Worthy of framing: Getting strikes an art form
Catcher's skill at persuasion with glove difficult to figure, but it makes a big difference
The count was 1-1, and Max Scherzer's slider dipped just below the bottom edge of Billy Butler's strike zone before landing in Alex Avila's glove.
Avila, though, slightly tipped his glove in such a way as to make the pitch appear higher than it was.
"Strike!" yelled home-plate umpire Paul Emmel.
Butler, clearly confounded by the call, stood there for a beat, giving Emmel a short, scrutinizing stare. There is a substantial difference in the outcomes of at-bats that reach a 1-2 count as opposed to a 2-1 count -- about 75 points worth of batting average -- and Butler, in his third at-bat of the game, was about to illustrate a typical outcome on a 1-2 count.
He grounded out to short.
That's what those watching saw. But Scherzer saw something else. That small but consequential strike, he would say later, was due directly to Avila.
"He got me that strike," Scherzer said. "That was a good job by Alex framing the pitch. That's important, and we pitchers know it. The more data we get about it, we're seeing how much better certain catchers are at it."
Pitch-framing has become an increasingly popular concept in the statistical community, even as some tangle with that specific terminology.
Let's let Avila provide a decent definition:
"I wouldn't call it framing," he said. "I'd call it presenting. You want to catch the ball cleanly, and you don't want to make it look like you're redirecting the ball. There are a lot of catchers now that will catch it and literally move their glove six, seven, eight inches. That's obvious, and in my opinion you're showing up the umpire. The whole thing is with borderline pitches. You want to catch them cleanly to where you're not making it look like it's a difficult pitch."
In the past decade, the availability of PITCHF/x data in every Major League park has provided a better idea of which catchers are mechanically sound enough in receiving pitches to get calls in their favor, as the attached chart demonstrates.
Extra StrikesCatchers received the most "extra strikes" in 2013 cccording to Baseball Prospectus,
And so when, say, the Rays trade for Ryan Hanigan to share their catching duties, we have a better statistical understanding of the reason for the acquisition and how Hanigan's and Molina's pitch-framing skills help offset their challenged offense. Baseball Prospectus did a study of the 2008-13 seasons and found that Molina ranked first and Hanigan eighth among all catchers in something called the "Regressed Probabilistic Model" of framing -- or, in layman's terms, the ability to get strike calls and, ergo, save runs.
By that measure, the Rays' duo looks to be a framing force to be reckoned with.
But how much value do these pitch-framing numbers truly provide? How much meaning should be attached to the metrics?
People within the game are asking those questions. Pitch-framing isn't a new concept, but the attention it's been receiving is definitely a recent development. And while the statistical data is helpful in differentiating the good framers from the not-so-good, it is but one element of defensive evaluation, alongside blocking pitches, game-calling and arm strength and accuracy, it's subject to personal judgment and human error.
"Like a lot of statistics, it's subjective," said Don Wakamatsu, the Royals' bench coach and catching coordinator. "I'll give you an example: If you have a young catcher, like Yan Gomes, and you have Jose Molina in the same game, who is the umpire going to listen to more? Jose is really good at manipulation. He has that credibility. So if he turns around and says, 'I think that was a pretty good pitch,' he's going to get that next one. That's the dialogue that goes on, and a lot of it comes down to persuasion."
Gomes, the Indians catcher who has started just 96 games behind the plate in the Major Leagues, agreed.
"I'm still learning who I can talk to like that," he said. "I'm not trying to step on anybody's toes there or anything. I'm just trying to get as comfortable as you should be and build something that's going to last my whole career."
Like many catchers, Gomes takes a great deal of pride in the preparation he puts into his receiving duties. Before games, he'll squat in front of a pitching machine that will shoot breaking balls and sinkers in a variety of directions as a means of getting mentally prepared for the real thing.
Ultimately, though, Gomes is at the mercy of his pitcher.
"Umpires scout pitchers who are outside the zone a lot," said Indians coach Sandy Alomar Jr., who works closely with Gomes. "It's very difficult for an umpire to call balls and strikes when a guy is not consistent with his command. That's why Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine got a lot of called strikes. They were consistent with their command."
The most that can be asked of a catcher, then, is to be soft enough with his hands so that he doesn't look as though he's making a great deal of movement to receive the pitch and to be positioned in such a way as to give the ump a clean look.
"A lot of umpires go by how much you move," said Padres catcher Yasmani Grandal. "It always goes back to the vision. If they can't see it, they're going to think it's a ball. Give them nice vision, and they're going to give you the strike. I talk to a lot of umpires and ex-catchers and ex-pitchers, and that's the No. 1 thing they want to see from a catcher -- a nice, big target and stay still."
There is little doubt that proper pitch-framing -- or "presenting," as Avila would insist -- can impact outcomes, as the aforementioned Butler at-bat demonstrated. And there is equally little doubt that some advanced mathematical minds are doing great work in compiling data illustrating that impact.
But to those in the game, the practice is still viewed as an art that's difficult to tabulate.
"As a catcher," said Avila, "there are a lot of things you want to do behind the plate that go unnoticed. When they go unnoticed, that means you're doing your job."