Alejandro Kirk and Alek Manoah Boldly Go Towards the Shadow Zone

© John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The “shadow zone” is one of my favorite new bits of lingo from the Statcast era, and I’m sure I’m not alone. In actual fact, the term describes a pretty simple concept – the area in and around the edges of the strike zone – but it sounds more like a hidden world from Star Trek or Stranger Things. The title for a FanGraphs piece about the shadow zone practically writes itself.

But I’m not here to talk about sonically pleasing sports terminology. Sure, I like the shadow zone because it sounds like it’s from a straight-to-video B-movie, but I am just as partial to what happens within it. It’s an area of ambiguity around the strike zone’s edges. It’s where plate discipline matters most, where control matters most, where umpiring matters most, and, as I’d like to focus on today, where pitch framing matters most.

Pitch framing takes place almost exclusively around the borders of the zone. Every so often a catcher successfully frames a pitch from beyond the shadows (a potential sequel to The Shadow Zone), but at that point, it’s just as much about bad umpiring as it is about good framing.

I find framing fascinating. Good framing is a unique skill because it takes advantage of a limitation in the rules of gameplay – specifically, the rule that relies on the human eye to call balls and strikes. The strike zone is clearly defined in the Official Baseball Rules, and, according to those rules, catchers play no role in determining if a pitch is a strike. Pitchers throw the ball, and umpires are supposed to call pitches based on where they pass home plate. That’s it. Yet because the human eye is imperfect, umpires are imperfect. And because umpires are imperfect, catchers can influence the outcome of a called pitch. Framing is an artful act of trickery that exploits an imperfection in the rules of baseball. No wonder it transpires in the shadows.

When it comes to good framing, no one stands out more this season than Alejandro Kirk. It’s not that he’s the absolute best framer in the game (that title belongs to Jose Trevino), but he has taken a huge step forward this year. Among the top pitch framers in 2022, Kirk is the only one who was a below-average framer last season:

Top Catchers by Framing Runs in 2022
Player FRM (2021) FRM (2022)
Jose Trevino 8.8 18.5
Jonah Heim 8.3 9.7
Cal Raleigh 2.7 8.5
Sean Murphy 9.7 8.4
Travis d’Arnaud 3.9 8.3
Omar Narváez 8.8 7.8
Adley Rutschman N/A 7.7
Alejandro Kirk -0.6 7.2
Tomás Nido 5.1 7.1

In 2021, Kirk was worth -0.6 framing runs (FRM). Per Baseball Savant, 47.2% of the pitches he caught in the shadow zone were called strikes. In 2022, he has been worth 7.2 FRM. This time around, 50.5% of the pitches he has caught in that zone have been strikes. At FanGraphs, we have Kirk as the eighth-most valuable framer in the sport and in fewer innings than everyone above him. Baseball Prospectus has him seventh; Baseball Savant has him tied for fifth among qualified catchers in framing runs and fourth in shadow zone strike rate.

While each member of Toronto’s pitching staff has surely taken advantage of Kirk’s framing skills at one time or another, for my money no one has benefitted more than Alek Manoah. The right-hander has worked with Kirk more than any other Blue Jays pitcher this season. The rest of the starting rotation has split their starts between Kirk and Danny Jansen (with some Gabriel Moreno and Zack Collins outings sprinkled in for good measure), but Manoah throws almost exclusively to Kirk. Of his 31 starts this season, 30 have come with Kirk behind the dish. Accordingly, nearly 30% of Kirk’s work behind the plate has come with Manoah on the mound.

The two clearly have a good working relationship. They were born in the same year and made their big league debuts around the same time (Kirk in late 2020, Manoah in early 2021). This year, they both made their first All-Star team, and together they struck out three of four batters in a fun inning of work. Recently, Manoah even came to his teammate’s defense when a boneheaded radio host made derisive comments about Kirk’s body:

But Manoah and Kirk’s rapport goes further. Their styles of play are very compatible, making them an especially formidable pairing.

Kirk, as we already know, has become a terrific pitch framer, and thrives in the shadow zone. Manoah, as fate would have it, is a standout in the shadows as well. Out of 300 qualified pitchers, Manoah ranks seventh in run value on shadow zone pitches, and gets his best results when opponents swing at pitches in that zone. He ranks seventh in baseball, and fourth in the American League, in run value on shadow zone swings:

Run Value on Swings in the Shadow Zone
Pitcher Run Value
Logan Gilbert -41
Sandy Alcantara -40
Dylan Cease -38
Corbin Burnes -37
Triston McKenzie -36
Joe Musgrove -35
Alek Manoah -35
Merrill Kelly -32
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

To understand why Manoah does so well for himself in this zone, one must first recognize that he is a pitcher who succeeds by inducing weak contact. He doesn’t have a blistering fastball, nor does he rely on strikeouts to go through opposing lineups. What he does have is the lowest hard contact rate (Hard%), the second-lowest HardHit%, the third lowest Barrel%, the fourth-lowest slugging percentage, and the fourth-lowest HR/9 among qualified AL starters in 2022. Opposing batters struggle to make hard contact against Manoah, making him quite adept at limiting hits and home runs.

And where does Manoah locate his pitches to induce all that weak contact? Well, all over the place really, but especially in the shadow zone, where pitches are still close enough to the plate for hitters to make contact, but aren’t nearly as appealing to hit as middle-middle meatballs. Manoah’s opponents have a .311 wOBA on contact against pitches in the heart zone, and a .286 wOBA on contact against pitches in the shadow zone. Manoah has allowed 10 home runs on 804 total pitches in the heart zone; on 1,224 total pitches in the shadow zone, he has allowed only six.

When Kirk is catching, Manoah has additional freedom to play in his favorite zone. With most catchers, a non-swing pitch in the shadow zone is likely to result in a ball. Among Blue Jays catchers for instance, Jansen has a 46.4% called strike rate on such pitches (and, therefore, a 53.6% ball rate). Moreno has a called strike rate of just 43.3%, albeit in a small sample. Kirk, on the other hand, has a called strike rate over 50%. He is one of only five qualified backstops who is more likely to catch a strike in the shadow zone than a ball. Thus, with Kirk receiving, Manoah can feel more confident throwing around the border of the strike zone, even in a hitter’s count. He knows there is a better chance of a pitch being called a strike than there would be with any other Blue Jays catcher behind the dish.

What’s more, the area of the shadow zone Manoah likes best is the left-hand side (the inside of the plate for a right-handed hitter), which also happens to be the side of the plate where Kirk has had the greatest success as a framer. Kirk has above-average framing numbers in all three left-side sections of the shadow zone, and Manoah has thrown nearly half of his shadow zone pitches to that side:

Alek Manoah's Shadow Zone pitches with the left side highlighted
via Baseball Savant

Over the past two seasons, Alek Manoah has grown into a fearsome starting pitcher. Alejandro Kirk has developed into one of the best catchers in the game. Their success in the shadow zone, especially when working together, has played a meaningful role in getting them where they are today. Manoah thrives when batters swing at pitches inside and around the edge of the zone. Kirk thrives when they don’t. Together, they’re a match made in the shadows.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

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1 year ago

The Shadow Zone is the Phantom Zones’ less edgy but still cool younger sibling