The Two Things Chris Iannetta Represents

Let’s cover some old ground, and let’s cover some new ground. Chris Iannetta is going to catch pretty often for the Mariners. The previous four years, he caught pretty often for the Angels. Last year, offensively speaking, was mostly bad. Yet last year, defensively speaking, was mostly good. I wrote in April about how there were signs Iannetta had gotten significantly better in terms of framing pitches, and though I didn’t later re-visit that, I guess I didn’t need to — John Dewan just highlighted Iannetta in a post entitled “The Most Improved Pitch Framers.” The early indications held up; between 2014 and 2015, Iannetta took a leap forward.

Iannetta now is all aboard the framing train, and there seems to be a pretty simple explanation for his improvement. In short: he didn’t realize he was doing anything wrong, and then all of a sudden he learned what to change. Inspired in part by this Tangotiger post, I think it’s worth discussing two things that Iannetta’s step forward means.

By the numbers, Iannetta definitely got better behind the plate. Dewan cited a statistic developed and tracked by Baseball Info Solutions, while I usually look to the numbers made available at Baseball Prospectus. The way I figure, those are the gold standard, so I might as well trust them if I’m going to trust anything. I can tell you that BP agrees with Dewan, in that Iannetta was last year’s most improved pitch-framer. But why look just at last year? I decided to look at all the years, going back to 2008, when PITCHf/x really caught on league-wide. I isolated the catchers who had at least 2,500 framing opportunities in consecutive seasons. Here are the biggest year-to-year improvements, in terms of framing runs per 7,000 chances:

Biggest Framing Improvements, 2008 – 2015
Catcher Year 1 Year 2 Y1 Runs/7000 Y2 Runs/7000 Change
Chris Iannetta 2014 2015 -7.8 19.2 27.0
David Ross 2008 2009 26.4 50.5 24.1
Ivan Rodriguez 2009 2010 -6.1 16.5 22.6
Derek Norris 2014 2015 -11.3 11.3 22.6
Dioner Navarro 2008 2009 -24.5 -3.2 21.4
Chris Iannetta 2008 2009 -26.7 -5.8 20.9
Rob Johnson 2010 2011 -38.5 -17.7 20.8
Ryan Doumit 2008 2009 -65.6 -45.5 20.0
Victor Martinez 2009 2010 -15.9 3.7 19.6
Miguel Montero 2008 2009 6.9 25.5 18.6
SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus

Iannetta stands atop the list, with the biggest improvement so far of the PITCHf/x era. I realize the PITCHf/x era isn’t yet that long, but still, the improvement was pretty big. There’s even a three-run gap between Iannetta and second place. It’s kind of neat to observe that Iannetta is actually in there twice, with his 2008-2009 self slotting sixth. But to the point: Iannetta just made the biggest improvement of this particular era. Credit, also, to Derek Norris, who this article maybe could’ve been about if it weren’t for Iannetta over-achieving.

This is one thing that Iannetta represents: a giant framing gain. How do you deal with a jump like this moving forward? You can look at other catchers who made big improvements, and then you can see how well those held up. As a quick study, I looked at the catchers who had at least 2,500 framing opportunities in three consecutive seasons. Eight of those catchers improved by at least 15 runs/7000 between years one and two. Here are their averages:

  • Year 1: -26.3 runs/7000
  • Year 2: -8.7
  • Year 3: -8.8

That small group, collectively, held on to its improvement. To get a bigger sample, there were 18 catchers who improved by at least 10 runs/7000. Here are their averages:

  • Year 1: -13.8 runs/7000
  • Year 2: +0.6
  • Year 3: -1.9

They still mostly held on to the improvement. It’s not the easiest thing to interpret; one could call it improvement, or one could call it regression to the mean. What’s at least suggested, though, is these catchers tend not to give back a lot of ground. It supports the idea that Iannetta’s leap could be for real.

And, of course, the back story helps. It’s not like we’re looking at numbers and thinking about potential explanations. Iannetta has provided one, and it’s a good one. Before 2015, he concentrated on his pitch-receiving, because he found out toward the end of 2014 he was doing things wrong he didn’t think were wrong. So he studied the guys who looked the best, and he tried to fold in what techniques he could. You always have to worry about confirmation bias when you search for explanations after already examining the numbers, but this one makes so much sense. It’s not that Iannetta was bad as much as it was he just didn’t know better.

He stands out, I think, because he’s a student of modern receiving theory. Iannetta has developed in response to the new information we have. I don’t think you would’ve said that for, say, 2010-2011 Rob Johnson. There are statistical framing improvements that don’t have easy explanations, and there are statistical framing improvements that might. Iannetta just made a point of learning the right techniques, as opposed to the techniques he was taught earlier in his career. You could draw a kind of comp to Jason Castro, who’s learned how to frame from the Astros. Castro came up as a below-average framer, then Mike Fast and the Astros worked on him, and Castro’s been above-average two years in a row. The blend of the information and Castro’s dedication made him good, and he hasn’t given his progress back.

Not that that means anything’s guaranteed. We don’t know for sure Iannetta is going to stay strong. That’s because of Nick Hundley. Hundley’s framing made a big improvement in 2014, accompanied by a similar explanation. So you would’ve thought Hundley just had receiving figured out, but then last season he gave the whole improvement back. All his progress was undone, statistically, so it’s not like the Mariners can count on a repeat from Iannetta. Baseball will always find ways to stay unpredictable. Even when you think you have framing nailed down, things can shift without warning.

But this all gets to the other thing that Iannetta represents: a clue into why pitch-framing value could be going away. When I wrote about this some time back, I mostly focused on umpires responding to the numbers. I do believe in that effect, but I also believe in the raised-floor effect. Take a case like Iannetta, or Norris, or Castro. With practice, a below-average receiver turned into an above-average receiver. We see that happen with hitters and pitchers, but it seems to be far more difficult. With catchers, we’ve seen some of them improve just because they didn’t realize they could stand to make improvements. The changes can happen pretty quickly, and every team in the league is aware now of how framing can matter.

It’s not like framing is going to die overnight, and it’s not like a team will ever want a bad catcher, but teams will have decreasing patience for lousy receivers, and they’ll have increasing information about how to potentially make a guy good. So as the bad catchers either improve or go away, you could say the replacement level gets lifted, and then it’s hard to keep exceeding it by the same amount. When good becomes average, great becomes good, and there’s a smaller margin between the best and the worst. So real value is harder to come by in a landscape where everyone has a good understanding of what their catchers should do.

It’s part theory and part observable. The Mariners aren’t going to regret signing Chris Iannetta because he’s going to lose all of his framing value. He just made the biggest improvement in eight years, and he’s provided compelling reasons for how it happened. Yet Iannetta also means something for the future of framing value in general. If Iannetta could get a lot better over a winter, it stands to reason many catchers could. And then there would just be a lot of good-receiving catchers.



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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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Cory Settoon
Member
3 months 4 days ago

lol @ Ryan Doumit

Malcolm-Jamal Hegyes
Member
Malcolm-Jamal Hegyes
3 months 4 days ago

Hey improvement is improvement. Like if Hanley Ramirez is just an atrocious first baseman, that still counts as improvement.

Parker Bernhart
Member
3 months 4 days ago

Eighth-largest improvement over the last eight years…

…still the worst season of anyone else in the top ten.

Maybe there’s a reason he played a little more OF as the years went on.

Also, shoutout to David Ross for having the second-largest improvement, taking him from “best on the list” to “same, but in a ridiculously dominant fashion”.

formerly matt w
Member
formerly matt w
3 months 4 days ago

Poor old Ian Snell. In 2009 he was traded from the Pirates, where Doumit was the primary catcher, to the Mariners, where Rob Johnson and Kenji Johjima split duties–and their framing numbers were also both poop emojis.

Ever since the framing numbers came out I’ve wondered if Snell’s problem wasn’t that he was a head case, it was that his catchers were screwing him over. He did say that one of the things he liked about pitching in AAA was that they framed his pitches better.

MLB_Nate
Member
MLB_Nate
3 months 4 days ago

They all WISH they could frame like the great Pierzynski

Double Oaked
Member
Member
Double Oaked
3 months 4 days ago

“The Great Pierzynski” sounds like the name of a legendary magician.

matt
Member
matt
3 months 4 days ago

At what point will fangraphs include framing numbers in catchers defensive value

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