Finding Chris Iannetta In an Unexpected Place

Guess what! It’s time for my first pitch-framing post of the season. There will probably be dozens more of these. I don’t know what those ones will be about, but the purpose of this one is to highlight the early performance of Angels catcher Chris Iannetta. I know, of course, it’s super early! I know, of course, current statistical arrangements will change over the coming five and a half months. But so far, Iannetta rates as one of the top pitch-receivers in the game. He ranks very high according to Matthew Carruth’s method. He ranks very high according to the Baseball Prospectus method. And that one adjusts for a whole lot of stuff. Through these weeks, Iannetta has been getting strikes and avoiding balls.

Which some catchers do commonly. You know the guys who’re considered good at this. What makes Iannetta interesting is, this is a first for him. Not that the season is over and we’ve confirmed that he’s a good framer now, but he’s played like a good framer, and, previously, that hasn’t been him. Let’s go back four years. In all four years, by Carruth, Iannetta has rated as below-average. In all four years, by Baseball Prospectus, Iannetta has rated as below-average. As recently as 2013, Iannetta looked like one of the worst receivers in baseball, by the numbers. So you wouldn’t expect him to be where he is today.

And, again, maybe this isn’t where he’ll end up. In fact, I’d say this probably isn’t where he’ll end up. Simple history and regression suggests that Iannetta isn’t elite, but it would be hard to fake this performance if you were out-and-out bad. Iannetta appears improved, and he might be substantially improved. Given that point, you ask the question: why might that be?

Here’s a convenient headline, from March 18:

Angels catcher Chris Iannetta looks to improve pitch-framing ability

By the numbers, Iannetta seems to have taken a step forward. Why would Iannetta suddenly take a step forward? He made it an offseason priority to take a step forward. Now we’re wandering into the realm of confirmation bias, but since there’s not much I can do about that, we’ll proceed anyway. Said Iannetta:

“It’s something I really take pride in. I’m really trying to work on it,” Iannetta said. “Some of the numbers last year are not where I want them to be, and that was surprising.

“I get really good reviews from umpires in what I do and how I work, and I see some discrepancies. It’s disappointing. So my goal is to get as good as I can, to be in the top five, top 10.”

What comes across is Iannetta’s commitment to get better. And while every player is always trying to get better, every season and every offseason, Iannetta said something else of particular note:

“[The numbers were] brought to my attention toward the end of last year,” Iannetta said. “I never really knew. I always thought I was pretty good. … I don’t like the fact that this was something I was labeled as. It didn’t jibe with what I thought I was doing or the reviews I was getting.”

As far as Iannetta knew, he wasn’t a problem. He wasn’t doing anything wrong, and he wasn’t getting much in the way of negative feedback. It wasn’t until he saw the numbers that he thought he might be able to do some things better. And, credit to Iannetta, he took the numbers to heart. He talked to different people about his performance, and he watched video of great catchers to see what they were doing. And while it’s difficult to prepare representative .gifs for a subject like this, I can at least show you a little evidence that Iannetta has changed his catching.

Catching behind a righty and a lefty, in 2014:

iannetta-righty-2014

iannetta-lefty-2014

Catching behind a righty and a lefty, in 2015:

iannetta-righty-2015

iannetta-lefty-2015

Your focus should be on Iannetta’s positioning. Look at his legs, look at his knees, and look at his butt. A year ago, Iannetta was more or less square to the pitcher. He had a wide stance, and his shins went straight down from his knees, if not a little out. Now look at the bottom two pictures. It’s a tighter stance, and Iannetta’s butt has become visible, because he’s put himself at something of an angle. Iannetta always had his upper body turned, but now he’s included his lower body as well, allowing him to limit some motion and, perhaps more importantly, improve the umpire’s sight lines. Some catchers say the most important thing about good receiving is just letting the umpire see the baseball as you catch it. Umpires tend to be blocked more by backstops who are square to the mound. Visually, this seems like a good improvement.

As far as Iannetta’s actual receiving is concerned, after the ball is in flight, it’s hard to spot much, and I’ve looked at plenty of video. He caught pitches last year well, and he caught a few poorly. Ditto this year, and it’s difficult to find perfect pitch matches to eliminate the maximum number of complicating variables. Iannetta has talked about maybe setting a lower target or keeping his glove lower so that it doesn’t drift up and then cause him to stab back down at low pitches. He has an awareness of things to work on, and he’s already worked on new positioning. For all I know, maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s all it took.

There’s a real interesting broader point, coming out of the Iannetta-specific point. From the looks of things, Iannetta has taken a real step forward this year behind the plate, even though he recently turned 32 years old. We don’t know how much better he is, but he seems at least a decent amount better. This after doing things a certain way his whole career. He just never knew before late last season that his receiving was a bit of an issue. So he worked on it, and it seems like it paid off.

Perhaps catchers who’ve never studied framing can make these leaps. Maybe this is something you can improve quickly, no matter your age, if you’re given the push. Iannetta just needed to be steered in the right direction. What if that were true of some other 32-year-old? Intuitively, it makes some sense, and this could be one of the reasons the market still doesn’t pay very much for framing ability. Maybe teams figure they can train it themselves, in the guys they already have. And maybe this is why the Angels were willing to trade Hank Conger to the Astros — though the Astros knew Conger was an excellent receiver, perhaps the Angels thought they could get Iannetta good enough that they wouldn’t miss Conger much. And then if this is so coachable, what does that mean for the true elites, and what does that mean for the teams still not really coaching it according to the data?

Framing stats are exciting, because we’ve only had them a few years. But they’re not just new to us. They’re about as new to teams, and they’re new to certain catchers. And when there’s new information out there, sometimes you’re going to get a kind of on-field response. Performance, influencing statistics, influencing performance. Chris Iannetta and the game are changing.





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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Patrick
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Patrick

Great article. Completely different topic, but do you think bunting fits in the same category of framing in that it might be a skill that can be learned very quickly? Bunting seems like a good avenue to explore to combat the shift.