Framing the Way You Think About Framing

I nearly began this post with a story of how I arrived at the topic, involving Dave Cameron and email and Lucas Duda. Instead, I’ve chosen to begin this post by simply alluding to the story and moving on to the meat, because the story is irrelevant and uninteresting.

On Monday, the Brewers opened at home against the Rockies. Some familiar problems popped up — John Axford blew a save in the top of the ninth — but the Brewers ultimately emerged victorious, with Jonathan Lucroy making headlines by driving in the winning run. A walk-off sac fly doesn’t feel the same as a walk-off single or a walk-off dinger, but no one would ever accuse Lucroy of being the most electrifying player in baseball. He’s just a pretty good player on a pretty good team, and on Monday they happened to win together.

Lucroy otherwise went hitless, so his offensive contribution was limited, but it looks like he helped out in the field. For a while, now, the numbers have been calling Lucroy a hell of a pitch-framer. Via Brooks Baseball, I present to you a couple images:

Brewers, Rockies, strike zone for left-handed batters

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Brewers, Rockies, strike zone for right-handed batters

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I pulled up the league-wide strike-zone numbers for 2013, which for some teams is one game old and for other teams is zero games old. Brewers pitchers threw just 158 pitches, and they were given eight more strikes than expected. The Yankees were also at +8, but over 191 pitches. The league as a whole is at -12 strikes over almost 4,000 pitches. Now, in one regard it’s beyond silly to look at one game’s worth of these statistics. The sample sizes are miniature, the contexts aren’t averaged out, and the home-plate umpires are all different. But just for the sake of having a discussion, look at some of those low called strikes for the Brewers’ pitchers. The Brewers had Lucroy behind the plate, and Lucroy managed to get his team a somewhat expanded zone.

Lucroy is adept at receiving. Below, four examples of received pitches that went for low called strikes:

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Low pitches are not easy pitches to get called in your favor. They’re all sinking, and the momentum takes a catcher’s glove further out of the strike zone. Lucroy makes the pitches “stick”, requiring great concentration and strength, and while I’m not real good at analyzing catcher mechanics, Lucroy catches the pitches by tilting his glove downward, rather than by moving the whole thing downward. Even if the pitch ends up below the target, Lucroy’s wrist remains more or less where it was set, possibly creating the illusion of greater height. Or possibly just not exaggerating the lack of height. It comes down to a matter of whether you think framing is gaining strikes or not costing strikes. Catchers like to think of it as the former.

So, Lucroy is, visibly and statistically, a good receiver. Last year, he was the fourth-best in baseball, among regulars and semi-regulars. Jose Molina is kind of the face of this whole field of research. While I was in the process of developing this post, someone tweeted at me that Molina was putting on a framing clinic against the Orioles. That’s just something people look for when Molina is catching, now. My point here is not that Lucroy is better at receiving than Molina is. My point is that they’re both good receivers, and they’re good receivers in somewhat different ways.

Our own Jeff Zimmerman built a tool allowing one to see how umpires called balls and strikes for entire teams. I can’t break it down by individual catchers, but let’s look at 2012 Tampa Bay and 2012 Milwaukee. Molina caught a lot for the former, while Lucroy caught a lot for the latter. How do the actual called strike zones compare?

2012 Tampa Bay

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2012 Milwaukee

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Differences are slight, but they’re there. For Tampa Bay, you see an extension to the left — Molina is good about getting called strikes outside against left-handed hitters. For Milwaukee, you see something of an extension toward the bottom — Lucroy is good about getting called strikes down in the zone, or even out of it.

This is the skill that Lucroy put on display Monday against Colorado. Lucroy is a good receiver, but if he specializes, it’s in low fastballs. Molina is a good receiver, but if he specializes, it’s in outside pitches to lefties. It’s enough to say that a catcher is a good receiver, but one can be a good receiver in different ways. Receiving wouldn’t be the same across the board, on outside pitches and inside pitches and high pitches and low pitches. Molina isn’t the same level of good with everything, and neither is Lucroy, and neither is anyone else. Different mechanics go into receiving different pitches, and not all mechanics will be equally strong or weak.

Think of it, in a way, as pitch-framing splits. Or, consider WAR. If you have two 5-WAR players, they can get there by following different paths. One guy might be a speedy on-base machine. The other guy might be a slugger. Both players are good, but they’re differently good, just as Molina and Lucroy are differently good receiving backstops. Both know what they’re doing, but both have different strengths.

Molina, probably, is the more frustrating. He can get called strikes on pitches batters might hardly be able to hit. With Lucroy, pitchers might be more comfortable working more down in the zone, potentially leading to more grounders and reduced home runs. Fewer people will complain about Lucroy, because he doesn’t specialize in getting strikes on pitches well off the plate. But Lucroy is good at what he does, and the overall benefit is probably very similar.

Understanding pitch-framing, like understanding anything, is complicated. And it can always be made more complicated.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


36 Responses to “Framing the Way You Think About Framing”

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  1. Well-Beered Englishman says:

    Now if only there were a way to seperate these rainbowesque charts, that would be rather pleasing.

    I love me some rainbows…

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  2. cthabeerman says:

    It makes you wonder how easy or difficult it might be for a team to teach catchers mechanics by specifically comparing their film to the film of catchers that are adept at various locations to create the ultimate framejob.

    Is it possible for one to mimic the framing skills of various catchers simultaneously, or do the individuals’ tactics not work in harmony with each other?? Could one develop one framing tactic for a certain pitcher and a different framing mechanism for another to accentuate each pitcher’s areas of strength??

    Perhaps these types of training are already occurring throughout baseball, but I do find this kind of analysis pretty amazing.

    -C

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    • ed says:

      They were teaching framing when I was a catcher (back…yikes, 20 years ago?), but it requires a crazy amount of concentration and hand-eye coordination to do the wristy stuff that Lucroy’s doing here. Just being able to pull the glove into the strikezone when you sort of have to stab at a sinking or running pitch is a pretty tricky skill – you really have to tailor it for each pitcher and how you deal with each pitcher.

      Framing has been part of the catcher’s toolkit for generations, but statheads only recently have had access to data that allow them (us) to try to quantify how much of an effect it can have.

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  3. Corey says:

    I watched the Mariners instead last night and watched Jesus Montero miss a ball right down the middle that was called a ball.

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  4. Carlton Clark says:

    watch the umpires head in the 4 GIFs. The head dips down. I understand umpires are trained to hold head still and move the eyes. Moving your head moves the apparent strike zone. Does Lucroy gets umps to move their head? If so amazing! Or is that just this ump in this game?

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  5. Emmett says:

    In terms of Lucroy’s mechanics, what I’m noticing is that once the ball reaches the plate, all of his movement comes from the elbow. The elbow is the part of Lucroy’s body that is most outside of the umpire’s line of sight as he looks forward. Movement in the wrist will be noticed as the ump tracks the ball into the glove. As you noted, his wrist is completely stiff. Movement in the shoulder will cause his upper body/head to move, which the umpire will also pick up. Watch his shoulders as he catches the ball. He moves his arm, but his shoulders stay completely flat on a level plane. The more effort (i.e. movement) a catcher appears to put into receiving a ball, the less likely the ump is to call it a strike. My guess is that the shoulders, which come more into view on lower pitches, are why Lucroy specializes on pitches low in the zone.

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  6. Steve says:

    I wonder if umpires would ever read posts like this and be on the lookout for Molina’s shenanigans.

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  7. Bob says:

    I wish we had data on Javy Lopez’s framing abilities back in the 90s. Glavine is almost credited for how he could push the strike zone further and further outside as the game went on – I wonder if some of this credit deserves to be with his catcher.

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  8. Neil says:

    For future reference, I would like to here stories about how you come up with post ideas.

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  9. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Man, look at Lucroy recieve those. That is some very smooth catching right there.

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  10. Joe Peta says:

    The pitch framing discussion that started (to my knowledge) with Mike Fast’s incredibly eye-opening article at BP in (I believe) Sept,/Oct. 2011 before he went to work for the Astros is a great new frontier of valuing defense. However, and I’ve been perplexed by this previously, why doesn’t the “value” show up better? For instance, Lucroy with his awesome mechanics (his entire body is quiet as he catches a pitch) caught almost half of the Brewers pitches last year (49.4% plate appearances). His k% was 22.8% and his bb% was 8.6%. The other Brewers’ catchers? 22.1% and 8.2% respectively. (His ERA – or CERA – was a tad worse too but I don’t want to ding him for BABIP differences.) I have found this before but don’t have findings in front of me. Why, if he’s getting more strikes and less balls doesn’t the entire staff figures reflect this more dramatically? Now LuCroy is not a weak-hitting catcher but the justification for Molina-types is the value their framing brings to the run-suppression table. Yet, I found the theoretical value wildly overstated because it wasn’t showing up in runs allowed totals. I’d love if anyone has thought or if there is a rigorous study calculating, say, catcher SIERAs?

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  11. Blarghh says:

    “So, Lucroy is, visibly and statistically, a good receiver. Last year, he was the fourth-best in baseball, among regulars and semi-regulars.”

    By what measure?

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  12. StrikeThree says:

    Is Lucroy a good receiver, or is the umpire a bad pitch caller? Lucroy’s obviously, blatantly, unabashedly, moving his mitt. I can’t believe he’s getting the calls. The pitches weren’t even close to being strikes. With greater extension of his arm, he would have been closer to the true strike zone, and wouldn’t have had to move his glove as much. I still believe the old-time palm-up method for low, sinking pitches allows catching the ball in a manner that it looks more like a strike, with no extra movement added.

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    • 20 yrs behind the plate says:

      It’s all about keeping the amount of perceived motion low, while still keeping as many parts as possible in the zone. When catching any pitch, all catchers ‘move’ their glove….the act of physically catching a ball involves some kind of movement to close the glove (barring the application of pine tar or something). Lucroy’s technical strength is that he limits his body movement beyond what is absolutely necessary, this affording a good look at the ball, and ‘confidence’ that the caught pitch is a strike. The old ‘palm up’ method isn’t as effective because it involves the complete rotation of the arm and significant glove action, which is more noticeable by the umpire. I once had an ump tell me that if he could see me moving the mitt in any ‘unnatural’ way, he would assume that I thought the pitch was a ball also, and call it as such. So it is advantageous to keep as much of your body still, and particularly finding ways to keep as much of the receiving parts (I.e. hand and forearm) in the zone as possible, thus affording the illusion that the pitch is in the zone. If you look at Mike Fast’s original study, most of the catchers who ranked towards the top of the lists were very ‘quiet’ in their stances. This is not a coincidence.

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      • StrikeThree says:

        Where’s the evidence palm-up is ‘unnatural’? For low pitches, It’s just the opposite! The glove is closer to the plate, higher off the ground. More of the glove and the pocket is closer to the zone. The umpire sees the ball all the way…never loses sight…even after arrival. There’s nothing unnatural about receiving the ball closer to the zine. When I speak of movement, I mean post- contact moving the ball to the zone, not movement prior to arrival. If umpires are willing to acknowledge they’re being influenced by the type of mivement illustrated by Lucroy, ‘modern’ methods are just fine. If they’re sensitive to that issue, they, too, should prefer the palm-up method. I obviously recognize I’m swimming upstream on this one, but objective facts about the ball, the glove, and the zone trump subjective opinion about how someone ‘wants’ the ball caught, ignoring where the ball is.

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        • KDL says:

          What you’re saying only works if the catcher STARTS palm-up. Since catchers don’t start this way, any time they end up palm-up is a pretty good signal that the pitch didn’t go where it was supposed to. You’re 100% right that it is natural to catch low things palm-up…but that’s not really what we’re talking about. When someone throws me a ball and I react late and have to move a bunch to catch it…that’s its own kind of unnatural (and the kind we’re talking about.
          Also, starting palm-up really limits one’s ability to catch anything that’s not low. Ever try catching anything above your waist with your hand palm-up?

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        • Evil Roy Slade says:

          No, dude. That’s just nonsensical, everything you just typed. Do yourself a favor and reread the last reply to which you responded.

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        • StrikeThree says:

          Sorry, I posted this in wrong thread below. Try again:
          Any conversation focusing on glove movement prior to the ball’s arrival is giving too much credit to the blues. The ump is watching the ball, not the glove, until imact.The palm up method allows for plenty of time for glove rotation and settling to impact, at which time the umpire can read the signature on the ball. See SBN Dec. 29, ’12: ‘Am I Being Framed?!”

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  13. Ben says:

    This article’s so good it’ll make you think about framing Framing the Way You Think About Framing.

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    • Darien says:

      Yo dawg, we heard you like framing.

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    • StrikeThree says:

      Any conversation focusing on glove movement prior to the ball’s arrival is giving too much credit to the blues. The ump is watching the ball, not the glove, until imact.The palm up method allows for plenty of time for glove rotation and settling to impact, at which time the umpire can read the signature on the ball. See SBN Dec. 29, ’12: ‘Am I Being Framed?!”

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  14. Travis L says:

    Love this! As a former catcher, it warms my heart to see them get some credit for what they do.

    One suggestion on the visualizations — when comparing two heat maps, it would be cool to make it an animated GIF (easier to make), or a mouseover (harder but at the user’s control). Then you could really visually compare the two without having to move the eyes. This would make the heatmaps really easy to compare.

    Again, absolutely love it.

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  15. Schuxu says:

    Lucroy also has a very compact crouch. Having his head below the belt of the hitters. Umpires love that as it allows them to see much more of the lower and the outside zone. I wonder how much effect that has on called strikes.
    Maybe there are splits with runners on base as I would assume that he is not crouched as compact in those situations having to be “throw ready”. Would be interesting to see such splits for others of the good fraiming catchers.

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  16. tz says:

    Watching those GIFs, Lucroy’s glove reminds me a lot of the Venus fly trap in “Little Shop of Horrors”

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  17. tahititaco says:

    Framing pitches seems more like cheating than strategy to me. You’re not competing against anyone, you’re trying to trick the ref into making an unfair call. Not on board.

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    • Bob says:

      Or get the ump to correctly call a strike.

      Imagine someone who actively doesn’t frame pitches. A pitch is thrown low, but still in the strike zone. The catcher moves the mitt down slightly to catch the ball, and allows their arm momentum to continue downward after making the catch. That is going to look like a ball (even though it is a strike) compared to someone who doesn’t allow the glove to continue its downward motion.

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    • Baltar says:

      This is a totally absurd statement. Where is the rule against trying to fool the umpire?

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  18. matt says:

    Lol, yeah as long as you keep it close against the Rockies, you’ll probably have a good chance to steal it in the 9th or later. I was excited when I turned the game on, but just like last year the Rox scored a few runs early and then got NOTHIN’ the last 6. I liked the second game a lot, and love that Cargo and Tulo now each have 2 dingers, but this is still going to be a long season. I saw bits and pieces during my shift at DISH, and when I got off I flipped on my iPad to watch the rest on the bus ride home. I have the DISH Anywhere app that lets me take my live TV and DVR anywhere I go, but since I’ll get to see more late innings than early, I hope the Rox can learn to score throughout the game, not just at the beginning.

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  19. Tripp says:

    Since the research on pitch framing ability is still very young, I’d be interested to see if and how umpires react when this knowledge becomes more prevalent. For example, If umpires across the league begin to learn the Jose Molina is great at getting strikes called off the outside plate against LHH, will they begin not calling as many for strikes?

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