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.’”
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.
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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