I’d say it isn’t often we run polls here on FanGraphs. It’s not really the sort of thing we specialize in, but then, what are the FAN projections but polls, in a sense? What is the Fan Scouting Report? We’re big supporters of crowdsourcing, if you’ll allow me to speak for the whole company, and in this instance I have a genuine interest in the tallied opinions of the many. What follows is not an analytical investigation. What follows is the lead-up to a question I ask of you.
At this point, some of you are probably approaching pitch-framing fatigue. It’s still new research and exciting research, but it’s also been heavily cited and we’re all familiar with the basic principles and various standouts. We don’t even know the extent to which it makes a difference. But, here, let me throw a couple things at you from the last few days.
On Friday, Jeff Samardzija threw a ball right down the middle. It’s his second such ball of the young season. If you watch the .gif — which you’re about to — it sure looks like Samardzija threw a ball low, near the dirt.
But, here’s a screenshot from that .gif:
The pitch was down the middle, visually. The pitch was down the middle, on Gameday. The pitch was called a ball, and here’s the part where I tell you that at this writing, Welington Castillo is rated among baseball’s worst receivers. You can see that he wasn’t prepared to handle the pitch Samardzija threw, where he threw it. The batter walked and later on the Cubs lost. Granted, the Cubs lose most of the time, but here the fact is included to substantiate the gravity of the umpiring error.
At that point, Wilhelmsen’s Mariners were on top of the Marlins 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth. When the inning ended, it was 3-2 Miami, and it was by that score that the Marlins won and completed a series sweep. Later, catcher John Buck complained that he felt Wilhelmsen was being squeezed. Buck, like Castillo, is rated among baseball’s worst receivers. Extra attention is called to his technique given that starter Mike Zunino is so far considered one of the best.
Thousands of called pitches are caught every day and these were not the only two instances lately in which pitch-framing could’ve made a significant difference. These are just two easy examples. We’re beyond the point at which you can question whether pitch-framing is a real thing. The numbers hold up year after year after year, and certain teams are acting on them, either by acquiring players or training players they already have. The market for framers isn’t anything like the market for, say, home-run hitters, but the knowledge is in the industry. They can see how this matters, and we can see how this matters, but for all the talk about the significance of good or bad pitch-framing technique, I think there’s an underlying question that’s easy to ignore or avoid: do we even want this to be a part of the game in the first place?
I mean, the discussion right now is purely hypothetical, because framing exists and it’s going to continue to exist for as long as there are human umpires. But in your personal ideal version of baseball, are teams rewarded for having good framers, or is the strike zone just the strike zone, regardless?
The argument in favor of framing is this: pitch-framing, and doing it well, is a skill. There’s a wide spread in talent, and the good framers are just better at catching than the bad framers. So if a team has an advantage over another team in this area, it’s an advantage in a baseball skill, and it’s not like it’s anything random. You’re penalizing or rewarding teams for doing something poorly or well. It’s an area in which a team can get ahead, and it’s an area in which a team can look for a different source of value.
The argument against framing is this: it’s basically about nothing but style points. It’s treating a line-drive single differently from a seeing-eye single. Shouldn’t the only thing that matters be the location of the pitch? It’s a learnable baseball skill, sure, but the only purpose of the skill is to convince the umpire of something. It isn’t so much player-vs-player as it is player-vs-umpire and umpires aren’t supposed to be a part of the competition. If you have two outfielders who trap two sinking liners, and if one of them makes it look more like a catch than the other, should the outfielder who completed the “better trap” get credit for an out? No, that sounds absurd, but it’s just an extension of the pitch-framing idea, turning individual pitches into whole outs. The rule book defines a strike zone. Shouldn’t every team get the same strike zone? Isn’t that fundamental to the sport? If the strike zone exists over the plate, and in front of the catcher, then by the time the ball reaches the catcher, in theory the pitch is dead and decided. Why should the catcher get to have any influence after the fact?
Probably, you’ve thought about this before. If you haven’t, think about it now. Framing is a thing, and it will remain a thing for the foreseeable future. How do you feel about that?
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