Pitch-framing! Am I right? It’s still very much a fascinating subject, which is one of the reasons I write about it so often. But by this point we have a pretty good idea who’s good at it and who’s bad at it. That ground’s been covered. We know that Jose Molina is great. We know that Ryan Doumit was a problem. Yet we can break things down further still. Often, people don’t go beyond describing a guy as good, bad, or okay. But there are actually specific types of framers.
Which makes plenty of sense, doesn’t it? There are great hitters and there are bad hitters. Among them, there are guys with tremendous plate coverage, but there are also high-ball hitters and low-ball hitters. Every part of the zone area is different, and every player is different, so we should expect that different players respond differently to pitches in different parts of the zone. How this relates to framing is that some guys might be better with receiving high pitches, while other guys might be better with receiving low pitches. Intuitively, why not? And thanks to some awesome updates at Baseball Savant, this couldn’t be much easier to examine.
Of course, there are lots of ways you could go with this. Probably, different catchers are differently able to receive different pitch types. Catchers are differently able to receive inside pitches and outside pitches, and there are differing abilities inside and outside of the zone. What follows is just going to look at high and low pitches on the border of or within the PITCHf/x strike zone. This is one of many ways to slice up the information.
So, who looks best on should-be high strikes, and who looks best on should-be low strikes? I collected data from the entire reliable PITCHf/x era, spanning 2008-2013. I set a minimum of 10,000 pitches, which yielded a sample of 102 different catchers. For low pitches within the zone, I selected the lowest three zone boxes. For high pitches within the zone, I selected the highest three zone boxes. This study ignores the middle three boxes, and also the areas outside of the PITCHf/x strike zone. All that information would be great, when tackling other questions.
The sample gave more than 200,000 called pitches in the lower three zones, of which more than 77% were called strikes. It gave more than 130,000 called pitches in the higher three zones, of which more than 85% were called strikes. In the sortable table now, I’m going to show you everything. These are all 102 catchers, their performances, and the differences between low-strike rate and high-strike rate.
The king of low strikes has been Yasmani Grandal, although his sample is admittedly among the smallest. Following him are teammates Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado, and then Buster Posey’s a hair ahead of Brian McCann. At the other end, Kenji Johjima looks absolutely dreadful, although he hasn’t caught since 2009 and around then PITCHf/x had some more bugs. But Johjima was suspected to be a pretty lousy receiver. Jason Varitek and Joe Mauer are down there. Dioner Navarro’s still catching, and he’s had his issues with should-be low strikes.
And then you turn to high strikes, where suddenly Mauer reigns supreme. He’s got a big edge on Wilson Ramos, who has a smaller edge on Jose Molina, who has a smaller edge still on Varitek and A.J. Pierzynski. Turn this around, and Jason LaRue had some troubles. Carlos Ruiz looks the worst among prominent active types. Naturally, the bad end of the table features Ryan Doumit.
It’s interesting to see Mauer look so good up high and so bad down low. More generally, it’s interesting to observe that there doesn’t seem to be much of a relationship between low success and high success. The data isn’t entirely all over the map, but it’s pretty scattered about.
The general trend is that the better a catcher is at receiving low strikes, the worse he is at receiving high strikes, and vice versa. It isn’t the strongest trend in the world, but it also makes sense that something like that would exist, and though I haven’t looked at it yet there’s probably a relationship here with catcher height. And given the sensitivity of good receiving, it’s probably quite difficult to prepare to receive and stick low pitches and high pitches. The required movements are going to be different. Catchers, individually, might be better at one than the other.
Included in the table is each catcher’s high-strike rate minus his low-strike rate. The greatest difference belongs to Johjima, then Varitek, then Mauer. So while Mauer isn’t a catcher anymore, as recently as last season he had the greatest difference between his ability to receive high and his ability to receive low. The lowest difference belongs to Grandal, who’s been better with low strikes than high strikes, by almost nine percentage points. Within the sample, 21 catchers have higher low-strike rates than high-strike rates. 35 catchers are within five percentage points of being even.
Given that Mauer and Grandal have been very different catchers, then, might we be able to see anything in the video? The answer is: this isn’t enough video. We can’t learn anything from one-pitch samples. But just for the hell of it, here’s Mauer catching a high strike and Grandal catching a high ball, and Mauer catching a low ball and Grandal catching a low strike.
Mauer, we know, is the taller catcher, by a few inches. It also seems like he has a bit of vertical glove drift as the pitcher is in his delivery, and it might be easier for him to continue that upward than to suddenly reverse direction. Grandal seems adept at catching the low ball in his palm, which helps to minimize the required glove movement with a low pitch. Grandal, in general, is pretty quiet — simply averaging low-strike rate and high-strike rate, Grandal would be tied for fourth in the table, behind Maldonado, Posey, and Erik Kratz. Based on Grandal’s playing time, receiving is a somewhat surprising strength of his.
There’s more to be done with this kind of data. There are a lot of different things that we can try to isolate. For now, this is a beginning attempt, with thanks again to Baseball Savant for being such an outstanding and user-friendly resource. There are most assuredly good framers and bad framers. It’s time to pay a little more attention to the subgroups.
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