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The Diamondbacks are Dominating Pitch Framing

We’ve heard it discussed plenty. Well, here are the numbers.

San Diego Padres v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

We’ve all heard about it. Under the Mike Hazen era, the Arizona Diamondbacks have made a strong, concerted effort to emphasize pitch framing. That’s one of the main reasons why the team has made moves to get Jeff Mathis, John Ryan Murphy, and Alex Avila while letting Chris Iannetta sign with Colorado.

Quantifying pitch framing data seems difficult. There are two websites (Baseball Prospectus and StatCorner) that assign “runs” to individual catchers based on their pitch framing data, but they don’t provide the details or anything on a team-wide level. This can make it difficult when trying to compare the overall effect for a team when a team primarily only uses one catcher (like Yadier Molina) versus a team like Arizona that uses three catchers with somewhat regularity.

Well, today, we are going to look at the Diamondbacks pitch framing, as a whole team, and how they stack up with the rest of the MLB.

To start, however, we’re going to take a step backward. What is pitch framing?

The overall goal of pitch framing is to get strikes to be called strikes and balls to be called strikes. That’s honestly very simple. What prompted this article was seeing this interesting stat:

The Diamondbacks throw the lowest amount of strikes in baseball. That was really surprising to see. It might makes sense too - after all, Robbie Ray and Zack Godley are two of the five starters in the Arizona Diamondbacks rotation and they can’t throw a strike to save their lives, or so it seems.

However, what triggered the chart above is that neither of them have the lowest Zone% in baseball. That award belongs to Patrick Corbin. In fact, Godley and Ray both throw strikes at a higher rate than Corbin and Zack Greinke, yet have significantly higher BB%:

Now, pitch framing isn’t the sole cause for this disparity, but it is something that will play a significant effect. The Diamondbacks aren’t throwing strikes for a reason: pitches in the zone are easier to hit than pitches out of the zone. Hopefully this article will show why the Diamondbacks are able to get away with throwing less pitches in the strike zone than any other team in baseball.

To compile this data, the Statcast Search tool was used. To narrow the data, the data was limited exclusively to pitches that were either a called strike or a called ball (for the “Strikes Called Strikes” and “Balls Called Strikes” charts). Swings were not counted unless otherwise noted. This makes it simple: the pitcher threw the ball, the catcher caught the ball, and the batter didn’t swing to have any influence on the pitch call.

To do this, the Gameday Strikezone was used to determine the strikezone:

To look at balls called strikes, the data pool was limited to pitches in zones 11, 12, 13, 14. To look at strikes called strikes, the data pool was limited to pitches in zones 1-9. This gives a very easy way to approximate the effects of pitch framing.

Let’s jump right into it. Which team has the highest rate of balls called strikes, per the Gameday Strikezone map? Hint: it’s not a surprise.

The Diamondbacks are absolutely crushing baseball in this metric. For the stats nerds here, the Diamondbacks are 2.36 standard deviations (z score = 2.36) above average. That is insane.

And it’s not like the Diamondbacks are doing this on a small sample; they also have the highest raw number of balls called strikes in baseball:

Here, the gap narrows but that’s due to the raw pitches that each team has thrown. For instance, the Diamondbacks have 24 more balls called strikes than the second-place Miami Marlins. However, the Marlins have thrown nearly 1000 more pitches than AZ (18714 vs 17773). This shows that not only are the Diamondbacks doing this as a great rate, they’re doing it at a good frequency, too.

At this count, the Diamondbacks are about 130 strikes above league average. The rough conversion of strikes to runs is about 6 strikes = 1 run, so that’s 21.67 runs or nearly 2 wins gained via pitch framing.

But many people aren’t happy with just hearing that pitch framing equals 2 wins for the Diamondbacks. Surely those extra strikes have to mean something, right?

Remember what was said above: pitch framing is about getting balls called strikes. Pitchers want balls to be called strikes because it is harder to hit a ball than a strike.

So, if the Diamondbacks are getting more called strikes outside the zone, does that mean that teams are swinging more often at balls?

The Diamondbacks have the second-highest rate of swings outside the zone in baseball. The pitch framing is doing its job: the team is getting more called strikes outside the zone and causing batters to swing outside the zone more than every team except Minnesota.

Mission accomplished.

However, we’ve only tackled one side of pitch framing. What about strikes being called strikes?

Sure enough, right there at the top of the list, just barely behind the Dodgers. And again, there appears to be a fairly similar theme here: the Diamondbacks have a fairly healthy lead over nearly every other team in baseball. The Dodgers, Diamondbacks, and Red Sox are bunched together at the top and then there is a big step to the next group. Combined, these graphs show clear evidence of a skill, of which the Diamondbacks are once again winning at (just like shifts).

This is something that’s been talked about in great frequency over the past two seasons. Hopefully these charts helped to visualize or quantify just how the Diamondbacks are winning and to what extent.

To summarize:

  • The Diamondbacks throw the lowest rate of strikes in baseball
  • When they do throw strikes, they have the second-highest rate of called strikes in the strike zone in all of baseball
  • When Diamondbacks pitchers don’t throw strikes, they have the highest rate of balls called strikes and the second-highest rate of swings in baseball

Philosophically, that’s excatly what you want from your pitchers. Now, this isn’t solely on the catchers as you need pitchers that can execute - and as mentioned above, the ~2 wins is a fairly good estimation of the value of pitch framing as a whole - but the Diamondbacks have done a lot of little things (pitch framing, shifts, defense, etc.) to maximize what we get out of our pitchers.

You may disagree with the players the team has drafted or traded for in the past two years, but there is one thing that is becoming more and more clear: the Mike Hazen organization is maximizing what it can get out of the roster with the optimization of the “small things” in baseball.