Here’s the simplest smart offseason rule of thumb: it should never be about specific improvements. It should be about improvements, however. No team needs to go out and try to land some right-handed power hitting. Those teams just need to get better. No team needs to go out and try to land a left-handed starting pitcher. Those teams just need to get better. The St. Louis Cardinals don’t necessarily need to replace Pete Kozma with a superior shortstop. They just need to get better, and if they get better somewhere else, great. They should get a shortstop. But they don’t need to get a shortstop to have a good offseason, is the point. When it comes to improving, it pays to be as open-minded as possible.
But even if we all know that to be true, we still feel in our hearts like we wish our teams had more of one or two things. We tend to want more dingers, or more defense, or more quality baserunning, or less attempted baserunning, or more flamethrowers in the bullpen. We think a lot in terms of acquiring specific skills, even if that isn’t or shouldn’t be the point, and these days one more specific skill we can quantify is pitch-receiving. There are fans out there who are rooting for their team to sign a good framer of pitches. Or, rooting for their team to not sign a bad framer of pitches. Pitch-framing is a thing we think we understand, now, and below, I’m going to share with you the framing numbers for this year’s crop of free-agent catchers. You can thank Matthew Carruth and StatCorner.com. I was left to do just the easy work.
A few things, quickly, before proceeding. I eliminated Geovany Soto, since he was a free agent who’s already re-signed with the Rangers. I took the list of free-agent backstops from information available at MLB Trade Rumors. The table includes data for just the 2013 season, and for all seasons during the PITCHf/x era. PITCHf/x data has gotten a little more reliable over time, since the beginning. The Sample columns show the number of called pitches received, or pitches not swung at. The PerGame columns are the important ones, and these show strikes above or below average per game. So, a +1.00 PerGame would mean that catcher earned one extra strike per full game played. The run value of a strike instead of a ball is a small fraction of one run. The framing numbers are not adjusted for umpire, but they compare the result of each pitch to the league-average result of that pitch, with the meaningful bit being the difference. You understand how this works, mostly.
So now we can just get to the big giant table:
|Catcher||2013 Sample||2013 PerGame||Total Sample||Total PerGame|
The table ought to be sortable, if I did that right. And would you look at that, it is! Flip around between 2013 and Total PerGame. Note that the correlation between the two columns is 0.85, so this is picking up a consistent player skill, that does change somewhat over time sometimes. How that is is something we don’t yet understand, and it’s easier to imagine a guy getting better at receiving than getting worse, but all skills change over time and just because we don’t completely understand something doesn’t mean we can’t still examine the data.
The framer to get, if you want a pure framer, is the original framer himself, Jose Molina. Molina, of course, isn’t the actual original framer, but he’s the face of the field, and he’s a free agent after his contract with the Rays expired. Problems are that he’s 38, and he doesn’t hit real well. This past season wasn’t his best framing season. But it was still a terrific framing season, so there’s still some use in that body yet. It will be interesting to see for how much Molina signs, if he goes somewhere else. Teams have to be aware of his strengths by now.
The next-best framer is the star of the bunch in Brian McCann. When you think about McCann’s bat, it can be easy to forget that he’s a hell of a defensive catcher, too, so no team should be too hasty in trying to get him to change positions. McCann can block and he can receive, and he isn’t the worst thrower. He’s a good catcher, who one day could and should make a good first baseman or DH.
That’s it, as the awesome framers are concerned. After Molina and McCann, you end up with a group of guys who might be average or a little above. Brayan Pena looks to be pretty safely decent. Hector Gimenez has a pretty limited sample size, but it’s a positive sample size. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is neither good nor bad, so this shouldn’t be much of a consideration when he signs his next deal. Carlos Ruiz, last season, took a step backward. The same goes for A.J. Pierzynski. Kurt Suzuki was below average, and John Buck was more below average.
The disaster of the bunch is Koyie Hill, who’s coming off a framing season right out of the Ryan Doumit scrapbook. Miguel Olivo seems like he should be better than he is. Ditto Ramon Hernandez. Not very many of these catchers are free-agent catchers one might consider “desirable”. Molina is the specialist, and then there’s the rest of the pack.
And we don’t quite understand the relationship between framing numbers and pitching staffs. Staffs with better overall command should stand to generate better framing numbers, but we can’t measure that. A lot of successful pitch-receiving is just not having to move the glove very far. As one potential example, last year Henry Blanco had a sample of nearly 1,000 catching for the Blue Jays, and he came in at -0.27 strikes above average per game. Then he had a sample of nearly 2,500 catching for the Mariners, and he wound up at -1.81. Did Blanco perform worse, or did the Mariners’ pitchers perform worse? What we’re looking at has X% to do with the catchers, but X isn’t 100. It might be more like 50 or 60, or even 30 or 40.
And as a closing reminder, while it feels like pitch-framing numbers answer an important question, we still don’t know what to do with game-calling and pitch-sequencing. That largely falls on the catchers, and we don’t know how to measure that skill, and that skill is probably hugely important, so I don’t know for sure if, say, Brian McCann is actually a good defensive catcher. He’s good + uncertainty, where the uncertainty could change everything. This is the next big question, if any of you have genius ideas. If you think you can measure a guy’s game-calling ability, you should put together the research and go ahead and get hired by a baseball team’s front office. It’s missing, and it’s glaring, and it isn’t framing at all. Tackling framing illuminated one streetlight on a dark city block.
When we get the game-calling breakthrough, there’ll be different and differently desirable specialists. For now, we’ll settle for the recent pitch-receiving breakthrough, and this winter Jose Molina is back out on the market, better understood than he used to be. Brian McCann has an argument for asking for even more money than he might’ve already been in line to receive. Jarrod Saltalamacchia isn’t going to hurt a team back there, with his catching. A.J. Pierzynski might. There’s a whole range of framing ability available, so here’s just one more thing for you to talk about as we get deeper into the offseason. As little as framing might actually mean, it’s a better topic than the latest rumor that isn’t. Or at least they can just work together.
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