Official Confirmation of the Role of Pitch-Receiving

I know you’ve got pitch-framing fatigue, and I know this isn’t going to help. I know that some of you are going to skip right over this, and that’s fine. But this post isn’t about a leaderboard, or a specific pitch or pitch sequence. This is about an acknowledgment of the role of the skill, from one of the people we figure catchers are trying to convince. A lot of the time, when a post goes up here about framing, someone chimes in in the comments all skeptical-like, claiming that umpires aren’t influenced by the catchers catching the pitches. The very fact that framing numbers hold up season-to-season suggests strongly that they’re measuring something. There’s also a little something from Tuesday, as brought to my attention by @AaronBell80.

The Dodgers beat the Nationals 8-3, in Washington. The biggest story of the game, probably, wasn’t the start by Blake Treinen. The biggest story about Blake Treinen, probably, wasn’t about his called strike zone. But, Treinen started and threw to Jose Lobaton, with Paul Nauert behind the plate. When the game was over, Lobaton passed a little something along to the media.

I’ll cite a few sources. From Mark Zuckerman:

“I think it’s the first time I’ve seen a guy with that sink,” catcher Jose Lobaton said. “It’s not easy to hit, and it’s not easy to catch.”

Lobaton laughed as he recalled a conversation he had with plate umpire Paul Nauert, who informed the catcher he might get a few more borderline calls if he held Treinen’s pitches a little better, not letting the natural movement pull his glove down.

“I’m like: ‘It’s not easy,’” Lobaton said. “‘It’s 97-98 with sink. I’m trying, but it’s not easy.’”

From Dan Kolko:

Catcher Jose Lobaton was impressed with Treinen, as well, and relayed an interaction that he had with home plate umpire Paul Nauert, who was trying to tell Lobaton to hold Treinen’s pitches at the bottom of the strike zone a bit longer if he wanted them to be called strikes.

From Byron Kerr:

Lobaton said home plate umpire Paul Nauert was telling him to hold the pitch a little bit longer.

Here is at least a brief part of the Nauert and Lobaton interaction, in the middle of an at-bat:


It doesn’t really matter what calls Treinen was and wasn’t getting. Sometimes, he wound up with borderline balls:



Sometimes, he wound up with borderline strikes:



This is more about the message, and the fact that it was delivered to Lobaton by the guy responsible for making the calls on taken pitches. We’ll have to make an assumption that Nauert isn’t unique in this regard, that he’s representing the whole of professional umpires. Maybe that’s dangerous, but anyway.

It’s not the easiest thing to interpret the words. The first thing I thought was that Nauert was almost making a threat, like, “I won’t give you borderline strikes unless you catch them better.” That interpretation might still be correct, where you have a guy consciously, deliberately responding to pitch-framing, as opposed to being subconsciously influenced by it. I don’t think this is the case, though — if Nauert were to have a decision in mind prior to the ball’s arrival at the glove, there would be no reason for him to take the glove’s behavior into consideration.

Upon further reading, I think Nauert was just asking Lobaton to give him more of a chance. When it comes to a pitch on the border, it seems like umpires are conservative, with “ball” as the default unless they’re given good reason to go the other way. Maybe this is simply because a walk is four balls and a strikeout is three strikes. Maybe something else. Nauert wanted Lobaton to hold the spot, so he could make a better decision. And so what we have is an umpire telling a catcher, look, what happens is at least partially dependent on how you handle the end of the flight of the baseball.

There’s no getting around that conclusion — Nauert was responding, at least a little bit, to how Lobaton caught. He knew it, too. Nauert knows as well as anyone that, in theory, the only thing that should matter is where the baseball is in front of the glove, but even the most highly-trained humans in the world struggle to see and precisely locate small baseballs flying right at them at an angle, with all kinds of unpredictable movement. Then there’s the matter of the invisible, three-dimensional strike zone. When the catcher has the ball is the only time the ball is still, and the catcher’s glove can provide some reference point of where the baseball was just before. It’s a subtle thing, but Nauert gave Lobaton in-game confirmation that he needs to mind how he’s catching.

Not that catching is easy, and not that catching a hard low sinker is even close to easy. Hard low sinkers might be the most difficult pitches to get called strikes on, because they’re probably the most difficult pitches to catch and stick. You need to anticipate the movement, and you need to have a strong, responsive wrist. Because a hard, moving pitch is so hard to track, it’s also the kind of pitch where an umpire might rely the most on the backstop, which could be how we came to yesterday’s events.

In a sense, this isn’t anything new. It was demonstrated years ago that framing was a thing, whether people liked it or believed it or not. Catchers knew about it. Coaches knew about it. Organizations knew about it, and are actively teaching it. But I can’t immediately recall an instance in which an umpire admitted to the influence, and gave in-game advice as to how to get a more favorable zone. I’m not saying it hasn’t happened, but it at least hasn’t happened often. We don’t hear a lot about those on-field conversations, so this anecdote stands out.

Tuesday, Paul Nauert wanted Jose Lobaton’s help. Umpires want to be kinder to pitchers, I really believe. They just need to have some evidence. It doesn’t matter if that evidence comes after the ball is done flying. It can be mighty hard to see the ball fly.

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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.

37 Responses to “Official Confirmation of the Role of Pitch-Receiving”

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  1. Andy says:

    How much more evidence do we need that technology, not human beings, should be calling balls and strikes? The umpire is flat-out admitting he isn’t sure whether certain pitches are balls or strikes. What more do we need?

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    • Samuel P Sumner says:

      Because it’s part of the game. The fact that this conversation took place showed it is a tangible skill. It’s no different that well-respected hitters (Chipper Jones I know this happened to) getting the occasional benefit of the doubt when they didn’t swing

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      • Spencer says:

        “Because that’s the way it is” isn’t an acceptable answer.

        It is no different than the Chipper Jones example. I think both examples are things we’d be better off without.

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      • joser says:

        Doctoring a baseball is a skill — just ask Gaylord Perry — but we don’t allow it. Once upon a time it was “part of the game,” and the guys who had the skill to throw a spitball were allowed to continue doing so until they retired, and then that skill was eliminated from the sport (though it is revived from time to time, in a less skillful fashion… just ask Michael Pineda).

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        • joser says:

          (I will add that I can understand a distinction between the use of pinetar to grip the ball in adverse weather and actually doctoring a baseball to affect its spin, though whether such a distinction could be put into a rule and into practice without it getting abused, I’m less certain).

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    • Doug Lampert says:

      I’d really prefer an automated zone that knows the strike zone is 3-d, I believe pitch FX works on the front of the plate and doesn’t recognize pitches that pass through the zone but not at the front of the plate.

      But not doing it because of that is a classic case of the perfect being the enemy of the good. The current crop of humans are evaluated by how closely their calls match the computer, that’s pretty well an admission that the computer is already more accurate and consistent than a human.

      You need the home-plate umpire for things like HBP, foul tips, catcher’s interference, calls at the plate, dropped third strikes, and possibly swing/no swing calls (although those are more accurate from the first or third base ump). You don’t need him for in/out of zone calls, let the computer make those and tell the Ump what happened.

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      • Jason B says:

        Ditch the catcher and the ump, just put a big aluminum rectangle back there like in wiffle-ball. If it BANG! hits the rectangle, strike.

        (A laundry basket will do in a pinch.)

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      • Eric Hainline says:

        Well, it IS an admission that the computer is TRUSTED more than humans. Considering the state of the art, I find even that to be objectionable.

        As you state, PitchF/X does not track the pitched ball through the strike zone. They actually have the data necessary to PROJECT the flight through the zone, but they don’t do that. As such, the computer is the one thing that is actually blind to the true outcome on any/every pitch. Of course, all the cute animations imply otherwise, and have trained millions of us into believing in the fantasy of contemporary robot strike zone literacy. And, also unspoken, PitchF/X depends on one or two interns in a video control room determining the upper & lower limits of the strike zone. Why are those knuckleheads considered more expert than an MLB plate umpire?

        As for the ump needing framing, consider the limits of human vision. Motion pictures work precisely because we are unable to discern actions above a certain speed. Even simple old-fashioned 8mm home movies run at 16 frames per second. At that frame rate, a 90mph fastball will travel 8.25 feet within a 16th of a second. The human vision system didn’t actually see that baseball move through that entire 8 feet and 3 inches of space. It recreates what it did not see out of learned memory. Having a catcher frame the pitch helps the umpire’s brain rebuild what it thinks it witnessed, from which the ump will have confidence in his call.

        (By the way, for those that want to jump to the conclusion that PitchF/X uses high speed cameras with much faster frames rates and capture far more information than the human eye, the response – ahead of time – is that yes they CAN, but no they DON’T. Typically they take 3 samples out of the entire pitch path and then use the math to fill in the other 59 feet, 9 inches.)

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    • Tomrigid says:

      You won’t see pitchFX at a city league game and you probably wouldn’t want to. Umps at the local level do groundskeeping, dues collection, all sorts of stuff. They’re a part of the game and they should have a major league analog.

      If they wore Google Glass with real time location info fed to them I wouldn’t object. The could just hold up a hand and say, one sec, lemme look at it again, like Mr Data…”accessing.”

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    • Jon Dowd says:

      Good point! Next, we can eliminate the need for actual at bats, just run a simulator based on projections!!

      In my opinion, the fact that baseball is a contest between humans is what makes it interesting; the human element is what makes the game unpredictable, suspenseful, and entertaining. While the by-the-letter-of-the-law definition of the strike zone is what it is, execution and presentation of pitches is an absolutely integral part of the game. To remove this would be to cheapen the core of the sport.

      Whats next? Why even bother having catchers? Catchers are now obsolete and occasionally suffer painful foul tips. Lets just put a net back there to catch the pitches going through the automated strike zone!!

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      • quincy0191 says:

        People get confused as to what the “human element” is. The human element is the players, not the umpires. The umpires are merely there to properly enforce the rules; they’re not supposed to affect the outcome of the game. That’s what the players are there for. Human umpires by default can’t do their job perfectly, because humans can’t do anything perfectly – that’s why we went from one umpire to four, that’s why we went from no replay to replay, and that’s why we’ll have a computerized strike zone in the future.

        Once that happens, people won’t be clamoring for the “human element”. They’ll wonder why it took so long to put in place. Just like Pirates fans wonder how many games they lost before replay after Tuesday night’s game (and Giants fans know they lost at least one). And why it would be insane to go back to one umpire.

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        • Andrew says:

          Exactly. Nobody is there to behold the vagaries of umpire performance. The vagaries of player performance, absolutely. That’s where the human element comes in.

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        • Jason B says:

          Quincy FTW. Well said.

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  2. Steven says:

    Sorry for going for in a different direction, but who is this Treinen guy and how is he not better regarded with a mid 90s sinker?

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    • Seems like it’s basically all that he has.

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    • Aaron (UK) says:

      He was the PTBNL in the Morse – Jaso – AJ Cole, Krol, PTBNL 3-way deal, where Washington made out like bandits.

      His secondary stuff needs a lot of work but he’ll make some sort of career at the major-league level for a few years.

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    • Jason Powers says:

      I believe it substantially helps him what he’s got. Get him a change up to lefties that runs down and away…boom.

      Blake Treinen Heat Map

      From the Hardball times, “This graphic was generated from 315,755 fastballs thrown in the strike zone from 2010-2013. You’ll notice that speed does matter—for fastballs thrown on the inside third. Pitches thrown 94-plus mph are far more effective than any other inside fastball. In fact, the worst type of pitch on this graph for a pitcher is an 86-90 mph fastball thrown low and in to a right-handed hitter.”

      Treinen has substantial movement that runs in on righties..he was not hit hard in his start, and made the RH hitters uncomfortable.

      So, I’d say, he’s worth a look. The Cubs don’t have guys like him laying around their minors. Flip the Nationals something they need and grab this guy in the “package”.

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  3. Tyler says:

    It’s interesting to hear this in the media, but it’s a well-known fact that framing gets more strike calls. Anyone who’s played catcher can tell you that; it’s why they teach young catcher how to frame. The difficulty has not been acknowledging this skill, rather, it has been valuing it, which is of course what the saber community has been working diligently and commendably on recently.

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    • MGL says:

      Very well put. This while idea of having to prove or verify the existence of framing is and has been nonsense. As you eloquently say, the breakthrough has been in quantifying it.

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  4. Basil Ganglia says:

    With a three dimensional strike-zone, how can the location of a pitch be mapped as a specific location on a 2-dimentional strike zone?

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    • Spencer says:

      The strike zone is two dimensional. It doesn’t have depth, just height and width. The flat plane is the front of plate.

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      • Krog says:

        I believe that is incorrect. According to Rule 2.00 in the MLB rule book, “The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.”

        So the area over home plate is indeed the depth of the three-dimensional strike zone.

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        • randplaty says:

          And it can fluctuate from pitch to pitch depending on the batter’s stance. Pitch(f/x) doesn’t pick up the batters stance.

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      • MGL says:

        Regardless, pitch f/x is MUCH more accurate and consistent than an umpire. Yes, it is not perfect, perhaps in large part because of the 3-dimensional and batter’s stance and height issues. But, nothing is perfect, whether good or bad.

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        • TapRat says:

          If you were to automate the strike zone, I don’t see why you’d use pitch f/x. It would be very easy, technologically, to determine whether the ball crossed the plate. Put sensors around its edges. It would be simple. Then let the ump decide if the pitch was in the strike zone vertically.

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  5. capnsparrow says:

    Jeff, What Nauert was trying to tell Lobaton is he like almost every other umpire I have caught in front of wants to see the glove of steel rather than Lobatons obvious sloppy attempts to bring his glove back up.
    Pitch framing is more about staying low and still, allowing the umpire to see the ball than it is about any magical method of catching it. Note the second gif. Lobaton is hideously moving his mitt towards the strike zone after he catches the ball. In the 4th a blind man can see thats a strike and he almost has the glove of steel down in the 5th. He moves around behind the plate way too much. If you want to see the glove of steel worked perfectly watch the Molinas they all do it extremely well. I could go further and discuss visits to the mound but thats another topic

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    • tz says:

      I think at the end of the day the umpires want as little distraction from seeing the ball as possible. And generally, as a rule, they won’t call a strike if they aren’t sure they actually saw the pitch cross the strike zone.

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    • “[...]who informed the catcher he might get a few more borderline calls if he held Treinen’s pitches a little better, not letting the natural movement pull his glove down.”

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  6. randplaty says:

    Does park factors affect pitch framing?

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  7. Brian says:

    I guess something doesn’t sit right with me when an umpire is telling a player how to improve his performance, seems impartial.

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  8. DrBGiantsfan says:

    This is also confirmation that it is not just all about the catcher. Some pitchers are easier to “frame” than others. Unless a team has an unusually high turnover in their pitching staff, that will remain fairly stable from year to year also.

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  9. Kiss my Go Nats says:

    yea Lobaton is a hitting first backup catcher! he needs far more help on the glove side. As a Nats fan I thank that umpire!

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