The Other Mysterious Framing Declines

On Monday, while investigating Jonathan Lucroy’s mysterious framing decline, I noted that Buster Posey and Yadier Molina have also had noticeable falls from the framing elite this season.

Posey ranked as the game’s best framing catcher last season (26.5 framing runs), according to Baseball Prospectus , and has fallen to 28th thus far this season, with just 0.5 framing runs to his credit. Molina has fallen from ninth last season (9.0 framing runs) to 38th (with a mark of -0.5).

Some FanGraphs readers were curious if the declines were similar in nature, so I thought — both to serve and please — I would explore in greater detail.

As noted by Jeff Sullivan and others, framing declines like Lucroy’s are curious, since this a skill that generally is thought to age well. But Sullivan also argued, convincingly, back in December that framing was doomed from the start.

Wrote Jeff:

It doesn’t make too much sense that the best-receiving catchers would be getting worse. The other explanation would have to be that the average catcher is just improving.

So the value of framing was perhaps always in jeopardy. Still, the decline of these elite framers is striking — as is the variety of ways in which that decline is occurring.

Lucroy, who previously earned strikes on an above-average number of 50-50 calls at the lower part of the zone, now earns strikes at a lower-than-average rate in that area. Lucroy also appears not to be sitting as low in his crouch in recent years. Indeed, Ben Lindbergh found, via COMMANDf/x data, that Lucroy’s average glove height is higher.

But Molina and Posey are still getting calls in the lower part of the zone. They’re decline has taken other forms.

Consider Posey’s work in the lower part of the zone over the last three seasons…

Buster Posey’s Framing in Borderline Area of Lower Zone
Season Called Strikes Balls Strike %
2015 340 519 39.6
2016 440 642 40.6
2017 222 284 43.8
SOURCE: Statcast data via Baseball Savant

Those numbers actually appear to be increasing. Molina, for his part, has greatly improved this season, as well…

Yadier Molina’s Framing in Borderline Area of Lower Zone
Season Called Strikes Balls Strike %
2015 364 689 34.5
2016 460 845 35.2
2017 388 340 53.3
SOURCE: Statcast data via Baseball Savant

But then consider their work at the north, east, and west sections of the borderline areas around the strike zone.

Posey and Molina have both been far less successful in earning borderline strikes up in the zone this season….

Buster Posey’s Framing in Borderline Area of Upper Zone
Season Called Strikes Balls Strike %
2015 121 196 38.2
2016 151 351 30.1
2017 65 196 24.9
SOURCE: Statcast data via Baseball Savant

Yadier Molina’s Framing in Borderline Area of Upper Zone
Season Called Strikes Balls Strike %
2015 166 414 28.6
2016 246 527 31.8
2017 77 290 20.9
SOURCE: Statcast data via Baseball Savant

And they’ve also seen their framing rates erode at the edges of the zone, though they still catch more pitches there called as strikes compare to balls.

Buster Posey’s Framing in East-West Borderline Area of Strike Zone
Season Called Strikes Balls Strike %
2015 843 400 67.8
2016 1009 504 66.7
2017 455 278 62.7
SOURCE: Statcast data via Baseball Savant

Yadier Molina’s Framing in East-West Borderline Area of Strike Zone
Season Called Strikes Balls Strike %
2015 843 400 67.8
2016 1009 504 66.7
2017 455 278 62.7
SOURCE: Statcast data via Baseball Savant

To present this information in a more friendly, digestible manner, consider some heat maps of their total frequency of receiving borderline pitches called as strikes.

Consider Posey’s frequency of strikes received in the borderline areas, according to Baseball Savant’s “detailed” zone, in 2016, when he was the game’s No. 1 framing catcher:

The following heat map is from the current season, and it’s evident that Posey has been less proficient to the north and east and west of the zone.

The visuals are similar for Molina, whose framing has gradually deteriorated north, east, and west:

First, here’s 2015:

And 2016:

And then 2017:

What’s interesting is that, halfway through 2017, there has been a five-percentage-point drop, league-wide, in called strike percentage in the borderline area at the top of the zone. The top of the zone is also a rarer place to get a called strike than in 2015.

In researching pitch-location data of that area at Baseball Savant, I found in 2015 there were 5,824 called strikes at the borderline area at the top of the zone compared to 17,626 balls (24.8% called-strike percentage). Last season, there were 6,666 called strikes league wide and 18,664 balls (26.3%) there. This season — through Wednesday — there have been 2,888 and 10,616 balls (21.3%).

And as for east and west border regions via Baseball Savant’s detailed zones, consider:

2015: 33,369 strikes, 16,016 balls (67.6% called strikes)
2016: 35,040 strikes, 17,632 balls (66.5%)
2017: 17,781 strikes, 9,023 balls (66.3%)

Interestingly, the zone is tightening up east, west, and north at a time when the commissioner has talked about raising the lower part of the zone, which has grown this season.

In the lower part of the region, the quantity of pitches received as called strikes has jumped dramatically to 44.3% (12,024 called strikes, 15128 balls) this season, according to Savant data. Consider that rate compared to the 35.0% mark in 2016 (17,291 called strikes, 32,002 balls) and in 2015, when the rate was 36.5% (17,105 called strikes, 29,745 balls). That seems to be a stunning change at the bottom of the zone, especially after the zone shrunk for the first time in the PITCHf/x era last season.

In analyzing Lucroy’s stance and glove height, in knowing his injury history, it seems plausible there are physical explanations behind his decline. And if Lucroy is losing skill in the lower part of the zone, when the zone is expanding there — when catchers as a whole are better framers — than perhaps that explains some of the dramatic change.

It’s possible Posey and Molina have lost athleticism, lost the requisite strength to stick certain pitches. But there isn’t an obvious difference to this author.

Posey getting some high strikes in 2015:

Posey not getting a high strike in 2017:

Here’s Molina getting a called strike in 2015:

And Molina failing to get a pitch caught in a similar location in 2017:

This is a small sample, of course. Perhaps there are subtle physical differences — differences that might be revealed by deeper dive into the video — but Molina and Posey don’t appear to have dramatically changed their setups, even if Lucroy has.

Baseball Prospectus’ framing model accounts for the quality of pitching a catcher receives, so Madison Bumgarner’s absence shouldn’t be explaining Posey’s decline. Perhaps part of it could be attributed to an evolving zone, perhaps their reputations have caught up to them (in regard to umpire bias), perhaps they are losing physical skills, perhaps their decline is also about the rise of catchers’ framing efficiency as a group. Perhaps there’s too much going on to explain these declines — declines which, while not as dramatic as Lucroy’s, might be more mysterious.





A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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marchandman34member
5 years ago

Great stuff as always travis. Any thoughts on reviewing brian mccann and Russell martin too. These 2 and molina are hof level depending on defensive evaluation, interested in what you have to say.