is the most valuable skill in the entire game, then there’s nothing I can say to change his mind. I’m smart enough to know he doesn’t have anywhere close to enough information to make a statement like that, so it doesn’t bother me.

    • I think there’s value in the comparison of these numbers to evaluate catchers ability.. not sure I would pay 5.5m per projected win..

  • Baseball has been around for over a hundred years and quality catching has been determined by scouts without any sabermetrics that we have today. A blind man could see Johnny Bench or Sangy as great talent. Martin is very good, but I have said this before and I will say it again, if you had to take one catcher out of the NL Central as your number one catcher Martin would still fall below what the Brewers, Reds and Cards have. Martin’s greatest contribution to the Pirates was probably a non stat, his ability to get pitchers to do what he told them to do, they still have to throw the ball, but his knowledge of other hitters was terrific.

    • That’s a mischaracterized argument about what the statistics are meant to do.

      The question is almost never, “who’s a better catcher: Johnny Bench or Jason Jaramillo?” In those circumstances, yes, the eye test (using anyone’s eyes, probably) works just fine.

      However, the more useful question that MLB FO’s have to necessarily struggle with are more along the lines of “How can we maximize the offensive or defensive production of our team– either as currently composed or as to be composed in the future?” When you’re asking that question, it’s far more important to have some method of quantifying how well a player does things. A scout telling me a player is good is useful information to know; but if I’m the GM, I also wanna know how that player might stack up against a bunch of others that the scout might never have seen, or if something he is good at can be exploited to my team’s advantage– these aren’t things that a scout, or even a bunch of them, are likely to be able to tell me.

  • How does someone determine ones ability to frame better then the next guy. How is that quantified? I saw somewhere Montero was the best at framing this year but he was not in the top catchers previously. I question whether he just suddenly became good at it or he figured out a way to game the metric. I am convinced Barmes games the system by jumping in the air everytime he fields a ball. Suddenly Mercer is a star SS doing the same thing when one year earlier he was considered a liability.

    • If we can’t tell by looking at the player playing the game, then we have to come up with some stat to tell you what you just saw.

    • Its quantified by extra strikes (pitches called strikes that are outside of the zone) and lost strikes (pitches in the zone called a ball. The math is easy to get a +/- value then you use run values associated with an extra strike to calculate runs saved. The problem is that the numbers are exagerated in most peoples opinion. There is a component to framing that is influenced by the pitcher and the current system gives full credit to the catcher. Its hard to believe that we have been really missing 20 runs of value.

      • I have a feeling that this is another one of those stats that really isn’t a stat. If you watch the games. Umpiring is so inconsistent that you can’t say for any certainty that any pitch is called a strike because a catcher “framed” it well. Or say that a guy is worse because he didn’t frame well. We’ve all seen countless examples of a pitch called a ball, then a pitch in the same spot, or a little more outside, called a strike. I think this is way too subjective. If only because of the inconsistent strike zone.

        • I think this is true to a point.. over the course of x amount of pitches the inconsistency of umps should normalize and allow a reasonable comparison to mean value.. what that x amount is dunno..

      • One of the guys who came to pitch framing this year is Jason Castro and he may be on-the-market as a result of the trade made by Houston and the Angels that sent Hank Conger to the Astro’s. They have another backup, Carlos Corporan, and a kid waiting to step up to the majors, Max Stassi, who came to the Astro’s from Oakland last year. Castro is a LH batter, and the Astro’s are looking for pitching.

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