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There are certain facets of baseball that are always going to be difficult to measure such as how good a pitcher is at setting up a batter or which players are mentally able to handle the 9th inning. As a young Cubs fan, I would listen to former catcher and WGN broadcaster Bob Brenly talk about the nuances of catching and how some of the more defensively skilled catchers at the time could alter a game with their ability to frame a pitch. At the time I chalked up the art of pitch framing as one of those things broadcasters say that we can never call them out on.
Nowadays, Pitch F/X has shrunk the gap between what we have to accept and what we can prove. Armed with an immense amount of pitch location data, as well as who the catcher was on every single one of those pitches, we finally have the tools to determine if a catcher is good or not at framing pitches.
To measure this, we’ll focus on two parts:
1.) How often pitches inside the strike zone are called balls
2.) How often pitches outside the strike zone are called strikes
I’ve focused the results to just the 2013 season only catchers who have seen at least 1000 called strikes or balls
The BISZ+ numbers are similar to OPS+ and ERA+, where the result is simply a way of showing how a player compares to the league average, with league average being 1. For example, Buster Posey’s 1.348 means that his numbers are 34.8% better than the league average.
Lets also look at which catchers are the best at “stealing” strikes
It’s interesting to see that the only name that appears in the top five for both categories is Jonathan Lucroy. If you also consider what he has provided offensively both last year and this year and you will realize how big a bargain he is for the Milwaukee Brewers. It’s not a surprise to see Jose Molina at the top of the CSOZ+ rankings. If you’ve seen any of the GIFs at Fangraphs, these numbers make much more sense.
Enough positivity, lets take a look at who has been the worst this season.
First, the surprises. I dont think many people expected to see Matt Wieters name show up anywhere on this list, especially since he is the reigning AL Gold Glove winner at catcher; however, Wieters is more known for his ability to throw out runners rather than his framing ability.
While Lucroy was the only catcher to show well on both lists, there are many repeat offenders on the lower end of each list. Jaso, Suzuki and Montero each earn the dubious distinction of showing up in the bottom of five of both the called strikes out of the zone and balls in the strike zone rankings.
Does this conclusively tell us which catcher is the best at framing pitches? Of course not. There are aspects which I would like to control for in the future, such as the umpire behind the plate and the amount of movement a pitcher has. I bring up movement because if you read Ben Lindbergh’s interview with Russell Martin, he mentioned how with pitchers like Chad Billingsley who had great stuff but couldn’t necessarily control it, he would focus less on framing the pitch and just simply on trying to catch it.
While this may not fully explain one of those nuances that we previously thought was impossible to quantify, it is a step in the right direction.
and will somebody get Jonathan Lucroy a freaking Gold Glove!