Baseball’s Least-Improved Pitch-Framer

You ever notice how “improved” doesn’t have a good selection of antonyms? That’s what I’m going for. “The pitch-framer who’s gotten a heck of a lot worse somehow” gets the idea across, but it makes for a pretty lousy headline. Anyway, now you know the question being answered.

Dave has noted a few times in the past that at this point, the market doesn’t seem to pay very much for quality pitch-framing. There could be any number of reasons for this, but one could be that teams simply think they can teach their catchers to receive the ball better. Why pay for what you can instruct? Jason Castro would be an example of a guy who’s gotten way better at receiving with proper, targeted instruction. I think it makes sense to us how a guy could learn to receive pitches better. It makes less sense how a guy could just flat-out do worse. It seems like a fundamental skill once it’s learned, but every stat has its players who get better and its players who get worse, and the catcher who’s had the biggest performance decline between 2013 and 2014 is a catcher who last winter inked a three-year contract after winning a World Series.

I don’t think Jarrod Saltalamacchia was ever considered a really good framer. But during his years with the Red Sox, he wasn’t a liability, and the worthwhile numbers — those from Baseball Prospectus and StatCorner — allege that he was roughly league-average. He was no David Ross, but few catchers are, and Saltalamacchia was good enough to earn most pitchers’ trust. I’m guessing this might’ve factored in to the Marlins’ offseason contract proposal, and this past spring, pitchers seemed to enjoy throwing to him:

Mike Dunn: Just to get to see him behind the plate, the way he receives, because every catcher looks a little bit different, the target is presented a little differently. It looked clean back there, even if I made a bad pitch, he made me feel like I threw it good because of the way he caught it.

When the Marlins signed Saltalamacchia, there was reason to believe his defensive work would be perfectly fine. It had been for years. Saltalamacchia was a veteran, but he wasn’t old and declining and broken. What Saltalamacchia did bring is career-average offense. Yet what he hasn’t brought is his receiving. At least, to the extent that we can measure it.

Between 2013 and 2014, there are 55 catchers who’ve had at least 1,000 framing opportunities in each season. We can look at this with a simpler method, and we can look at this with a more complicated method. Matthew Carruth presents more simple numbers at StatCorner, and according to that data, Saltalamacchia’s declined the most out of the group, by roughly a strike and a half per game. Baseball Prospectus has published and run with a more granular method, and according to their data, Saltalamacchia’s declined the most out of the group, by roughly a strike and a half per game. So there’s agreement here, and while it might be hard to explain, the numbers are the numbers. Unless the numbers are completely wrong, the lack of a good explanation doesn’t change the fact that there has to be some kind of explanation.

So where, statistically, Saltalamacchia was a roughly average framer, now he looks like one of the worst in the league. With the help of Baseball Savant, here’s his 2013 strike/ball plot:

salty2013

Here’s 2014:

salty2014

And here’s a .gif, since those images might be hard to compare as presented:

Saltalamacchia1314

Along the glove-side edge, Saltalamacchia’s stayed the same, with a little over 70% called strikes. Around the bottom edge over the plate, he’s stayed the same, with a little over 60% called strikes. He’s down seven percentage points around the upper edge over the plate. And along the arm-side edge, he’s down 11 percentage points. That low-away corner against righties, that pitchers love to target? Down there, Saltalamacchia’s helped less than he used to.

I don’t know exactly what it is. I can show you some .gifs of Saltalamacchia catching, but I can’t tell you what they mean. It’s just, here are balls, that could’ve been borderline strikes, from a game the other day.

Salty1

Not even a missed spot.

Salty2

Ugly reach across.

Salty3

Drove the ball too far down.

Salty4

Another ugly reach across.

Baseball Prospectus provides framing data broken down by battery. That can be interesting to peruse, and, the worst battery by framing runs is Saltalamacchia/Koehler. Second-worst? Saltalamacchia/Eovaldi. Fourth-worst? Saltalamacchia/Hand. A little north of that, we find Saltalamacchia/Fernandez, and a little north of that, we find Saltalamacchia/Alvarez.

You might be thinking: don’t the Marlins have a bunch of live arms? They sure do! And that can be hard to catch. Absolutely, Saltalamacchia doesn’t have an easy job. But, the Marlins’ other regular catcher has been Jeff Mathis. He’s been one of the better framers in the league. And while he hasn’t caught the same distribution of guys and pitches as Saltalamacchia has, who’s had the better framing data with pitchers who’ve been shared at least a decent amount?

Mathis has been better with all the shared pitchers, by this measure, and most of the differences aren’t even small. The Marlins, as a staff, aren’t easy to catch, but that hasn’t been an excuse for Mathis. So it’s up to Saltalamacchia to adjust better than he has.

And that’s what I suspect this is. After more than three years with the Red Sox, Saltalamacchia left and had to learn a whole new staff in a whole new league. Good receivers will tell you it helps an awful lot to be familiar with the tendencies and movement of the guys on the mound, and maybe it’s just taking Saltalamacchia a while. Being a starting catcher is mighty hard work. But we’re near the end of 2014, now, and in his first year with the Marlins, Saltalamacchia’s receiving has taken a massive step back, by the numbers we can produce. Presuming the numbers aren’t misleading inaccurate crap, Saltalamacchia needs to turn this around. Maybe somehow he’s just developed worse technique. I can be only so confident in my explanations. I’m more confident, though, that there’s something to explain.





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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Jimmer
8 years ago

Where does Kurt Suzuki rank?