A.J. Ellis And Learning To Improve Pitch Framing

“I don’t like it, because it hates me.”

That was Dodger catcher A.J. Ellis‘ half-joking reply to me last weekend in Arizona, before the team left for Australia, when I asked him whether he was aware of the recent work on pitch framing or put any stock into it whatsoever. Ellis has a reputation as a particularly thoughtful player, so I didn’t really expect him to say that he had no idea what I was talking about, but then, I’m sure we’ve all read Eno Sarris’ recent Hardball Times piece about the language of the clubhouse, and how bringing up things even as relatively straightforward as FIP and walk rate can very quickly get you on the wrong side of the room if asked in the wrong way or to the wrong player.

Pitch framing, of course, is what passes for the new hot thing in sabermetrics these days, and we’ve written about it extensively here; Jeff Sullivan has made something of a cottage industry of the topic, as have other sites, and for good reason. It’s new. It’s exciting. It’s gotten people hired. It significantly changes how we value — or at least how we should value — catchers. We don’t have to necessarily buy into the exact ranges that some studies have come out with, because some of those extremes would indicate that the best framers are providing something like MVP-quality value to their teams, but the effects are real. It’s one of those very unique skills that only a catcher can offer, and we’re finally beginning to properly understand and measure it.

So what interested me was how much, if any, real-world application this work was having. You’d think that players and teams would jump at the chance to learn more about their performances and how to improve them, but you’d also think that in 2014, major league teams wouldn’t employ managers who actively avoid any strategic viewpoint created in the last four decades.

That being the case, do catchers buy into this? If so, is there a capacity to improve?

Ellis is right, of course. Pitch framing stats do hate him. Matthew Carruth’s StatCorner.com ranked 122 major league catchers in 2013, and Ellis was ranked 108th. Baseball Prospectus ran numbers covering 2008-13, ranking only nine catchers below him, and that’s only if you still consider Ryan Doumit and Carlos Santana catchers. To date, it hasn’t been a strength of his, which, if anything, makes you appreciate what Clayton Kershaw has been able to accomplish all the more (though of course, the duties of a catcher as a game planner, which Ellis takes pride in, can’t be dismissed or measured).

So the numbers think he’s poor, and Ellis knows the numbers exist. But does he actually believe in them?

“There’s definitely some accuracy to that,” Ellis said. “I’ve always struggled with catching the low pitch, and it’s something that’s been a focus for me. If I can steal a strike for my pitching staff, that’s always going to be important, and it’s not even really stealing a strike, it’s keeping a strike a strike. I’m really good on the corners, I’m good at the top of the zone, but I have a hard time on the bottom, so we’ve really worked hard this spring on trying to get better.”

As it turns out, the Dodgers have been tracking this for some time, giving Ellis and backup Tim Federowicz charts that show hot and cold zones, which I imagine is just the umpteenth example of private baseball data being light years ahead of the public data, because of course it is. We obviously don’t have access to those specific charts, but we do have access to the PITCHf/x database, which should be enough to approximate something similar.

Using the excellent baseballsavant.com, I searched for all pitches within the PITCHf/x strike zone that were actually called balls in 2013. This isn’t going to be a perfect study, because there’s obviously some influence here from the umpire, batter, and pitcher, but it’s good enough. Limiting it to the 72 catchers who received at least 2,500 pitches last year, we can see that 1.456% of the supposed strikes Ellis received were called as balls. Well-respected receivers like Jonathan Lucroy, Yadier Molina, Martin Maldonado and a few others were easily below one percent; Doumit was over two percent. This all passes the sniff test so far.

We can also see, as you do at the right, that the information given to Ellis is dead-on (as you’d expect), that the majority of his missed balls came in the bottom of the zone, and that searching by just “missed” strikes low in the zone does place him at a less-than-impressive 64th:


Percentage of “missed” strikes low in the zone, 2013 (min. 2,500 pitches)
1. Rene Rivera, 0.25%
2. Maldonado, 0.27%
3. Mike Zunino, 0.21%
64. Ellis, 1.18%
70. George Kottaras, 1.35%
71. Chris Iannetta, 1.38%
72. Doumit, 1.44%

Re-running the query to only show the top part of the zone shows a completely different catcher; Ellis, as he indicated, was the fourth-best last season, “missing” only 0.251%. Now all we’ve done so far is to confirm that the team has been giving Ellis accurate information, or at least to confirm that the information we have access to isn’t totally off base, and that at least this one particular catcher is interested in learning from it. Or as Ellis said, “I like the good information and the bad information. I’m a big boy, I can handle it.”

Knowing what he’s strong at and not, is this a skill that can be improved over time? Ellis likes that he’s at least got something to work off of:

 “The thing I like about the pitch framing stats, which I need some more information on how they determine what it is, at least it’s giving me a number, a bar, so I know where I’m at right now, and at the end of the year I can check and see, ‘hey, did I get better?'”

So far, it seems that approach has helped, because the numbers say that Ellis has improved, especially over the last two seasons. Going back to the full data of “strikes” called balls over the last four seasons, again with a minimum of 2,500 pitches:

2013: 55th of 72, 1.55%
2012: 60th of 72, 1.91%
2011: 67th of 71, 2.18%
2010: 68th of 76, 2.09%

Or put another way, StatCorner’s per-game strikes missed show a clear pattern of improvement:

2013: -0.53
2012: -0.96
2011: -1.09
2010: -1.96

Pitch framing, it seems, may be a teachable skill. We know the Dodgers are focusing on trying to improve, per Ellis’ own words. We know that San Diego’s Nick Hundley is working with former catcher A.J. Hinch on trying to improve his own less-than-stellar performance, and one imagines other teams are doing the same as well.

We may not be telling the teams anything they don’t already know with all the recent work with pitch framing, because if anything, this has really just been about educating the public perception over the last few years. But as Ellis noted, there’s value in that, too:

“It’s great to see guys are being rewarded for their catching. I just went through this arbitration process, and it’s almost like pulling teeth, trying to get some of these things in the conversation. It’s very archaic, my batting average, RBI, home runs, against some other player, and you try to bring up this catching stuff, and it’s well, you know, now there’s all these other variables. So I’m glad to see teams, kind of similar to a decade ago, to how they accepted on base percentage and OPS, they’re seeing that this kind of stuff is important to them. Hopefully pitch framing will be something catchers can hang their hat on.”

For some players — just look at why teams have gone after Jose Molina, Jose Lobaton and Ryan Hanigan in recent years — it already is. It might be the only reason they have jobs, really. And while not every backstop can be lucky enough to have been born into the Molina family, it seems that it’s not hopeless for those who need to put in a little extra work. It looks like it’s possible for a catcher to improve his framing, and to steal (or keep) an extra strike here and there for his pitching staff, at least for those catchers like Ellis who put faith in the data and choose to react positively to it. You never know when that one strike is going to be the one that decides a game.

Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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Purps McGurps
10 years ago

AJ is great