Pitch-Framing and a Peek Inside the Industry

Pitch-framing research isn’t really new anymore. I mean, in the grander scheme of things, it’s only been a blink of an eye since the work first debuted, but we’re beyond the discovery stage. We’re at the point where the work is going into refinement, and earlier this week Baseball Prospectus published the latest update. The research was good, and the effort was extraordinary, but ultimately the piece offered a lot of confirmation. The guys we suspected were good are still good. The guys we suspected were bad are still bad. With framing, researchers are almost all the way there.

So, we know about framing, and we know about the numbers. We’re also on the outside, looking in. Whenever this comes up, there’s always the question: so, how is framing actually valued right now within the industry? For example, Jose Molina might be the face of the whole field of study. By the end of 2015, he will have played four years with the Rays for a total of less than eight million dollars. The framing numbers would suggest he’d be worth that much in a month or three. Teams just must not believe in it, right? Or they’re at least being super-cautious.

This is the reason I’m bringing this up:

The replies are similar and predictable. Must be the Brewers’ GM. Where’s Buster Posey? How could Jonathan Lucroy possibly be more valuable than Buster Posey? Somebody must be stupid, or drunk, or both. There can be a lot of overlap between stupid and drunk.

Let’s make some assumptions. First, let’s assume Heyman is conveying an accurate message. Second, let’s assume the team was just talking about catcher rankings, and not catcher value rankings, so as to leave contracts out of this. The wording is “one of top two catchers”. Seems matter-of-fact. According to the GM of the team, it’s Molina and Lucroy, and then it’s presumably Posey and Brian McCann and the rest of the backstops. It’s a pretty bold evaluation and statement, even when made anonymously.

And here’s the simplicity of it: pretty much the only way to justify ranking Lucroy ahead of Posey is by putting a lot of weight on pitch-framing statistics. You can be really high on Lucroy’s overall skillset. You can see Posey as more of a future first baseman. Doesn’t matter. There’s still a pretty big gap, unless you factor in the framing. So somebody out there must factor in the framing.

For all I know, this could be Andrew Friedman and the Rays. The Rays, obviously, like Jose Molina, and they landed Ryan Hanigan, who they coveted for years. The Rays need to be aware of potentially undervalued skills, so it makes sense why they’ve jumped onto the pitch-framing bandwagon. If Heyman was talking to Friedman, then we don’t really learn anything. We already knew the Rays were on board. But there are 29 other general managers and 29 other teams, so it could be that framing is becoming more accepted as a skill with significant value. The industry might be starting to see this as legitimate.

The last three years, Yadier Molina has posted the highest catcher WAR. Posey’s in second, Lucroy’s in tenth, and McCann’s in 11th. Narrow the gap to the last two years. Posey’s a little ahead of Molina, with an edge in playing time. He’s about five WAR in front of Lucroy, over almost 300 more plate appearances. Posey’s been a tremendous hitter who’s been durable, who’s been good at blocking, and who’s been good at throwing. Buster Posey is a definite superstar, and that’s why it takes some balls to prefer Lucroy. Or should I say, extra strikes. (framing joke) (moving right along)

It’s clear that Lucroy has to make up a gap. It’s clear that there’s an argument. Here’s a pitch-framing leaderboard, generated by Matthew Carruth. His results agree strongly with the latest Baseball Prospectus results. Now, according to Carruth, Posey’s a pretty good receiver, all things considered. It’s not like this is a weakness of his. But Lucroy is phenomenal, and he’s been phenomenal for long enough that this doesn’t seem like it’s a fluke or a blip.

Over the last three years, Lucroy has gotten 242 more extra strikes than McCann, 345 more extra strikes than Molina, and 442 more extra strikes than Posey. Over the last two years, he’s gotten 137 more extra strikes than Molina, 160 more extra strikes than Posey, and 170 more extra strikes than McCann. Compared to Posey, just on receiving, Lucroy has been worth something like 60-70 more runs over three years, and 20-30 more runs over two years. Put Lucroy and Posey over the same playing-time denominator and the WAR gap disappears once framing is included. Even though Posey’s better than average, Lucroy is so outstanding that he erases the rest of the difference between himself and a perennial MVP candidate.

If you give the catcher all of the credit, that is. If you believe 100% in the calculated value of pitch-framing, you can make a very reasonable argument that Jonathan Lucroy is indeed a slightly better catcher than Buster Posey. And Yadier Molina, of course, is amazing, and he probably gets some bonus points for his coaching and leadership. Should catchers get all of the framing credit? That’s up for debate, and I don’t know if that’s settled, but it sure seems like the catchers are playing a big part. And note: at least one team out there is a major believer in Lucroy. You have to believe he’s worth as much as the framing numbers say in order to put him in the upper pair.

Catching pitches is how Jonathan Lucroy might be a better catcher overall than Buster Posey. It’s a controversial opinion, but knowing that at least one team believes it gives the opinion some legitimacy. And there are numbers to back the opinion up. Pitch-framing is a skill that’s highly valued by at least the Tampa Bay Rays. Probably, it isn’t just them. Probably, the industry will grow more and more confident.

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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10 years ago

I will contend until the day I die (or stop caring about baseball) that the majority of balls called strikes and strikes called balls are the result of umpires giving the benefit of the doubt (and vice versa) to pitchers who normally throw strikes and have conventional movement on their pitches. The sample size of pitchers who throw to a certain catcher is very small, and stays consistent year after year. Have a great than average number of command and control pitchers on your staff, and presto, your catcher is a great “framer.” Have a bunch of “throw it and hope” pitchers, and your catcher stinks at it.

10 years ago
Reply to  BaseballGuy

Stop caring about baseball then…..or die.

10 years ago
Reply to  BaseballGuy

“Have a great than average number of command and control pitchers on your staff, and presto, your catcher is a great “framer.” Have a bunch of “throw it and hope” pitchers, and your catcher stinks at it.”

You mean like the Brewers? A team with Maddoxesque pitchers getting starts like Donvoan Hand, Hiram Burgos, Alfredo Figaro, Yovanni Gallardo, Wily Peralta, Mike Fiers, Randy Wolf, Chris Narveson and Mark Rogers. You know, a bunch of guys who get the benefit of the doubt from umpires routinely because they have always been good command pitchers for years at the major league level.

gabriel syme
10 years ago
Reply to  BaseballGuy

My understanding of the BP work on framing is that it has controlled for pitcher effects. It certainly is the case that some pitchers get more calls than others, factoring out their catchers. But for catchers, who catch a variety of pitchers, the numbers largely even out. And then BP does an adjustment anyway (it just isn’t very large).

The fact that lots of catchers have maintained a fairly consistent level of framing skill while switching teams argues in favour of it being a real skill as well.

10 years ago
Reply to  BaseballGuy

You need to read the Baseball Prospectus article. The researchers used “pitcher factors” (like “park factors”) to adjust the catcher ratings.

10 years ago
Reply to  BaseballGuy

Do you realize that the Brewers pitching staff, aside from Kyle Lohse, is not exactly made up of great command pitchers? Yovani Gallardo and Wily Peralta constantly pitch from behind in counts. Lohse is great, Estrada is decent, and the 5th starter was a hodgepodge of guys throughout the season.

So Lucroy, who consistently grades out, as one of the best in the league at pitch framing works with, , average command pitchers as a whole and with several really poor command pitchers. Kind of undermines your alternative explanation.

10 years ago
Reply to  BaseballGuy

you uh, you may be on the wrong website