Why Haven’t the A’s had Any Good Pitch-Framers?

The ability to quantify the value of catcher framing has been one of the biggest sabermetric breakthroughs of the last decade. By parsing through PITCHf/x data, analysts like Mike Fast, Max Marchi, Dan Brooks, and Harry Pavlidis have managed to shed light on which catchers are adept at turning balls into strikes, uncovering hidden value in otherwise unremarkable players, including Rene Rivera, Chris Stewart, and of course, Jose Molina.

MLB front offices have taken notice. Several teams, including the Yankees, Rays, Red Sox, Pirates, Padres, and Brewers have begun hoarding good-framing catchers over the past few years. But one team that’s missing from this list are the Oakland Athletics, who have historically been among the first adapters of sabermetric principles. One would think that the A’s would be all over the Jose Molina‘s and Chris Stewart‘s of the world, yet Billy Beane and co. seem to have missed the memo on acquiring good framers. In fact, they’ve made a habit of employing poor ones. According to Baseball Prospectus‘ model, A’s catchers rank fourth from last in framing runs saved this season. This isn’t a one year anomaly, either. Here’s a look at all of the catchers the A’s have used since 2010, along with their career framing numbers.

Catcher Innings Share of A’s Innings FR Runs per 7,000
Kurt Suzuki 2,929 42% -9
Derek Norris 1,854 27% -1
John Jaso 755 11% -16
Landon Powell 540 8% -10
Stephen Vogt 421 6% -4
George Kottaras 217 3% -8
Anthony Recker 125 2% -17
Josh Donaldson 71 1% -9
Jake Fox 59 1% -15

That right there is a pretty sorry group of framers. There’s not a single catcher in the group who’s even above average. So what gives? Why has Billy Beane — who’s nearly synonymous with the term “market inefficiency” — been so reluctant to exploit the latest market inefficiency?

As far as I can tell, there are two possible explanations, and the real answer is probably some combination of the two:

1) The A’s have chosen to employ catchers who excel in areas other than pitch-framing.

2) The A’s aren’t completely buying into all of this pitch-framing stuff.

Let’s start with the first explanation. Since 2010, A’s catchers have accumulated 12.1 fWAR (which doesn’t account for framing), putting them 15th out of 30 MLB organizations. But since 2012, the year after Mike Fast’s research first brought the value of pitch framing to the public’s eye, the A’s rank 10th. The average wRC+ from a catcher is 93, but the A’s have done much better than that of late by employing guys like John Jaso (136 wRC+) and Derek Norris (110 wRC+). Even if you were to dock the Oakland’s catchers for their poor framing skills, they’d still fall somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of total value. Basically, the A’s have managed to find good, cheap catchers, who generate value in ways other than framing pitches. Plus, for all we know, the A’s might have reason to believe these guys excel in other overlooked areas. They could be superb game callers, for example.

But that can’t be all that’s going on. Sure, the A’s have done a decent enough job of finding catching talent without prioritizing framing, but it’s not like they’ve had Mike Piazza or Johnny Bench behind the plate. Jaso and Norris are fine players, but aren’t exactly superstars. Plus, it should tell us something that they haven’t even brought in any bottom-of-the-barrel framing specialists. Eric Kratz or Chris Stewart were both traded for warm bodies last winter, but the A’s instead chose to roll with Vogt as their primary catching depth.

Perhaps the A’s have reason to believe that publicly available framing models overstate the value-add of a framed pitch? As Dave Cameron recently pointed out, its not entirely clear if the full value of a framed pitch should be attributed to the catcher, with none of the credit going to the pitcher. Current models don’t account for how a pitcher might change his approach based on the framing abilities of his catcher, and research shows that pitchers do in fact change their approach based on who’s catching, throwing a few more pitches outside of the strike zone:

Framing

Oakland’s brain trust is about as progressive as they come, and have a proven penchant for unearthing value from unlikely places. When a team like that zigs while others zag, it probably makes sense to ask why. This isn’t to say that the publicly-available framing data is useless, as having a good framer undeniably adds some value, even if it’s only a few runs. But the fact that the A’s have yet to employ a single plus framer should lead us to wonder if there’s a piece of the puzzle we might be missing.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus.



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Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He’s also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.



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Alex
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Alex

The Blue Jays too, generally an analytics-favouring team, they could have easily kept Jose Molina around for cheap and basically just dumped him.

Strikethree
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Strikethree

Not knowledgeable enough to figure out if As pitchers pitching more up than down in the strike zone compared to others, getting more pop outs, especially foul outs, than ground balls, compared to others. With framing more difficult up in the zone, and staff tending to pitch up, less opps for framing effects to become apparent. With all the foul territory in Oakland, is it possible they’re looking for outs, not just strikes, by pitching up in the zone….on purpose. Anyone?

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