Is Pitch-Framing Cheating?

Remember Ryan Doumit? I’m dating myself by saying it, but back in 2005 and 2006, I was obsessed with him. He was an oft-injured catcher who could really hit. He approached a .200 ISO in back-to-back years of part-time duty in 2006-07 and absolutely destroyed the minor leagues.

But the Bucs were steadfastly against making Doumit their starting catcher, sticking him at first base and in the corner outfield. At the time, I thought the Bucs were making a serious mistake by not playing Doumit behind the plate every chance they got. I mean, the guy posted three wins on the back of a 123 wRC+ in 2008, his first full year of play. How could a team not stick that bat behind the plate?

What I didn’t appreciate at the time were the Pirates’ concerns. Ryan Doumit was an extraordinarily bad pitch-framer, a fact the Pirates knew and I didn’t. And as pitch-framing has become an increasingly important part of the game, an interesting question has emerged: is pitch-framing even legal?

This is actually a really interesting issue, for a lot of reasons — and the first of those reasons is that it forces us, first of all, to define what, exactly, pitch-framing means. What is pitch-framing, anyway? I mean, if you read this site, it’s a pretty good bet you have an intuitive understanding of what it is, but we can’t exactly take our intuition, go to baseball’s rulebook, and look that up. In order to figure this out, we need to have one, firm definition of pitch-framing.

There’s just one problem: there is no one definition of pitch-framing. Here’s proof – we can’t get lawyers, who make definitions of things for a living, to agree on a definition.

“But wait!” says you. “Isn’t pitch-framing making balls look like strikes?” Certainly the term “stealing strikes” seems to be a popular way to characterize it. Here’s ESPN’s definition, from the great Harry Pavlidis:

Catcher framing is an act of subtlety, receiving the ball close to the chest, never stabbing at it, and turning pitches that nick the border of the zone — or at least appear to — into called strikes.

And while that’s part of it, certainly, it’s not the only part of it. After all, the worst pitch-framers make strikes look like balls, which is (a) not covered by our definition but also (b) really needs to be. After all, framing includes making strikes look like strikes. How many times have we seen Jeff Sullivan show us the worst called ball of the season was a product of poor receiving on the catcher’s part?

Maybe this definition is better:

Framing is the art of making a pitch that is near (border line strike/ball) the zone appear to be a strike when in fact it may not be. . . . Framing is a subtle movement of the wrist that drags the ball toward the strike zone.

Now we know how you frame and what the goal is. But to define pitch-framing merely as “making pitches appear to be strikes” isn’t enough either. That’s because it doesn’t include the person looking. It doesn’t matter if the folks in the stands think the pitch is a strike. The only important opinion belongs to the man in blue behind the plate. Which brings us to the definition on this site:

The catcher, based on the way he receives the ball, can influence the call. Good catchers make sure strikes are called strikes and gets the umpire to call a few balls as strikes too.

That’s the best yet. It includes the aim of framing, which is to get as many pitches called strikes as possible. It also recognizes that (a) it’s the receipt of the ball that’s essential and (b) part of the catcher’s job is simply to make strikes look like strikes.

Except! Except it doesn’t include the how part — and, because of that, even this definition is flawed. This definition tells us accurately what framing does, not what it is. So, let’s use this:

Framing is a method of receiving the pitched ball from the pitcher, using subtle movements of the catcher’s wrist and body, made for the purpose of presenting the pitch to the umpire in a manner which increases the likelihood that the pitched ball will be called a strike.

Feel free to tear this apart, or otherwise propose your own definition!

Anyway, now that we know what framing is — or, at least, what framing is according to a particular redheaded author — we can tackle the question of whether it breaks the rules. You’ll be interested to know that the word “framing” appears nowhere in the Rules. You can check that for yourself. It’s not in there.

We can also look at the Rule governing catchers’ fielding position. That’s 5.02:

Nothing in that Rule says a catcher must catch the ball in a particular manner — merely that he must “station himself” in a certain place. And there’s also a discussion in the comment to Rule 5.09(a)(2) about what, exactly, constitutes a “legal catch” of a pitched ball from the pitcher. This is what it says:

Here, too, all the Rule says is that the catcher must receive the ball in his mitt. It doesn’t say “how” the ball is to be caught, and it also doesn’t say where the catcher’s mitt has to be. See? Case closed. Framing is legal.

Or, maybe not.

You see, the Rules do define things like “strike” and “ball.” This is a ball:

This is a strike:

And this, by the way, is Appendix 5:

And from this, we can make a pretty compelling case that framing is illegal. Why? Because the Rule defines a ball and a strike not by where the ball is caught but by where the ball actually crosses the plate. There’s even a handy picture with a square in it — in the square is a strike, out of the square is not a strike. So on the surface, in the box is strike, out of box is ball, irrespective of where the ball is presented. And that argument explains why, for some time, umpires balked (pun intended) at the idea of pitch-framing. As Matt Wieters (a bad pitch-framer) once told the AP’s Noah Trister:

“It used to be where, when I was first starting, the umpire would say, ‘Hey, stop doing that,’ type thing. And now that’s not really the case anymore,” Wieters said. “You probably will get blowback for it as a catcher, but your No. 1 job is to get the pitcher as many pitches as you can get, so do what you can.”

Right?

Well… no.

Why? Think about it: if framing is illegal because the definitions of “ball” and “strike” leave no ambiguity, that means that umpires are breaking the Rules dozens of times every day. Umpires do a good job of calling balls and strikes, but they’re not perfect. By one study, umpires get about one in every eight strike calls wrong, which, in a game where each side throws 150 pitches, means about 36 blown calls in every game. Even MLB’s own number of 97% would mean umpires blow nine pitch calls every night. And let’s be honest, we know that a pitch isn’t a strike simply because it was thrown in the general vicinity of Aaron Judge’s knees. So either framing is illegal or umpires are breaking the rules all the time. And that would be absurd.

That we should interpret the Rule to avoid an absurd result is something called a canon of statutory construction. Essentially, a canon of statutory construction is a special pathway you can use to figure out what a rule or law means when it’s ambiguous, vague, or can be interpreted multiple ways. You can read up on a bunch of them here. Think of them like a flowchart which can explain what the drafter meant. Now, you may think that using the canons of statutory construction to interpret the Rules of Major League Baseball is (a) overkill and/or (b) stupid. (You may also be right.) However, were a Rule of Baseball to somehow find itself before a judge for some reason, the Rule would probably be interpreted using these very rules or something like it. That’s because most of the same rules which apply to interpreting statutes also apply to interpreting contracts.

The canon we’re going to look at today is this one.

A basic principle of statutory interpretation is that courts should give effect, if possible, to every clause and word of a statute, avoiding, if it may be, any construction which implies that the legislature was ignorant of the meaning of the language it employed.

This is just a really fancy way of saying that we assume, when we’re interpreting a Rule, that the drafter intended every word in the rule to be there for a reason. Admittedly, this can be dangerous if you’re dealing with verbose writers. Blaise Pascal, for instance, once famously wrote that verbosity is not the result of intended meaning but rather of haste. (Imagine, if you will, applying this Rule to Shakespeare.) On the other hand, at times it can be really useful for figuring out if what you think the rule means is correct.

Now, when we look at the definition of “Strike,” we see something interesting in the very first line. “A STRIKE,” sayeth MLB, “is a legal pitch when so called by the umpire.” So, according to our canon of statutory construction, the words “when so called by the umpire” have to be given their plain and ordinary meaning as part of the definition of a strike. What does this mean? That a pitch is only a strike when the umpire says it is.

But our canon of statutory construction also tells us that we have to give words their importance based on where they are and how they’re presented in a sentence. Here, that a strike is to be called by the umpire appears before criteria like “the batter swung at it.” In other words, the plain reading of the Rule is that a pitch is a strike when the umpire says it is. Those criteria, then, are properly interpreted not as the factors which make a pitch a strike, but rather the reasons an umpire may call a pitch a strike. This reading is supported by the Rules governing umpires:

Another factor is that the same language doesn’t appear in the rule governing balls. There’s a special rule in statutory construction called Expressio Unius Est Exclusio Alterius. Literally translated, it means “the expression of one thing is the exclusion of another.” In lay terms, it basically means that, since the drafters knew what they were doing (presumably), and they included the umpire language in the strike definition but not the definition of ball, therefore they did so for a reason.

And if we think about it, it makes sense. Written this way, the rule essentially creates a presumption that a pitch is a ball. And so, read together, the two rules mean that a pitch is presumed to have met the definition of a ball unless the umpire calls it a strike, at which point the umpire did so for one of a few enumerated reasons.

And that’s why the Rules explicitly say you can’t argue balls and strikes — they’re essentially a matter of umpire’s discretion.

Now that we know that the definition of “ball” and “strike” depends on the umpire, this means two things.

First, the Rules, read together and as written, say that framing is perfectly legal. Since the umpire gets to decide whether a pitch is a ball or strike, there’s nothing that says that a catcher can’t present the pitch to the umpire in a manner which makes a strike call more likely. In fact, how a catcher may receive the pitched ball seems to have been left deliberately vague for this very reason. The umpire may call a pitch a strike for any of seven reasons. If the catcher can, within the bounds of the game, persuade the umpire that one of those seven reasons applies, he can do so.

But the same rules which allow pitch-framing also mean electronic strike zone (the so-called “robot ump”) is probably illegal.

Seriously.

That’s because the rule defining a strike says that a pitch is a strike because the umpire says so, and then gives a list of reasons an umpire may say so. But an electronic strike zone would turn that definition on its head, saying that a pitch is a strike because it’s inside the box. But nothing in the Rules says a pitch meeting the definition of a strike has to be called a strike. It should be called a strike. But it doesn’t have to be called a strike. And that’s a big difference. The Rules allow for human error as an intrinsic part of the game. Who would have thought it?

We hoped you liked reading Is Pitch-Framing Cheating? by Sheryl Ring!

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Sheryl Ring is an attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

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tb.25
Member
tb.25

LOVE this.

Merely catching the ball can’t be illegal. If it influences the call, that’s on the ump. But had no idea the rules allowed the umps to call strikes and balls to their discretion, regardless of the rulebook zone.

RWinUT
Member
Member
RWinUT

Not only CAN umps make up their own balls and strikes, they DO. And they play a game with the catcher, pitcher and batter to see who figures out and who doesn’t what exactly the strike zone is. And on top of that, it’s likely the ump will be inconsistent, further complicating matters. It’s annoying, frustrating, unfair, and corrupting. Bring on the robo-umps. I’ll watch a lot more games when they do.

duncanbishop1
Member
duncanbishop1

When I umpire I will tell the catchers or pitcher why a pitch was a ball, or a batter where the pitch was. If they ask or even if it was borderline. I’m not trying to make it a guessing game

Rainja182
Member
Rainja182

Honestly I think it will remove a lot of drama from the game. Which, for me, isn’t a good thing.

Alby
Member
Member
Alby

Exactly. It’s not cheating, it’s a blown call. Why isn’t the “framing” question framed in terms of which umps blow the most calls?

mikejunt
Member
Member
mikejunt

Because in the end its about subtly manipulating human perception. It makes more sense to think about it like a magic trick or slight of hand; the brain can’t actually follow a baseball flying 95 mph frame by frame – it determines its expected path based on various factors (the streak of the ball, the movements, etc). Catcher framing is about deceiving that unconscious part of the brain that perceives the trajectory of the ball.

Its not cheating, and it also isnt about umpires being bad or awful. Everyone can be fooled.

Framing is about making sure that 60% strikes get called and that more 40% strikes get called; no one has a black bordered yes/no strike zone. Changing that perception just a bit can change 60% into 65 or 70%, and over the course of a season that is a lot of runs

The whole point of pitch framing is that EFFECTIVE framing is often so subtle you can’t notice it

What people point at in specific clips is almost always bad framing that doesn’t work.