Just because there aren’t any pitches being framed these days doesn’t mean we can’t still talk about pitch-framing. When the Yankees picked up Brian McCann, it got me thinking about how well they’re going to frame as a team. When the Pirates picked up Chris Stewart, I tweeted out they might be the best framing team in baseball. It was a statement off the top of my head, and there are in truth a handful of contenders, but I decided, why wait? Why not try to figure this out now?
Somewhere over the past couple months, we all stopped looking at 2013 statistics and started thinking about 2014 statistics. We don’t have any 2014 statistics, but we do have projected 2014 statistics, so that’s how we’re informing a lot of our thoughts. Right here at FanGraphs, we provide projected batting data, projected pitching data, and projected fielding data. Something I haven’t seen, though, is projected pitch-framing data. So this is a first pass, which I assure you is both quick and lazy. But a start nevertheless.
A couple things I’ll be up front about: we don’t know how much of framing is the catcher, and how much is the pitcher. Wilder pitchers might generate different data from pitchers with command, so the same catcher can look different on two different teams. And we don’t know how heavily to regress framing data, aside from “a little more heavily” when you have a smaller sample size. We don’t know quite what one year of framing data means. I don’t, anyway; team employees might, but they don’t drop me informative emails out of the blue. What’s going to follow is kind of sloppy, but I think it still gives a good general idea in the end.
What we have is 2013 pitch-framing data. What we also have, right here, is projected 2014 playing time behind the plate. I did the simplest thing I could think of: for each catcher I applied 2013 data to 2014, given a sufficient 2013 sample size. Lacking that, I took numbers from 2012. For players with little or no big-league track record, I just put in a zero for extra strikes per game. With those numbers in place, it became a matter of doing team-by-team calculations, weighting by playing time. The result is the following sortable table. Shown are projected extra strikes per game, along with the change in that stat from the same team last season.
The Pirates project to be really good. The same goes for the Padres, Rays, Yankees, and others. But they don’t hold a candle to the Brewers, who return Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to people familiar with these sorts of numbers, since Lucroy and Maldonado have been cult framing All-Stars. If they do what they did a year ago, the Brewers should get almost two extra strikes per game, relative to average. Other teams are down closer to one. The Pirates do indeed take a step forward, it’s worth noting, having gotten Stewart to replace Michael McKenry.
At the other end of the table are the Rockies, Twins, and Cubs. And also, for the first time in forever, the Braves. It’s news to no one that Wilin Rosario is a bit raw and shaky defensively. For the Twins, Josmil Pinto had some rookie trouble getting borderline strikes for a lousy pitching staff. The Cubs are going to give a lot of time to Welington Castillo, and thankfully he can hit some and throw some. The Braves don’t have McCann anymore.
And it’s the Braves who have the biggest negative projected change from 2013. When it comes to framing, it’s a double-whammy to lose McCann and give more playing time to Gerald Laird. I don’t actually agree with the Braves’ FanGraphs depth chart, myself — it’s giving too much playing time behind the plate to Ryan Doumit, who should catch hardly at all. Change that and the numbers get better, and Evan Gattis actually looks good by the framing data. But Laird is bad, too, in the same neighborhood as Doumit, so the position’s still worse in the receiving department. The Tigers also slip, replacing Brayan Pena with Bryan Holaday. Holaday, however, is a bit of an unknown.
The biggest positive projected change from 2013 belongs to the Mariners, who’ll be starting Mike Zunino all season long. Right behind them are the Rangers, who added the defensively-improved-but-offensively-miserable J.P. Arencibia. In third are the Mets, looking ahead to a whole year from Travis d’Arnaud. The second tier of projected improvements includes the Marlins, Nationals, and Pirates. For more than half of baseball’s teams, there’s a projected change of less than 0.40 extra strikes per game in either direction, because of the lazy methodology used. I want to emphasize how lazy this is.
Again, it’s not right to just use 2013 data as 2014 data. And again, we don’t understand how much of this is actually pitcher-dependent. Maybe, say, Pinto’s quite a bit better than his numbers, and the numbers will reflect that in 2014 when he starts catching an actual major-league pitching staff. And players can change from year to year, especially if they’ve never really had framing-focused instruction before. Arencibia took a big step forward between 2012 and 2013, and other players could make improvements now that this data is out there and more and more accepted. This is an exciting field, but there are a lot of moving parts, and I can’t pretend to have it even half-figured out.
But as a first pass of projected framing numbers, there you go. All 30 teams, in order. A better methodology would probably generate a very similar table in a similar order, with bigger numbers regressed to slightly smaller numbers. There are teams who are weaker in this department, there are teams who are stronger in this department, and there are the Brewers. The Brewers look like they’re going to be the best framing team in baseball, and then we’ll just have to wonder why they still don’t pitch very well.
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