The Pitchers Who Have the Receivers

Hey, everybody, I’m the guy here who talks about pitch-framing, and I’m here to talk about pitch-framing — sort of. You might think there’s too much written about pitch-framing, but it’s a real thing that we can measure, so that’s kind of like saying you think there’s too much written about on-base percentage. Baseball stats are baseball stats, and that’s what we talk about here. But I’ll say this much: Usually, when people talk about framing, they’re talking about the catchers who do it. But I want to focus on the pitchers.

That is, the pitchers who benefit, and the pitchers who do the opposite of benefit. It’s important to remember good and bad framers don’t simply do what they do in isolation. That performance has an effect on pitcher statistics — statistics we’ve long thought to be fielding-independent. It’s an aspect not often discussed, in part because it gets incredibly complicated, but I figured I’d take this chance to provide a 2014 season update on pitchers and their zones. I’ve written these posts before, but not yet this season.

These are the basic questions:

(1) Which pitchers, in 2014, have pitched to the most favorable strike zones?

(2) Which pitchers, in 2014, have pitched to the least favorable strike zones?

(3) Which pitchers have seen the biggest changes between 2013 and 2014?

I can address these with the simple little metric I’ve probably explained here at least a dozen times. Let’s make it a baker’s dozen. We have, readily available, data on number of strikes and number of pitches. Something we can also do is calculate a number of expected strikes, based on zone rate and out-of-zone swing rate. That data’s also provided on FanGraphs. Though there are ways of making this more complex and accurate, this simple statistic can get us most of the way there, and it takes seconds to enter into Excel. The beauty is the simplicity, and by comparing actual strikes to expected strikes, we can learn something about strike zones.

For 2014, I set a minimum of 250 called pitches, so far. The samples are small, but the samples will have to do. Let’s address the first question first. Which pitchers have pitched to the most favorable strike zones? Here’s a top 10 in terms of extra strikes above average per 1,000 called pitches. It’s an arbitrary denominator, but it’s also fine as a common denominator:

Pitcher ExtraStr/1000
Eric Stults 95
Andrew Cashner 89
Yovani Gallardo 66
Marco Estrada 61
Wade Miley 58
Edinson Volquez 55
Bronson Arroyo 55
Roenis Elias 54
Matt Garza 52
Tim Hudson 48

If you’re well-versed in pitch-framing coverage this list shouldn’t surprise you. It’s topped by a Padres pitcher, who’s followed by a Padres pitcher and this is kind of one of the Padres’ things. Then you’ve got a Brewer, then another Brewer and later, there’s a third Brewer. There’s a greater understanding now that Jonathan Lucroy is extremely underrated, and Martin Maldonado isn’t a bad catcher himself. Also featured: a couple Diamondbacks, working with Miguel Montero, and a Pirates pitcher with Russell Martin, and a Mariners pitcher with the new and exciting Mike Zunino. Hudson sneaks in, just ahead of Martin Perez.

Now for the other extreme. Which pitchers have pitched to the least favorable strike zones? The bottom 10:

Pitcher ExtraStr/1000
Robbie Ross -74
Dan Straily -70
Erasmo Ramirez -62
Hyun-Jin Ryu -62
Phil Hughes -55
Samuel Deduno -51
Jordan Zimmermann -50
Hector Santiago -46
Brandon Morrow -46
Tyler Skaggs -45

Remember this isn’t all about the catchers. There’s a definite command component, as Jose Molina would have a tougher time framing Kyle Drabek than Cliff Lee. Ross, for example, hasn’t done himself many favors, but he probably doesn’t deserve the worst zone in baseball. Straily is a pitcher we’ll talk about a little later. Ramirez has been hurt by pitching a lot to John Buck, instead of Zunino, and Buck is a far worse receiver. As usual, there are some Twins, and Angels pitchers who’ve worked regularly with Chris Iannetta instead of Hank Conger. Ryu has perhaps missed A.J. Ellis. Zimmermann isn’t getting many calls outside of the zone, and the Nationals haven’t had very much Wilson Ramos.

Now for the final table, showing the 10 most positive and negative changes from 2013. I kept the same 2014 minimum, and used a 2013 minimum of 500 called pitches. You’ll see some names again:

Pitcher Change Pitcher Change
Andrew Cashner 80 Dan Straily -74
Bronson Arroyo 69 Phil Hughes -65
Matt Garza 63 Clay Buchholz -61
Brandon McCarthy 60 Hyun-Jin Ryu -61
Edinson Volquez 54 Erasmo Ramirez -49
Garrett Richards 46 Mark Buehrle -46
Eric Stults 45 Adam Wainwright -44
Brett Oberholtzer 44 Erik Bedard -44
Jason Hammel 39 Justin Verlander -42
Juan Nicasio 37 Aaron Harang -41

Cashner has leaped forward. Straily has done the opposite. Not that theirs are the only two names shown. Hughes has predictably pitched to a worse zone, but he’s compensated by just pouring in strikes. Arroyo has seen a big gain after changing teams. Garza, too. Volquez as well. On the other side, Buchholz has less Jarrod Saltalamacchia and more A.J. Pierzynski. There’s a lot of noise in this data, as you’d expect there to be, but there’s also a good relationship between the 2013 data and the 2014 data so far. So there’s some noise and some signal, and toward the extremes, the signal is easier to believe in.

Let’s use some images from Texas Leaguers. Here are Cashner’s zones in 2013 and in 2014:


And here are Straily’s zones in 2013 and in 2014:


How might we explain this, outside of just changes in command? A year ago, Cashner pitched mostly to Nick Hundley, who has been a mediocre receiver. This year he’s pitched only to Rene Rivera, who has been an outstanding receiver. Meanwhile, Straily has pitched a lot more to John Jaso, and for all of Jaso’s positive qualities, he’s never been regarded as much of a defender. He’s tolerated because his bat makes up for his defense, and his defense isn’t completely terrible.

Now, Cashner has a sub-3 ERA, and Straily was demoted to the minors. Cashner has been helped by his zone, and Straily, presumably, has been hurt by his. But this obviously isn’t the primary factor driving pitcher success. Just look at Aaron Harang in the table above. McCarthy has an ERA above 5. A lot of pitching success is determined by what happens when the batter swings. And a lot of called pitches are fairly obvious pitches, so framing is mostly about the borderline. This, quite simply, is one factor out of many. You can be an awesome pitcher with a mediocre receiver, and you can be a bad pitcher with a terrific receiver. But every factor’s a factor. Why was Andrew Cashner good before the elbow thing? He threw some really good pitches. He also got some good calls too. Dan Straily wishes he were that lucky.

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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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Sam T
Sam T

I completely disagree with whoever says there have been too many articles on pitch framing, these are great! Really enjoy this analysis, as you can’t do this type of minute analysis in any other sport