Year-to-Year Changes in Framing

You know about pitch-framing, and you’ve seen a lot of the numbers. Wow! Take a minute to step back and realize how incredible that is. A few years ago, we wouldn’t have thought this possible. A few years ago, people leaned mostly on catcher reputations. Then there was PITCHf/x and research and genius, and now we have an idea which catchers get the most and least favorable called strike zones. You’re tired of hearing about Jose Molina being great, and you’re tired of hearing about Ryan Doumit being terrible. In a short amount of time, framing details went from unknown to common knowledge. That’s wacky!

A lot of the time these days, when people talk about pitch-framing — or pitch-receiving, to be used interchangeably — they’re looking at specific examples. They’re looking at specific balls or specific strikes, and examining how that particular pitch was caught. Relatively little time is spent talking about changes in framing, on a player or team level. But that can be of interest, just like with any other stat, so I thought I’d take a stab right here. Let’s take a look at some 2012 and 2013 pitch-framing comparisons.

Using data we have here on FanGraphs, I looked first at the team level, to see which teams have taken the biggest steps forward, and which teams have taken the biggest steps backward. I’ve written so many times about this stat I call Diff/1000, which is the difference between actual strikes and expected strikes per 1,000 pitches. Below, you’re going to see numbers per 1,000 pitches, instead of 1,000 called pitches like I’ve gone with in the past. It doesn’t really make much of a difference. Expected strikes are pitches in the zone plus swings at pitches out of the zone. Actual strikes are actual strikes. A positive number means a team got more strikes than you’d expect, suggesting good pitch-receiving. A negative number, the opposite of that.

Here’s a table with every team. For each, you’ll see this year’s Diff/1000, last year’s Diff/1000, and the change between the two.

Team Pitches Diff/1000 2012Diff/1000 Change
Pirates 10284 9 -14 23
Tigers 10380 6 -4 11
Indians 10373 -6 -12 7
Dodgers 9969 -3 -9 6
Athletics 10486 0 -5 5
Blue Jays 10534 3 -1 4
Brewers 10066 22 18 3
Royals 9862 -3 -6 3
Astros 10830 5 1 3
Cardinals 9957 11 8 3
Padres 10264 4 2 3
Rangers 10401 -4 -6 2
Red Sox 10945 5 3 2
White Sox 10135 -4 -5 1
Mariners 10342 -12 -14 1
Rockies 10467 -6 -8 1
Yankees 10052 11 11 0
Phillies 10265 5 5 0
Cubs 9988 -1 -1 0
Rays 10594 6 8 -2
Angels 10658 -1 1 -2
Orioles 10589 -7 -2 -4
Twins 9876 -15 -10 -6
Diamondbacks 10090 3 9 -6
Giants 10312 -2 6 -7
Nationals 10002 -3 6 -8
Marlins 10172 -17 -8 -9
Reds 10346 -1 9 -10
Braves 10074 4 15 -11
Mets 9944 -8 3 -12

On average, each year, teams throw around 23,000 – 24,000 pitches. The big gain so far belongs to the Pirates, which we’ve written about in the past. This one is pretty easily explained by the addition of Russell Martin, which is looking like a stroke of genius. The Pirates went from having bad receiving right to having good receiving, at least when Martin is behind the plate, and that’s presumably playing some role in the Pirates’ tremendous success.

The Yankees, meanwhile, lost Martin for basically no good reason, but they aren’t missing anything at least in this department, thanks to Chris Stewart also being a good receiver. Francisco Cervelli and Austin Romine, too, have been solid. The Mets are at the bottom, going from Josh Thole as a regular to John Buck as a regular. The Braves missed Brian McCann, but on top of that, Gerald Laird is no substitute for David Ross. The Tigers have gotten better in large part because they dumped Laird, replacing him with the above-average Brayan Pena.

I was curious about taking this to the individual-player level. For that, I called on Matthew Carruth, who has his own PITCHf/x-based method of analyzing this stuff. He establishes a strike zone, based on what umpires actually call, then he tracks for each catcher the rate of called balls within the zone and the rate of called strikes out of the zone. It comes together in a plus/minus per game, tracking strikes against what you’d expect. Matthew sent me a very helpful up-to-date spreadsheet, and I isolated catchers who received at least 1,000 called pitches in both 2012 and 2013. If receiving is a skill, it shouldn’t be completely static. Additionally, some of this has to do with the pitchers, and some of it has to do with the umpires. Which catchers have changed the most between years, in plus/minus per game? Below, two tables of five players, out of a sample of 49.

Biggest gains in plus/minus per game

Name Team 2013+/- per 2012+/- per Diff
Carlos Santana Indians -0.5 -1.9 1.4
Yasmani Grandal Padres 3.3 1.9 1.4
Salvador Perez Royals -0.2 -1.4 1.2
J.P. Arencibia Blue Jays 0.5 -0.6 1.1
Nick Hundley Padres -0.3 -1.2 1.0

Biggest drops in plus/minus per game

Name Team 2013+/- per 2012+/- per Diff
George Kottaras Royals -2.2 -0.3 -1.9
Kelly Shoppach Mariners -1.8 -0.1 -1.7
John Buck Mets -1.4 -0.1 -1.3
Devin Mesoraco Reds -0.3 0.9 -1.2
Chris Stewart Yankees 1.2 2.3 -1.1

I hesitate to call these improvements and declines, because we don’t perfectly understand what we’re dealing with. We don’t know how responsibility is divided, and we don’t know much about the appropriate error bars. But these tables are interesting. The Padres have two catchers in the top five gains, possibly suggesting training emphasis, or possibly suggesting pitching-staff command. Carlos Santana has been getting much better results, and though he’s still below-average, he isn’t atrocious. The Indians have gotten better in this department, because Santana has gotten better results and Yan Gomes seems to get better results than Lou Marson ever did.

Santana, if you’re curious, has improved his in-zone strike rate from 82.5% to 85%. He’s improved his out-of-zone strike rate from 5.1% to 6.7%. Again, we don’t know how much of this is Santana, how much is the pitching staff, and how much is other stuff. But, results are results.

At the other end, assorted regular guys. The Royals have one of the biggest gains in Perez, and one of the biggest drops in Kottaras, although Kottaras only just barely made the sample-size cut. Stewart’s results have dropped off, but he’s still firmly above-average. Mesoraco in part explains the Reds’ worse results, but Ryan Hanigan, too, is getting worse numbers, having just barely missed this table. Both guys have received more balls in the zone, and fewer strikes out of it.

What could cause an improvement or a decline in pitch-receiving? I don’t know, and that could stand to be investigated further. It seems like it should be perhaps the most stable of skills, outside of, say, pitch velocity, and maybe what we’re capturing is noise unrelated to the catchers themselves. But, maybe not. For now, you’ll settle for just some of the results. Indians fans, don’t question it; just accept it. It’s good. Gift horses and everything.

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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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