Presenting 2013’s Surprising Top Two Pitch-Framers

In the beginning, there was Jose Molina. For real though, he’s really old. Molina hung around, and then baseball was invented, and then people figured out how to measure catcher pitch-framing, and then, initially, Molina really shined. Molina’s numbers blew everyone else’s out of the water, and so Molina became something of a cult favorite, and so on and so forth. You know how this story has gone. You know how Molina has become sort of popular, and you know how Molina is playing a lot for a contending team. Molina’s still really great at framing. It’s probably what he’s most great at.

Over time, I myself started to champion Jonathan Lucroy. Not because I thought Lucroy was better than Molina, but because I thought the two were roughly equivalent, and Lucroy didn’t get enough attention or respect. It seems to me Lucroy is one of baseball’s more underrated all-around players, and even still this year, Lucroy has been helping the Brewers’ pitching staff suck just a little less than it might otherwise. Lucroy’s still good, of course. Molina’s still good, of course. One doesn’t simply forget how to frame. But I was surprised when I took a peek at the 2013 pitch-framing leaderboards.

Readers of Ben Lindbergh at Baseball Prospectus might come away less surprised by what’s to follow. Lindbergh has been documenting framing exploits all season long, in tremendous detail, and the numbers I have match up well with the numbers he has. But if you haven’t been reading Lindbergh’s stuff, then prepare for a surprise. Can you prepare to be surprised? By definition, doesn’t that not make sense? Whatever, prepare for something, or don’t and just read.

All data was provided for me by Matthew Carruth. Carruth has set up his own system, using a strike zone that umpires actually call, yielding lots of framing data. I looked at all catchers who have caught at least 1,000 called pitches so far in 2013. That’s an arbitrary cutoff, but a satisfying one. Carruth calculates strikes above or below average on a per-game basis, and here’s this year’s top five, through August 6:

  1. Yasmani Grandal, +3.0 strikes/game
  2. Hank Conger, +2.9
  3. David Ross, +2.3
  4. Jonathan Lucroy, +2.2
  5. Francisco Cervelli, +1.8

We see Lucroy in fourth. Molina’s right there in sixth, at +1.7. We’d expect to see those guys near the top. Grandal and Conger, though — not only are they out in front, but they’re out in front by a considerable margin. And those aren’t guys who exactly have the most positive defensive reputations. Grandal was once thought of as an offense-first catching prospect who’d need work on the other part of his game. Conger has hardly been a favorite of Mike Scioscia, who prioritizes defense from catchers over all else.

It’s true that neither Grandal nor Conger has a big giant 2013 sample size, but they each clear 2,000 called pitches. Here are the top single-season framing numbers since 2007, when we first got (limited) PITCHf/x:

  1. 2008 Jose Molina, +4.1 strikes/game
  2. 2009 David Ross, +3.7
  3. 2009 Jose Molina, +3.6
  4. 2013 Yasmani Grandal, +3.0
  5. 2013 Hank Conger, +2.9

Helpfully, Carruth provides other data — rate of balls called on pitches in the strike zone, and rate of strikes called on pitches out of the strike zone. This information can give a better idea of how a certain catcher excels, and here’s a plot of all those 2013 catchers who’ve caught at least 1,000 called pitches:


Conger has maximized strikes on pitches in the zone. So you could say he’s not so much stealing strikes as preserving them. Grandal has stolen strikes. They both clearly stand out on this chart, in different ways that paint a similar overall picture.

Since 2007, this year’s Conger has the best rate of balls on pitches in the zone, and that’s by more than a full percentage point. This year’s Grandal has the seventh-best rate of strikes on pitches out of the zone, just behind 2009 David Ross. For the Angels this year, Conger has been far better than Chris Iannetta in this particular department, and for the Padres, Grandal has been better than John Baker, who’s been better than Nick Hundley.

You’ve waited this long; we might as well see some visual examples of these guys catching. Here, take a look at Conger and Grandal:



I probably don’t need to say anything, because you understand it all, now. You understand what it takes to be a good framer instead of a bad one or a mediocre one. Both Conger and Grandal remain quiet of body. Their lower halves stay locked, and their upper halves move only as much as they need to. This is how you receive, and if their bodies moved around a lot, they wouldn’t get nearly so many calls, one assumes.

Conger debuted in 2010, and his small-sample framing numbers were a little below average. His numbers in 2011 and 2012 were a little above average. This year, as noted, they’re extraordinary. One figures Conger probably worked hard on developing his defense, since he’d need that to stick on the roster, and let’s see what some screenshots show us, shall we?

Conger, RHB, 2012


Conger, RHB, 2013


Pretty much no difference here, not, at least, in the way Conger is set up.

Conger, LHB, 2012


Conger, LHB, 2013


Now there’s a difference. Look at Conger’s shoulders, and look at his right leg. In 2013, he’s giving the umpire a lot more of the plate, and while we can’t prove this is making any meaningful difference, at least we’ve spotted a visual difference to go along with the performance improvement. Down below, with a lefty at the plate, Conger looks an awful lot like Molina usually does.

And then there’s the matter of Grandal. Plenty has been written about Grandal putting more emphasis on his defensive work. He didn’t want to be thought of as just an offensive catcher anymore, so he busted his ass on the other stuff, working hard over the offseason. But, interestingly, Grandal was already a terrific pitch-framer a year ago. Last year, he was sixth in baseball in extra strikes per game, less than 0.2 behind Lucroy. This year, he’s improved, but it’s not like he’s gone from zero to hero. Grandal came up as a more-than-capable receiver.

Of note: in terms of strikes above or below average per game, the correlation between 2012 data and 2013 data is about 0.8. So, this stuff is pretty stable. Grandal, though, is up 1.1. Hundley is up 1.0. John Baker is up 1.5. All these guys were Padres in each of the last two years, and they’re showing across-the-board improvement. Knowing what we know about the Padres’ pitching staff, it can’t be because the pitchers just have extraordinary collective command. Maybe there’s something going on, here. Or maybe the Padres just started to teach the art of pitch-receiving a little more than they used to. Maybe they made this a priority. It definitely seems like something that’s pretty coachable, and it’s not like the front office doesn’t know about the data.

So that’s where we are. Grandal’s out for the year, so his numbers won’t budge. Conger’s still got some playing time ahead of him, so he could see changes. Both of their samples are somewhat limited, which could be a factor. But to this point, Yasmani Grandal and Hank Conger have been baseball’s two most effective pitch-receivers. And the gap between them and the rest of the pack is pretty big, as these things go. Framing, still, is only somewhat understood. And there’s a lot more than framing that goes into being considered a quality defensive backstop. But at one thing, these two guys are incredible. In the beginning, there was Jose Molina. It’s not the beginning anymore.

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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.

40 Responses to “Presenting 2013’s Surprising Top Two Pitch-Framers”

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  1. Be curious to see how “Team Respect” factors. For example, the Pittsburgh Pirates have been horrible for two decades. They’re like a criminal that’s so well known they could never go to jury trial because it’d be impossible to find an impartial jury. That sort of bias won’t disappear overnight. I wonder what being on even a pretty good Pirates team has done to Russ Martin’s framing results. I don’t have the answer.

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  2. Max says:

    I would like to see a comparison of Conger from 2012-2013 with either the bases empty in both or where there is a threat to steal in both. Many catchers change when guys get on base, and I am not sure these two pictures should be used as examples of change.

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  3. ted says:

    Interesting that these are 2 of the worst pitching teams in baseball.

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    • Sparkles Peterson says:

      Yeah, that line about the Padres pitchers’ command had me thinking. Doesn’t the zone paradoxically expand as pitchers fall behind and shrink as they get ahead? How much of that is playing into this?

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    • Brendan says:

      I was thinking that very thing

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    • chuckb says:

      And the Brewers w/ Lucroy aren’t good either.

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  4. DNA+ says:

    I would be interested to see data for two different catchers, catching the same pitcher with decent sample sizes. ….if I were to only catch Mariano Rivera, I would be a great pitch framer. …not because of me, of course, because Mo gets the benefit of the doubt more than any pitcher I’ve ever seen (anecdotally).

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  5. Frank says:

    Can we stop referring to as ‘pitch framing’? And call it by it’s more accurate name: ‘Umpires being lazy and terrible at their job’?

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    • Cidron says:

      you watch several hundred pitches a night, at or about 85mph each, and have to make a call on it in a split second, while looking over the catchers body and gear (from a non-advantageous point of view), while fans are waiting to crucify you for a wrong call, all while trying to avoid being hit by a foul tip, and wearing a decent amount of gear, and doing it multiple times a week, while sleeping in bargain basement hotel rooms and eating Denny’s quality fare. Lazy? Terrible? No, just a thankless, underpaid job, generally being done admirably.

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    • henryv says:

      The normal human can utilize about 3-4 images per pitch (with about 1 image every 150ms). Additionally, the eye takes about a half second to focus from up close to far away. Now, you’re a umpire watching a pitcher from 52 feet away, checking for a balk, and then expected to focus on the location below you in 1/3 of a second.

      You can’t. It’s not physically possible. The baseball players focus on the pitcher and the first few instants it is released. Umpires are supposed to shift their view in less time than the human eye can focus. So, they end up looking down, and have a hard time calling the strike zone up and down as well as left and right.

      At best, they are perceive three or four moments from the throwing motion to the pitch crossing over the plate. So, they “cheat” and look at a bunch of other visual cues. Stack on top of that the fact that these pitches are doing ungodly breaking shit, not to mention RA Dickey throwing a fucking wiffleball up there.

      How do players do it? The same thing. They see the release point, perhaps a single moment of rotation or the stitches, and a location.

      Your brain makes it look like it’s moving, but that’s not really how your eyes work.

      Basically, humans are crappy at the job of calling balls and strikes in general. Cameras and computers could do a better job, but I’m starting to wonder if framing and working umpires might be an important and enjoyable part of the game. Except when it fucks over the M’s again. Then I want the fucking robots again.

      Also, no one should get the strike zone Mariano Rivera got. Those days should be long over after he retires.

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  6. Drakos says:

    Two things to note here. First, Padres Special Assistant Brad Ausmus. Second, and related, in two years Jeff will be writing:
    1. 2015 Austin Hedges, +5.0 strikes/game.

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  7. henryv says:

    So, if the calculated run value of a single strike is 0.13.

    4 * .13 = .52 runs per game.

    .52 runs per game * 150 games = 76 runs?!?!?

    I mean, holy crap. This doesn’t make sense, does it? I mean… How huge could a catcher’s defensive value be?

    There is a clearly a large difference between good and bad catchers, and the difference might be the difference of being in contention and not.

    I mean… Dang. Cool stuff.

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    • Chooch says:

      Where did you get the calculated run value for a strike? From my research (google) I couldn’t find anything except run expectancy values. From those you can get relative run value for a strike but it tends to be lower than 0.13. By averaging change in run expectancy for each additional strike I get a value of 0.064 (AL 2009 data). Which works out to 38 runs. Still a lot and probably a fake number.

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    • Brendan says:

      did you mean .013?

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    • bgburek says:

      Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like changing a ball to a strike is worth less than 0.13 runs.

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  8. jts5 says:

    not to take anything away from Conger, but catchers have two stances: a primary stance used when no one’s on base and a higher secondary stance with staggered feet that they use with men on base so they can be quicker to throw out stealing runners. So this explains the difference in stance between the two screen-shots of left-handers.
    source: high school catcher

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  9. StrikeThree says:

    Sorry, but I think Conger’s technique on the inside breaking pitch is anathema to the “keep the glove steady” mantra. His glove flows the curve ball from high to low. The glove moving downward all the way to impact. Downward movement gives the impression the ball is being pushed out of the strike zone. OK, then he pulls the glove up inthe thinly-veiled attempt to make the pitch look better. The glove might have been placed at the expected impact zone much earlier, allowing the ball to come to the glove. I won’t even mention palm-up cor low breaking balls. At impact, the presenting face of the glove is facing outside the zone. Sorry…this small sample size shows terrible technique.

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  10. henryv says:

    I also gotta know who that dot at the lower right hand corner is.

    I’m guessing Miguel Olivo or Jesus Montero, but I’m not sure if Montero has that many pitches called.

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  11. Fastpiece says:

    Hey Jeff, party at my place Friday night, bring Jaeger and your pink dildo. Peace.

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  12. Radivel says:

    It would have been nice to see a ranking for all the catchers who qualify.

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  13. Tristram Shandy says:

    From these gifs, it seems to my untrained eye that the skill that Conger and Grandal are masterful at is subtly pulling the ball back into the strike zone — just barely within the strike zone — once they’ve caught it. Watch their gloves. No jerky motion. No flailing. Just a smooth, quick, calm slide of the glove back into the strike zone. Quick and smooth enough so that the batters in both gifs, when they look back at the catcher’s mitt, see a strike, too.

    I suspect all catchers try to do this on borderline pitches, but I’d guess there’s something about how these two do it that makes it more successful.

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  14. payroll says:

    I think pitchf/x may not be the best data set to use. Try catcherf/x instead. I suspect you will find catchers who bite off bigger corners of the zone get more borderline calls.

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  15. RustyKuntz says:

    All of this pitch-framing research, though intriguing, seems rather unmeaningful. We don’t know, as others have written, how many balls-turned-strikes are the result of being behind in counts AND we also don’t know how much noise we’re dealing with, meaning how much of a catcher’s “prowess” is due to the guys pitching to him. There’s an obvious selection bias issue when it comes to zone % which is often cited for pitchers.

    Nothing in the above .gifs suggests to me that Grandal and Conger are doing anything exceptional. Also, Conger’s change of stance could be due to any number of things, including runners on base or perhaps he’s just giving up the inner half of the plate in that first pic because the pitch will not be going there.

    How many situational pics were examined here, or were these just pulled out at random?

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  16. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Now if Conger could hold baserunners.

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    • Guillermo Frijole says:

      Ianetta can’t seem to hold them on all of a sudden too, which had Mike Scioscia lambasting a few of the Angels pitchers the other night, for not doing their part.

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  17. jimbo says:

    Surprising to me you don’t see catchers working on a reverse frame.

    Sometimes they ‘lose’ a strike if the pitcher misses a spot in the zone. Moving the glove across the plate makes it seem like a worse pitch than it maybe was.

    So why not get into a habit of getting the glove slightly outside the zone/ball pre-catch so that the final motion is toward the heart of the plate? Wouldn’t that give the umpire the impression it is closer to the zone?

    Tangent/soapbox. Drives me nuts when MLB catchers don’t put a good target up. So many nowadays flash their open glove then close or move it around while the pitcher is in his motion. Conger’s gif shows a terrible target imo.

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  18. Ian Sales says:

    To be honest I did notice a change in the first two conger photos. In 2012’s outside pitch conger is set up more on the plate while in 2013 the middle of his body is lined up with the outside edge of the plate.

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  19. Brian says:

    Maybe one day Conger will play for a manager who doesn’t hate him. Then we can see who he really is. I feel bad for anyone who is a catcher for the Angels.

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