We believe in the metrics. We believe in the data. We believe in trying to do as much research as possible. We have a great team of people that are working hard behind the scenes. And, look, if it can help us win an inning, win a moment that could lead us to winning a game, we're in favor of that. We're trying to stay ahead of that. I think baseball is trending in that direction; that there's a certain metric that is kind of helping teams win games. We want to be a part of that.
— Torey Lovullo
While not actually speaking about pitch framing, the above quote from the new Diamondbacks’ manager is something it’s almost impossible to imagine coming out of the mouth of Chip Hale - and even less so, Hale’s predecessor Kirk Gibson. It appears this team is going to try and squeeze every advantage they can out of the game, and with a payroll looking likely to be a fraction of that available in Los Angeles and San Francisco, it’s probably the only way to compete. The signing of Jeff Mathis, expected by Lovullo to start 60 times a year, is significant, because Mathis’s value is certainly not with the bat. He has hit below the Uecker Line over his career, batting .197, with an OPS of just .562. His value since 2010 has been just 0.6 bWAR.
So why was he signed? Because he does something very well, which doesn’t show up in his batting stats, or even in bWAR. That’s his defense in general, and one area in particular - pitch framing. According to ESPN, “Over the past nine seasons, Mathis ranks fifth among catchers in defensive runs saved. And on a per-inning basis [for Mathis has averaged fewer than seventy games per year], he rates better than the leader, Yadier Molina.” Let’s look further into this dark and mysterious talent.
What is pitch framing?
Simply put, it’s the art of making a pitch that’s a ball to the hitter, look like a strike to the home-plate umpire. Officials are human, and while most pitches are going to be called the same, it’s borderline ones where the way the catcher receives the ball that can impact the umpire’s call. There are any number of factors that can be used gently to coax the man in blue to make the “right” decision. For example, the best pitch framers have what are called “quiet hands”, meaning they don’t stab at the ball. There’s also the ability to move the caught ball towards the center of the plate as it’s being received [without, please note, making it blatant this is what you’re doing. Umpires, like anyone else, hate feeling like they’re being manipulated].
If you want more technical details, this article breaks down what you need to do, and how it varies depending on the pitch location. It’s also instructive to watch a game on TV, and focus purely on the catcher’s reception. If you compare and contrast the good and the bad, you will find yourself seeing the difference, particularly on those pitches that “should” be balls, but are actually called strikes. It’s a skill - and so can be taught to others. You have to think, signing a veteran like Mathis may not just be for the impact he has directly, but also in the hope he can give tips on the topic, to help our young catchers like Oscar Hernandez.
Want to see it in action? Below, is a pitch framed by Jose Molina, the man whose 2008 season with the Yankees is the greatest for this skill on record, by one metric. This example was a bit later, from his time in Tampa, and was measured at more than 18 inches outside the strike zone - but was still called strike three by the home-plate umpire.
Why does it matter?
Umpires aren’t idiots (well, most of them). As mentioned, you could catch a pitch standing on your head, and it won’t affect the call in the great majority of cases. So what difference does it make? More than you’d think, because of the difference a single strike can make. Obviously, if your catcher turns ball four into strike three, that’s huge: an out rather than a walk. But even if it’s the first pitch in an at-bat, it will still have a significant impact, because batters hit a good deal less well when they’re behind in the count. Here are the MLB stats for last year:
After 0-0 count: .255/.322/.417 = .739 OPS
After 1-0 count: .271/.382/.457 = .839 OPS
After 0-1 count: .223/.266/.352 = .618 OPS
If the pitcher throws ball one, the average hitter sees their OPS increased by 100 points. If it’s strike one instead, it drops by over 120 points. So if the catcher turns a ball into a strike there, that’s a swing of 221 points in the production of the man at the plate. It’s roughly the equivalent of turning Chris Davis (career OPS .829) into Brendan Ryan (.607) for this plate appearance. That’s huge, even if you can only manage it a few times a game.
Measuring its impact
Sites like Stat Corner seek to quantify the impact of pitch framing in terms of runs above or below average for a particular catcher. They do this based off the pitch F/X data, which records the precise location of every delivery. This can be used to decide whether it “should” have been a ball or a strike, and compared to the actual call. The chart linked shows zBall%, which is the number of pitches called balls that were really strikes, and the opposite, oStr%, cases where a strike was given on a pitch outside the zone. Now, not every time will be due to pitch framing; the umpire may simply have blown it.
But over the course of a year and thousands of pitches received, it tends to even out - you see the same names show up consistently, season to season, as getting better calls. [a low zBall%, since those mistakes benefit the hitter, and a high oStr%, as they are the ones pitchers want] And once you’ve got the calls where there was a difference in expected and actual outcome, there are numbers you can plug in to show the value of the call obtained, based on the situation. For example, a walk is worth on average 0.31 runs, and a strikeout -0.28. So, on that 3-2 count mentioned earlier, a “good” frame job is worth the difference between a BB and a K, 0.59 runs. You can do the same on other counts, all the way to 0-0, where a good frame is worth .08 runs. That’s the basic idea, although there’s a lot more to it, if you are interested.
Add the value of all these changed calls, positive and negative, resulting from a catcher over the course of the season, and you’ll get a number that shows you the value of their pitch framing ability. And it can be a lot. The best catcher at it last year was St. Buster of the Flowers, who saved 26.8 runs above average for the Giants. The worst was the Royals’ Salvador Perez, who cost his team 19.5 runs. That’s a swing of over 46 runs between the two ends; at roughly 10 runs per win, it’s the equivalent of more than four and a half additional wins which Posey was worth over Perez. Again, those are wins that do NOT show up in bWAR.
What about the Diamondbacks?
It’s an area where Arizona can vastly improve. Miguel Montero was one of the best at it - indeed, in 2014 he was #1, at +24.0 runs. But post-Miggy? Combining all our various men in the mask together, the team tally for 2015 was 20.3 runs below average, and this season -12.2 runs were cost by their shortcomings in this department. It was something Welington Castillo worked on this year, saying “The better angle that I present it to the umpire, I think the more calls I’m going to get. It’s all about angles... I need to create a little angle with my body, be more square toward the plate.” He succeeded somewhat - but only from a 2015 which was the worst ever by a D-backs catcher, at -10.9 runs, and was still solidly below average.
Mathis should help because, since stats became available in 2007, he has been above the mean every year bar one. There’s another stat measuring something similar: “called strike rate above average” - how a pitcher did at getting called strikes - and this also shows Mathis’s value. In 2016, Mathis was fourth in the majors, behind Posey, Yasmani Grandal and - O HAI! - Montero. The D-backs have ranked a combined 28th in that stat since the departure of Miggy after the 2014 campaign. The ESPN piece linked previously included the image below, which shows in more detail where Mathis gets those strikes. Seems like he’d have been particularly helpful for Brad Ziegler.
Given the relative youth of many Diamondbacks’ starters, this talent could be highly useful. Turning any balls into strikes would, for example, help address Robbie Ray’s problem with pitches per inning. It’s worth noting that Zack Greinke was originally not entirely convinced. In early 2015, he said, “I believe that some catchers are better at framing pitches. But I’m not a believer that it’s as valuable as it’s being made out to be. It’s part of a catcher’s skill set. It’s not the most important part.” This opinion may have mellowed, after he went from personal catcher A.J. Ellis (one of the worst framers) to Grandal, who caught all bar 8 starts in Greinke’s epic campaign that year. There’s certainly a case throwing to Beef may have been part of Zack’s issues here, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Mathis become Greinke’s regular battery mate.