Pitch-Framing and a Peek Inside the Industry

Pitch-framing research isn’t really new anymore. I mean, in the grander scheme of things, it’s only been a blink of an eye since the work first debuted, but we’re beyond the discovery stage. We’re at the point where the work is going into refinement, and earlier this week Baseball Prospectus published the latest update. The research was good, and the effort was extraordinary, but ultimately the piece offered a lot of confirmation. The guys we suspected were good are still good. The guys we suspected were bad are still bad. With framing, researchers are almost all the way there.

So, we know about framing, and we know about the numbers. We’re also on the outside, looking in. Whenever this comes up, there’s always the question: so, how is framing actually valued right now within the industry? For example, Jose Molina might be the face of the whole field of study. By the end of 2015, he will have played four years with the Rays for a total of less than eight million dollars. The framing numbers would suggest he’d be worth that much in a month or three. Teams just must not believe in it, right? Or they’re at least being super-cautious.

This is the reason I’m bringing this up:

The replies are similar and predictable. Must be the Brewers’ GM. Where’s Buster Posey? How could Jonathan Lucroy possibly be more valuable than Buster Posey? Somebody must be stupid, or drunk, or both. There can be a lot of overlap between stupid and drunk.

Let’s make some assumptions. First, let’s assume Heyman is conveying an accurate message. Second, let’s assume the team was just talking about catcher rankings, and not catcher value rankings, so as to leave contracts out of this. The wording is “one of top two catchers”. Seems matter-of-fact. According to the GM of the team, it’s Molina and Lucroy, and then it’s presumably Posey and Brian McCann and the rest of the backstops. It’s a pretty bold evaluation and statement, even when made anonymously.

And here’s the simplicity of it: pretty much the only way to justify ranking Lucroy ahead of Posey is by putting a lot of weight on pitch-framing statistics. You can be really high on Lucroy’s overall skillset. You can see Posey as more of a future first baseman. Doesn’t matter. There’s still a pretty big gap, unless you factor in the framing. So somebody out there must factor in the framing.

For all I know, this could be Andrew Friedman and the Rays. The Rays, obviously, like Jose Molina, and they landed Ryan Hanigan, who they coveted for years. The Rays need to be aware of potentially undervalued skills, so it makes sense why they’ve jumped onto the pitch-framing bandwagon. If Heyman was talking to Friedman, then we don’t really learn anything. We already knew the Rays were on board. But there are 29 other general managers and 29 other teams, so it could be that framing is becoming more accepted as a skill with significant value. The industry might be starting to see this as legitimate.

The last three years, Yadier Molina has posted the highest catcher WAR. Posey’s in second, Lucroy’s in tenth, and McCann’s in 11th. Narrow the gap to the last two years. Posey’s a little ahead of Molina, with an edge in playing time. He’s about five WAR in front of Lucroy, over almost 300 more plate appearances. Posey’s been a tremendous hitter who’s been durable, who’s been good at blocking, and who’s been good at throwing. Buster Posey is a definite superstar, and that’s why it takes some balls to prefer Lucroy. Or should I say, extra strikes. (framing joke) (moving right along)

It’s clear that Lucroy has to make up a gap. It’s clear that there’s an argument. Here’s a pitch-framing leaderboard, generated by Matthew Carruth. His results agree strongly with the latest Baseball Prospectus results. Now, according to Carruth, Posey’s a pretty good receiver, all things considered. It’s not like this is a weakness of his. But Lucroy is phenomenal, and he’s been phenomenal for long enough that this doesn’t seem like it’s a fluke or a blip.

Over the last three years, Lucroy has gotten 242 more extra strikes than McCann, 345 more extra strikes than Molina, and 442 more extra strikes than Posey. Over the last two years, he’s gotten 137 more extra strikes than Molina, 160 more extra strikes than Posey, and 170 more extra strikes than McCann. Compared to Posey, just on receiving, Lucroy has been worth something like 60-70 more runs over three years, and 20-30 more runs over two years. Put Lucroy and Posey over the same playing-time denominator and the WAR gap disappears once framing is included. Even though Posey’s better than average, Lucroy is so outstanding that he erases the rest of the difference between himself and a perennial MVP candidate.

If you give the catcher all of the credit, that is. If you believe 100% in the calculated value of pitch-framing, you can make a very reasonable argument that Jonathan Lucroy is indeed a slightly better catcher than Buster Posey. And Yadier Molina, of course, is amazing, and he probably gets some bonus points for his coaching and leadership. Should catchers get all of the framing credit? That’s up for debate, and I don’t know if that’s settled, but it sure seems like the catchers are playing a big part. And note: at least one team out there is a major believer in Lucroy. You have to believe he’s worth as much as the framing numbers say in order to put him in the upper pair.

Catching pitches is how Jonathan Lucroy might be a better catcher overall than Buster Posey. It’s a controversial opinion, but knowing that at least one team believes it gives the opinion some legitimacy. And there are numbers to back the opinion up. Pitch-framing is a skill that’s highly valued by at least the Tampa Bay Rays. Probably, it isn’t just them. Probably, the industry will grow more and more confident.



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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.


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BaseballGuy
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BaseballGuy
2 years 2 months ago

I will contend until the day I die (or stop caring about baseball) that the majority of balls called strikes and strikes called balls are the result of umpires giving the benefit of the doubt (and vice versa) to pitchers who normally throw strikes and have conventional movement on their pitches. The sample size of pitchers who throw to a certain catcher is very small, and stays consistent year after year. Have a great than average number of command and control pitchers on your staff, and presto, your catcher is a great “framer.” Have a bunch of “throw it and hope” pitchers, and your catcher stinks at it.

Bearman
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Bearman
2 years 2 months ago

Stop caring about baseball then…..or die.

Chickensoup
Member
Member
Chickensoup
2 years 2 months ago

“Have a great than average number of command and control pitchers on your staff, and presto, your catcher is a great “framer.” Have a bunch of “throw it and hope” pitchers, and your catcher stinks at it.”

You mean like the Brewers? A team with Maddoxesque pitchers getting starts like Donvoan Hand, Hiram Burgos, Alfredo Figaro, Yovanni Gallardo, Wily Peralta, Mike Fiers, Randy Wolf, Chris Narveson and Mark Rogers. You know, a bunch of guys who get the benefit of the doubt from umpires routinely because they have always been good command pitchers for years at the major league level.

gabriel syme
Guest
gabriel syme
2 years 2 months ago

My understanding of the BP work on framing is that it has controlled for pitcher effects. It certainly is the case that some pitchers get more calls than others, factoring out their catchers. But for catchers, who catch a variety of pitchers, the numbers largely even out. And then BP does an adjustment anyway (it just isn’t very large).

The fact that lots of catchers have maintained a fairly consistent level of framing skill while switching teams argues in favour of it being a real skill as well.

Baltar
Guest
Baltar
2 years 2 months ago

You need to read the Baseball Prospectus article. The researchers used “pitcher factors” (like “park factors”) to adjust the catcher ratings.

jdylan
Member
jdylan
2 years 2 months ago

Do you realize that the Brewers pitching staff, aside from Kyle Lohse, is not exactly made up of great command pitchers? Yovani Gallardo and Wily Peralta constantly pitch from behind in counts. Lohse is great, Estrada is decent, and the 5th starter was a hodgepodge of guys throughout the season.

So Lucroy, who consistently grades out, as one of the best in the league at pitch framing works with, , average command pitchers as a whole and with several really poor command pitchers. Kind of undermines your alternative explanation.

jim
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jim
2 years 2 months ago

you uh, you may be on the wrong website

Nathaniel Dawson
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Nathaniel Dawson
2 years 2 months ago

Could be that anonymous GM was talking only about defense. We’re not getting much context from that tweet. While Lucroy isn’t chopped liver at the plate, Molina, Posey, McCann have been able to pile up more WAR offensively.

LHPSU
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LHPSU
2 years 2 months ago

Lucroy has been much more productive than McCann at the plate over the last few seasons.

Ian R.
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

To be fair, that’s largely because the ‘last few seasons’ include 2012, which was a crazy outlier (in a bad way) for McCann and a bit of an outlier (in a good way) for Lucroy.

Eminor3rd
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Eminor3rd
2 years 2 months ago

2012 also happens to represent between 25-50% of your sample, depending on how you define “last few seasons.” What makes it an outlier?

Ian R.
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

For Lucroy, 2012 is actually less than 25-50% of the sample because he only played in 96 games that year, compared to 136 the year before and 147 the year after. In those 96 games, he posted a .338 BABIP. That seems unsustainable.

2012 was an outlier for McCann because it was, by far, the worst offensive season of his career. He’d been one of the better hitting catchers in the league for four straight seasons prior, was basically replacement-level in 2012, then went right back to his career norms in 2013. That’s pretty much the definition of a one-year blip.

larry
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larry
2 years 2 months ago

Bc McCann was injured for 30%-40% of 2012 – 2013 seasons. Hurt his shoulder midway thru 2012 and it affected him for the rest of the season and he missed the beginning of 2013 recovering from the surgery

Ian R.
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

@Larry – That too. Granted, McCann was having an off-year even before the shoulder really started to affect him, but his last two months of 2012 were absolutely miserable because of that injury.

Ian R.
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

That was my first thought as well. The phrase “best catcher in the league” can mean either “best defensive catcher” or “best all-around catcher,” depending on context. Then again, in a discussion of the best defensive catcher, we’d expect to see both active Molina brothers.

Belloc
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Belloc
2 years 2 months ago

Or it could be that Jon Heyman is simply full of shit. There is ample corroboration for this assertion.

chuckb
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chuckb
2 years 2 months ago

It could also be that the team includes more than pitch-framing into catcher defense. There’s game-calling, leadership and other things that we haven’t figured out how to quantify that they may value very highly.

walt526
Member
walt526
2 years 2 months ago

Wow, Lucroy’s contract is an INSANE bargain for the Brewers. He and Posey have nearly the same service time (3.136 compares to 3.161), yet Posey will make more in 2014 alone (by AAV) than what Lucroy will make in 2014-17 combined. I knew that the Brewers had him on a very team friendly contract, but I had no idea it was such a value.

Saint
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Saint
10 months 1 day ago

If you believe the sources in this article Posey has already fulfilled the value of his contract so he will be essentially playing the next 6 seasons for free.

Jon
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Jon
2 years 2 months ago

Maybe the failure of the market to give full value to the best framers is because the smart teams are discounting for the possibility that MLB fixes the problem. This is all about tricking umpires. All MLB has to do is plug the umpire into PitchFX, especially for the sides of the strike zone, buzz in the ear when it’s a strike, and pretty soon the umps stop missing those calls so much. If these numbers are ever widely accepted, there will be huge pressure to fix what really does look like a major problem.

Ben
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Ben
2 years 2 months ago

Or because teams have access to data that agents and arbitrators don’t. Why not underpay if possible?

Alaric
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Alaric
2 years 2 months ago

I’ve been wondering whether at least some umpires will take it upon themselves to start the correction.

I can’t help but think that with broader acknowledgment that the effect is real, and names like Molina and Lucroy constantly in those reports, there’s going to be an umpire or two who goes into a Brewers game determined not to be “tricked” by Lucroy.

In fact I’m wondering if anyone has tackled the issue of whether some umpires are more influenced by framing than others. My understanding of the BP article is that they adjusted for umpire tendencies in the sense of big or small zone and it only had a limited effect (because it tends to average out), so the likelihood of umpire “framing susceptibility” having a measurable effect on catcher ratings is low. And it may be that the data is too limited to even draw conclusions about umpires themselves?

roadrider
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roadrider
2 years 2 months ago

Jeff, you need a hobby. Seriously.

gabriel syme
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gabriel syme
2 years 2 months ago

One factor that could be at work in this anonymous valuation of Lucroy is game-calling. Sabermetricians don’t pay much attention to it because it’s so hard to measure, but I think major league teams believe it’s a skill, and if it’s a skill it probably has a significant impact.

mcneo
Member
mcneo
2 years 2 months ago

I’m a huge believer in pitch framing. Ever since the Royals picked up Jason Kendall they’ve been great. #sarcasm

coldseat
Guest
coldseat
2 years 2 months ago

Lucroy deserves a raise, big time, but in no universe should he be paid more than Posey. You just can’t build your team around Lucroy and his value is very much tied to roster construction. Let’s keep framing in context and not pretend there aren’t a million variables that makes it almost impossible to say he saved x number of runs by framing. We can say he has soft hands, but let’s not get carried away.

Baltar
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Baltar
2 years 2 months ago

You need to read the BP article on framing, also. You’re making your comment out of total ignorance.

coldseat
Guest
coldseat
2 years 2 months ago

Put Lucroy and Posey over the same playing-time denominator and the WAR gap disappears once framing is included. Even though Posey’s better than average, Lucroy is so outstanding that he erases the rest of the difference between himself and a perennial MVP candidate.

If you give the catcher all of the credit, that is. If you believe 100% in the calculated value of pitch-framing, you can make a very reasonable argument that Jonathan Lucroy is indeed a slightly better catcher than Buster Posey.”

Anon
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Anon
2 years 2 months ago

If you are just looking at catcher value, remember that Posey plays a moderate amount at 1B. That means his overall value is more than his catcher value (and he would be worth less to a team with a good player at 1B).

Baltar
Guest
Baltar
2 years 2 months ago

I’m sure that the hitting Posey does at 1B is counted in his WAR.

The Ancient Mariner
Guest
The Ancient Mariner
2 years 2 months ago

No doubt it is. Which has what to do with Anon’s point, exactly?

thirteenthirteen
Guest
thirteenthirteen
2 years 2 months ago

Posey’s team does have a good 1B. IMHO Posey’s time spent there is less of an indictment of Brandon Belt and more about bad decisions from Bruce Bochy. And I suspect (this may be wishful thinking) we’ll see it less going forward.

Also, I JUST woke up so maybe I’m misunderstanding your point, but pretty sure his time at 1B lowers his value.

zkello
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zkello
2 years 2 months ago

I wonder what the next step in catcher evaluation will be. Will there ever be a good way to evaluate a catcher’s game calling?

Baltar
Guest
Baltar
2 years 2 months ago

Catcher game management seems to me to be almost as difficult to quantify as manager management.
I don’t see how either could be done, but I hope some genius figures it out.

BeanoCook
Guest
BeanoCook
2 years 2 months ago

Amazing stuff. It was over 10 years ago, early in the saber movment where the data geeks laughed at the scouts that said recieving was a critical skill for a catcher. They (stat geeks) said it didn’t matter.

They owe scouts an apology for their utter arrogance.

BeanoCook
Guest
BeanoCook
2 years 2 months ago

*receiving*

Andy
Guest
Andy
2 years 2 months ago

I now believe more than ever that balls and strikes need to be called by computers, not by human beings. Framing may be a skill, but IMO it’s not one that should be cultivated by the sport. Catchers should not be valued by their ability to alter the perception of imperfect human beings who are trying to be as objective as possible.

By the way, Posey missed most of 2011 with that broken leg. Not sure how his run total is so much worse the last three years than two years when comparing to lucroy.

shthar
Guest
shthar
2 years 2 months ago

There’s more crap about framing here, than on the This Old House website.

Give it a rest.

evo34
Member
evo34
2 years 2 months ago

I wouldn’t be surprised if a certain portion of pitch framing is actually just intelligent pitch calling. That is, knowing where the current umpire is most likely to call erroneous strikes and trying to get your pitching staff to locate there more often for that game.

Saint
Guest
Saint
10 months 1 day ago

Where’s the follow up article now that BPro and StatsCorner have Posey as elite at pitch framing over the last two seasons? If you believe the sources you cited in this article he’s been about as good as Mike Trout on a per PA basis since this article was written if you include pitch framing.

Saint
Guest
Saint
10 months 7 hours ago

So I looked into the data a little deeper and not only has Posey been a top 5 pitch framer since 2012 (his first full season, the data is presented as counting stats) including 1st last season and 2nd this season, he’s only missed statcorner’s top 5 twice (6th and 10th, of course the 10th was the season before this article was written) and is currently in 2nd on their 2015 leaderboards. And his shortened 2010 and 11 were both excellent by number of opportunities.

But I guess an article entitled Buster Posey is the Best Catcher in Baseball AINEC wouldn’t get nearly as many hits.

Saint
Guest
Saint
10 months 7 hours ago

“and not only has Posey been a top 5 pitch framer since 2012 (his first full season, the data is presented as counting stats) including 1st last season and 2nd this season” that’s from BPro, the other source for this article.

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