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
Brewers, Rockies, strike zone for right-handed batters
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:
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
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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