The first step was identifying pitch-framing as a skill. I don’t mean to diminish all the work that was done — it was phenomenal work, and illuminating work. We can’t stop talking about it! But there are other steps, or if you prefer, follow-up questions. Three of them:
- How much does pitch-framing matter?
- Is there a pitch-framing aging curve?
- To what extent can better pitch-framing be taught?
As far as No. 1 is concerned, we’ve got a lot of educated guesses. As far as No. 2 is concerned, it doesn’t seem like there’s much of an aging curve at all. And as far as No. 3 is concerned, it’s interesting to look at certain case studies. It seemed like J.P. Arencibia improved a season ago after working pretty hard on his receiving technique. And now we’ve got the case of Jason Castro, which, given his team, probably isn’t a coincidence. Well, no, it definitely isn’t a coincidence. I’ll get to that!
Let me just give you some numbers, first. You’re going to see extra strikes, relative to the league average. The first set of numbers comes from Matthew Carruth’s StatCorner tool.
2012: -21 strikes (-0.3 per game)
2013: -29 strikes (-0.3 per game)
2014: +28 strikes (+2.8 per game)
This second set of numbers comes from Baseball Prospectus’ calculations.
2012: -51 strikes (-0.7 per game)
2013: -27 strikes (-0.3 per game)
2014: +16 strikes (+1.6 per game)
The sets of numbers differ a little bit, but they agree on the general message: before, Jason Castro was a little below-average as a receiver. So far this season, as early as it is, Castro has been one of the very best receivers in the league. By Carruth’s tool, Castro ranks first in extra strikes. At Baseball Prospectus, he ranks fifth, and even fifth puts him ahead of Russell Martin and Jonathan Lucroy. What would appear to be true is that Castro has improved his technique, and therefore, what would appear to be true is that better framing can be taught, and perhaps with significant eventual results.
Here’s a map of Castro’s 2014 strike zone:
I’m not including a map of his 2012-2013 strike zone, because it’s too dense and difficult to decipher. But Castro has made improvements both on pitches within the zone and on pitches outside of the zone. Above, you see very, very few balls on pitches within the box. You see plenty of strikes outside of the box, and though the box is just in there as a simple approximation, it’s pretty clear that Castro’s been getting some broader and fuzzier edges.
I played around a little bit with Baseball Savant. Castro’s gotten better results on pitches down. He’s gotten better results on pitches up. He’s gotten better results on pitches toward the left edge. Breaking down a small sample only yields even smaller samples, so we can’t arrive at sweeping conclusions yet, but, put it this way — we already knew Castro could hit. Now it seems like he’s developing dramatically in a defensive facet. Let’s go back to that part about this not being a coincidence.
Almost exactly a year ago, Eno wrote about Castro and receiving. One paragraph:
But when I asked Castro to talk a little more about giving the umpire the best view, Castro agreed: “That’s part of what I’ve integrated into my catching this year is thinking about the angles in which I set up, and I actually have noticed a difference in the rising number of called strikes we’ve gotten this year, in just a non-scientific approach to it.”
And then there’s this, from Evan Drellich, this spring. I hope he’ll forgive me for a long blockquote:
Mike Fast’s title in the Astros’ front office is inconspicuous: “analyst, baseball development.” But he has a degree in physics and was a pioneer in the world of pitch data, and he’s a central figure behind the scenes.
Fast meets with coaches more often than players, but he met with Castro last week in Florida, and the two talked about framing, a part of his game in which Castro has plenty of room to grow.
Around 6:30 in the morning this spring, Castro and the other catchers get to work on receiving in the batting cage.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” Castro said. “It has to do with where you set up, how you set up, how you receive balls … It’s something that’s always kind of been intuitive and just something that was kind of done.”
Mike Fast was one of the pioneers of pitch-framing research. Mike Fast got hired by the Houston Astros. Mike Fast is recommending better pitch-framing to the Houston Astros. If anyone’s going to emphasize the importance of better receiving, it’s the Astros, and from the Castro case it seems like Fast’s making a legitimate and remarkable difference. It seems like Fast might be helping to create a franchise backstop.
Let’s look at some .gifs. Here are a couple catches by Castro from 2012:
I’m not an expert on catching technique, but I can at least spot that, above, Castro’s head dips as the ball finds the glove. Those who have studied this have identified that the head drop is negatively correlated with getting strikes. Now, one of the pitches above was called a strike anyway, but it wouldn’t do me much good to only show you balls, because that would be a form of bias.
Now let’s look at some catches from 2014:
Castro was never a bad, obnoxious receiver. He was in the vicinity of league-average. But above, you can see how still he keeps himself, particularly in the last .gif in which the pitcher missed up. It’s easy to frame a pitch that’s thrown right to the target. In the third instance, the target was missed, but Castro still made it look smooth and earned himself and his pitcher a borderline up-away strike. In the first .gif, Castro earned a strike on an inside breaking ball. He resisted the urge to drag the ball further away from the zone, and caught it in such a way that it looked closer to the edge than it was.
I’ll repeat that I’m not an expert on technique. You might be able to spot things I can’t. The Astros certainly could, and Castro could talk about the adjustments he’s tried to make. But the take-home message is this: Jason Castro has made adjustments to his receiving technique, and the early results are wildly positive. Granted, they weren’t a season ago, when Castro also tried to get better, but maybe he’s been given new advice, or maybe it just takes some time to develop. The point is that Castro appears to be developing as a catcher, and if Castro can learn better framing, how many other catchers could learn better framing? Is it ever too late to get better at this? These are good times to be a baseball fan. They’re even getting to be better times to be an Astros fan.
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