Jonathan Lucroy, Catcher Framing, and the NL MVP

Three years ago, the BBWAA opened their doors to FanGraphs; currently, four of our writers are members, including David Laurila, Eno Sarris, Carson Cistulli, and myself. Having that access has allowed David and Eno to do really interesting work in combining data with comments from the players, including Eno’s piece on Jacob deGrom from this morning, but being in the BBWAA also comes with other privileges, including voting on postseason awards. For the first time this year, I’ve been selected to represent the Atlanta chapter in the NL voting, and I’ll be casting a ballot for both Manager of the Year and Most Valuable Player.

As part of the conditions of being invited to participate, this means that I won’t be able to talk about who I’m planning on voting for until after the ballot is announced in November. However, I can talk about the questions I’m going to have to answer for myself when deciding how to vote, and no player is going to force me to come to a decision on what I feel is an unanswered question more so than Jonathan Lucroy.

As you probably know, Jonathan Lucroy is something like an adopted Molina brother when it comes to catcher framing. By nearly every public measure of strikes stolen, Lucroy is one of the very best in the game at getting umpires to call pitches out of the zone in his favor. He’s talked extensively about this with both Eno and Ben Lindbergh, and it is pretty clear that this is something he has worked hard to perfect. Giving his pitchers a larger-than-average strike zone to work with is certainly adding value and helping his team win games, and Lucroy should get credit for this part of his defensive value.

But how much credit? This is the issue with defensive statistics in general, as even if people accept that Andrelton Simmons or Alex Gordon are good defenders, the range of values estimated by the defensive systems are still difficult to accept for many, including the Major League teams themselves. And nowhere is this divide more clear than when it comes to the value of catcher framing.

By StatCorner’s estimates, the elite framers — of which Lucroy is certainly one — are usually worth 20 to 30 runs per season. In 2011, StatCorner estimated Lucroy’s framing value at +41 runs, and Brian McCann was rated as +44 runs in both 2008 and 2009. If this high-end range of framing value is correct, then Lucroy is the best player in baseball this year, McCann had a peak worthy of Hall of Fame consideration, and Jose Molina is worth roughly $20 million per year.

I don’t know anyone that actually thinks Lucroy is the best player in baseball, that McCann has put himself on track for induction to Cooperstown, or that Molina adds as much value to a pitching staff as Jeff Samardzija. Even though nearly every framing model comes out with similar estimates, and framing has been shown to be correlated strongly from year to year — suggesting there is real skill here and not just random noise — it’s difficult to wrap our minds around the range of value that the numbers suggest.

Even the most analytically progressive Major League teams don’t buy really buy into the numbers. The Astros were so impressed by Mike Fast’s work, which included launching the current obsession with catcher framing, that they hired him and made him a key member of their front office. And in the winter that saw three of the very best framing catchers — McCann, Molina, and Ryan Hanigan — hit the open market, the Astros instead spent $30 million on Scott Feldman, $6 million on Chad Qualls, and a combined $8 million on Jesse Crain, Matt Albers, and Jerome Williams.

McCann was probably out of their price range, and maybe he didn’t want to play for a last place team, but Molina signed for less than $2 million per year on a two year deal, and Hanigan was traded essentially for $5 million in cash, as the Rays took Heath Bell in the deal and surrendered a minor leaguer who retired before spring training started. None of these player’s acquisition prices reflected anything close to the value suggesting by the framing metrics. Sure, Molina’s probably still employed because the Rays value his ability to steal strikes, but they value it so highly that they’ve only let him play in 70 games this year. If any team in baseball really believed that Molina was worth 30 runs per season in framing value, he wouldn’t be making $1.8 million to play every other day in Tampa Bay.

Of course, the market value of a player isn’t a perfect way of evaluating the actual value of a player. We can find all kinds of examples of teams making irrational decisions about how they spend their money and even how they allocate playing time, so the fact that the market isn’t yet factoring framing values into free agent contracts isn’t evidence that the framing models are wrong. But I do wonder whether or not we are giving too much credit to the catcher for a framed strike.

For instance, let’s talk about how framing metrics work. The most thorough explanation comes from Harry Pavlidis, in working through the RPM model that he developed with Dan Brooks. In their model, they created a continuous function estimating the chances of a pitch being called a strike based on a number of variables, including location, count, and batter handedness, and then they credit to the catcher the difference between the estimated probability of a strike in that location and the actual call. So, if a pitch was thrown that had a 30% chance of being called a strike, and it was called a strike, the catcher would get credit for 70% of the run value change of that pitch being called a strike. This is basically the same principle as how UZR and DRS work in measuring fielding value at other positions, though obviously it’s an entirely different data set.

But here’s the implication of that calculation; when a pitcher throws a pitch in a location that has a low estimated strike rate, we are implicitly blaming him for throwing a bad pitch, and then giving the catcher credit for erasing the pitcher’s mistake. But pitchers are not stupid, and I guarantee you that the Brewers’ pitchers know that Lucroy gets more called strikes on pitches out of the zone than other catchers, so they have a personal expected strike rate on an out-of-zone location higher than pitchers throwing to other catchers. And they know this before they choose where to throw the pitch.

Let’s say you’re Kyle Lohse, and you have pretty good command, but you know that Lucroy is going to be able to steal strikes for you at the bottom of the zone. So, instead of throwing a pitch in the zone, where you are more likely to give up contact, you decide to pound the area just south of the strike zone, and particularly, down-and-away from left-handers, since that’s the area where umpires are most generous out of the zone. If you did that, your pitch location heat map might look something like this.

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 12.26.32 PM

If you compare that image to the league average location heat map, you’ll see that Lohse’s numbers on pitches down and on the left side of this image are far higher than most pitchers; in fact, in the lower left-hand boxes, we’re talking rates of pitches two or three times higher than the league average this year. Kyle Lohse is a guy who can throw the ball where he wants, and yet, he’s decided to live down and out of the strike zone this year.

This is very likely because he knows that Lucroy can get him strikes there, reducing the cost of pitching out of the zone. And that’s exactly what the data shows. In the three boxes that surround the lower left corner of the strike zone, Lohse has gotten strikes about 50% of the time this year, compared to a league average of about 30%. In the areas over the plate but just low, Lohse is getting strikes over 70% of the time, compared to a league average of around 55%.

This is the Lucroy effect; it is real, and it is getting Lohse extra strikes. But do we really want to give Lucroy the entire difference in a stolen strike at the bottom of the zone when Lohse threw it there knowing that Lucroy was the one behind the plate? After all, if we’re going to accept the range of framing values, then we have to subtract out the value of the strike from Lohse’s tally in order to balance the books. Are we comfortable concluding that, on a pitch called a strike, we should actually count it as a negative pitch for Lohse because he put the ball in an area where we estimate an average catcher would have made it a likely called ball?

Or, is it more likely that Lucroy’s framing skill is incentivizing Lohse to pitch out of the zone, so the credit for a framed strike should be shared between the pitcher and the hitter? After all, the question we’re trying to ask is how much value Lucroy adds to the Brewers pitching staff, and how much worse they would be if he was taken out of the equation. Perhaps if the Brewers pitchers had a worse framer to throw to, they would simply adjust by throwing more strikes. The distribution of locations is not an independent factor from the identity of the catcher.

Now, Dan and Harry are very smart guys and have also thought about these issues, so they performed with-or-without-you calculations to attempt to remove the impact of a pitcher with good command on inflating a catcher’s framed pitches total. I’m not saying that this issue invalidates the concept of framing or that Lucroy doesn’t actually add value with his work behind the plate. Clearly, he does.

But as of mid-August, I remain somewhat unconvinced that the catcher should be assigned the entire difference between the actual call and an expected strike based on an estimate that includes all the performance of all catchers, because the pitcher is not throwing to all catchers, and his chosen location is influenced by the identity of the guy behind the plate. Certainly, giving a pitcher confidence to avoid the middle of the zone has value in and of itself, but I’m not sure I’m quite there yet in agreeing with the idea that a pitcher who throws an out-of-zone pitch to Jonathan Lucroy should be penalized for that decision.

And if you’re building an accounting system that assigns a significant credit to the catcher for a stolen strike, you necessarily have to hold that pitch against the pitcher, even though the result was positive. That’s a tough bridge for me to cross right now.

Now, I am open to being convinced. Part of my hope in having access to a very smart audience is that you guys can help me wade through a difficult process. I don’t guarantee that I’ll vote the way you think I should, but I’m open to hearing the case not just for Lucroy, but for any player with a realistic argument for the NL MVP award this year. If you can talk me into buying into the published range of framing values, then Lucroy is going to be a very strong contender for the award, but at this point, I am unsure how much weight to give the framing estimates, and I am unsure of just how valuable Lucroy is relative to the other great candidates.

It’s a privilege to have a vote, but this isn’t going to be an easy one.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Aaron (UK)
9 years ago

At least Fredi Gonzalez is making your other decision easier, Dave.

Grumpy Ole Bass Turd
9 years ago
Reply to  Aaron (UK)

Seriously. No other manager in baseball would have come up with the idea of warming LHRP James Russell the other night as the go-to matchup guy against the other team’s best *righty*, based on his reverse split this season. Such outside-the-box thinking deserves to be recognized.