The Catcher Who Suddenly Stopped Catching

I’m going to let you in on a little writer secret. We don’t just write exclusively for traffic, but without traffic, there’s no FanGraphs. So we do want more clicks instead of fewer clicks, and when you’re composing a post about Chris Iannetta, it can be beneficial to disguise the subject. You might not be interested in reading about Iannetta, if you knew that’s what you’d be doing. But now you’re in, see. And you’re probably going to see this whole thing through, because the brain doesn’t want to acknowledge being teased. Now that I think about it, this isn’t a writer secret at all. This is just the Internet. Well anyway, there is something crazy here, so let’s get to that.

Jerry Dipoto didn’t set expectations too high for the Mariners, saying the goal was to build a team that could win 85 games or so. As part of that construction, Dipoto targeted bounceback candidates, and one of them was Chris Iannetta, who was coming off a down year at the plate. At the very least, Iannetta would improve upon the Mariners’ miserable catching baseline from 2015. But there was something even more promising in there: In 2015, Iannetta learned how to frame. He became one of the better catchers with regard to stealing or keeping strikes, and the story all made sense. It was easy to buy into Iannetta as a solid receiver. That, in turn, made it easy to buy into him as a solid regular catcher.

You know what they say about buying into things. Don’t ever bother buying anything. Iannetta’s bat hasn’t bounced back. But, far weirder, the receiving has completely deteriorated.

Let me give you some perspective here. I’m going to be using pitch-framing numbers from Baseball Prospectus. They have data stretching all the way back to 1988, although the PITCHf/x method, of course, goes back less than a decade. But I’ve put everything together. For every catcher-season since 1988, I calculated framing runs above average per 7,000 opportunities. I looked at the 1,048 cases of a catcher having at least 2,500 opportunities in consecutive seasons. Here are the five biggest year-to-year improvements in receiving value:

Top Five Pitch-Framing Gains
Catcher Y1 Y2 Y1 Runs/7000 Y2 Runs/7000 Change
Brian McCann 2007 2008 3.6 32.9 29.3
Chris Iannetta 2014 2015 -7.8 19.2 27.0
Paul Bako 2000 2001 -3.9 23.0 26.9
Paul Bako 2007 2008 -0.9 25.9 26.8
Ramon Hernandez 2007 2008 -21.1 4.1 25.1
SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus

There, in second, is 2015 Chris Iannetta. He improved by leaps and bounds, and he stands out here as the most-improved catcher within the reliable PITCHf/x era. With certain statistics, we expect there to be noise. And there is noise in any statistic imaginable. But this one felt real. Iannetta learned late in 2014 that he was catching wrong. So he changed his own training, and the results were fantastic. How do you not believe in that? It’s like a pitcher who suddenly learns a really good changeup. The changeup can change him completely.

So Iannetta scored well, and as a free agent he scored a regular opportunity with Seattle. The Mariners knew all about his framing, and better framing in general was a team priority in spring training. Here’s the same table as above, only flipped. That table shows the five biggest improvements. This one doesn’t.

Top Five Pitch-Framing Losses
Catcher Y1 Y2 Y1 Runs/7000 Y2 Runs/7000 Change
Chris Iannetta 2015 2016 19.2 -20.9 -40.1
Carlos Santana 2010 2011 -5.5 -37.5 -32.0
Brad Ausmus 2007 2008 32.8 2.3 -30.4
Jarrod Saltalamacchia 2013 2014 -4.8 -35.2 -30.4
Paul Bako 2001 2002 23.0 -7.1 -30.1
SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus
The 2016 season is incomplete.

Between last year and the year before, on a per-7000 basis, Iannetta improved by almost 30 runs. Between this year so far and last year, on a per-7000 basis, Iannetta has gotten worse by 40 runs, giving back his entire gain (and a half). On the whole entire list of year-to-year changes, Chris Iannetta is almost at the very top, and he is at the very bottom. This year still has two months to go, and I don’t know what Iannetta is going to do, but this won’t be erased. It can’t be erased. It’s far too dramatic.

Iannetta was a fairly lousy receiver. Then he improved and became one of the better receivers. Then, for some reason, he got all the way worse and became one of the worst receivers. If you just look at his recent track record, you might say this is just things balancing out:

  • 2011: -19 runs/7000
  • 2012: -18
  • 2013: -18
  • 2014: -8
  • 2015: +19
  • 2016: -21

Viewed in that way, 2015 is just a fluke. Something you don’t bother to take seriously. But it doesn’t feel like that should add up, given Iannetta’s adjusted techniques. Last year felt so promising that this year is bizarre, but it is what it is. I don’t know how you argue with the numbers, and Iannetta isn’t the first catcher to follow this sort of arc — there was the earlier case of Nick Hundley. Hundley’s numbers just weren’t quite so extreme. The Iannetta case is more weird.

And for whatever it’s worth, the Mariners are sniffing around the fringes of the playoff race. If you buy the framing numbers at all, Iannetta’s a few wins below where he’d be expected to be. That’s significant, and with the help of Baseball Savant, here’s where the missing called strikes have been (zones are numbered on the left):

chris-iannetta-called-strikes

Iannetta’s performed worse high and low. In the middle, he’s been fine — in the middle, just about everyone’s fine. But Iannetta has both saved fewer strikes and stolen fewer strikes. Some of this could be because of the pitchers, because all this stuff is complicated, but Baseball Prospectus tries to adjust for pitcher identity. The complicated numbers on BP agree with the more basic numbers on StatCorner. By the video, I haven’t yet seen how Iannetta has regressed. The numbers are more important than the video, and the numbers are damning.

There are a few reasons why the Mariners are lined up to give more playing time to Mike Zunino. For one thing, Zunino has earned it. For another, Iannetta probably hasn’t. The team could live with the bat if the glove were performing at a higher level, but Iannetta has only gotten worse. I’m not sure how to explain it, and I’m not sure the organization is even sure how to explain it, but the magnitude of the swing is absurd and convincing. That doesn’t happen without something being up.

At this point, I don’t know which is the question. Is the mystery about how Iannetta has been so bad in 2016, or is the mystery about how he was so good in 2015? Back in 2015, I thought we had it solved. Now I’m not nearly so sure, and though the reality of whatever is happening isn’t ultimately very important to me, it’s of great importance to Iannetta and to perhaps other teams with eyes on the framing numbers. They usually feel like they make excellent sense, but no stat is immune to the peculiar.

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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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dirtbag
Member
dirtbag

Maybe it’s not a mystery.

Maybe the answer is that there is a metric crapton of noise in the framing numbers. It’s also extremely suspicious that Paul Bako shows up twice in the top 5 gains list.

Bud Smith
Member
Member
Bud Smith

and then shows up in the top 5 losses too