Framing pitches: New study cites value


The appreciation of framing pitches isn't a new concept -- scouts and managers have acknowledged the ability of good defensive catchers since the days they used chunks of raw meat for extra padding and we've all heard Tim McCarver discuss the topic for years -- but what is relatively new is the attempt to measure that value.

Harry Pavlidis and Dan Brooks of Baseball Prospectus came out earlier this week with an impressive new study on the topic in a piece titled "Framing and Blocking Pitches: A Regressed, Probabilistic Model." The data requirements for the study were extensive and the math complex but their results indicate that the value of a good receiving catcher matches what other studies have produced. Which is a quite a lot. They write:

Our data suggest that over the past five years, the teams that have employed good framers like Jonathan Lucroy, Brian McCann, and Jose Molina have received essentially "free" MVP-caliber seasons from framing alone. (Each of those catchers has been worth about two extra wins per season over that span). This is a staggering amount of value. Add in the fact that these wins are almost assuredly not properly priced into the free agent market, and the difference between having a good framing catcher or a bad framing catcher can make or break a cost-conscious team.

You can read the article for the in-depth explanation of the study. Harry and Dan write, "Rather than identifying a single strike zone and giving binary credit for each pitch relative to that strike zone's borders (i.e., strike or no strike), our model gives partial credit for each pitch based on that pitch's likelihood of being called a ball or a strike. To determine that, we created a probability map of likely calls."

This includes categorizing different pitches into separate groups (fastballs, curveballs, sliders, etc.) but also specific pitches within each group -- for example, two-seam fastballs, four-seam fastballs and sinkers would be part of the fastball group. The run value of the count is also considered. Framing a 3-2 take is more valuable than framing a 0-0 take. The pitcher is also considered. As the authors write,

Because catching necessarily involves pitching, and because pitching talent is not equally distributed across the league, it can be difficult to correctly assign credit for each catcher's contribution to a framing total. For example, if Mariano Rivera, Brian Wilson, or Derek Lowe is your batterymate, you are likely to get more favorable calls than if your batterymate is Andrew Miller, Brandon League, or Micah Owings.

So they adjusted for all that, or at least the best they could.

They studied 2008 to 2013. The top five catchers in overall framing runs earned were Brian McCann (+127), Jose Molina (+116), Jonathan Lucroy (+94), Russell Martin (+91) and Ryan Hanigan (+74). Yadier Molina ranked seventh. No surprises there, as those guys have ranked high in previous studies and all carry reputations as outstanding defensive catchers (Lucroy is maybe the one guy who doesn't get a lot of credit for his glove outside of sabermetric circles). The bottom five: Ryan Doumit (-124), Gerald Laird (-83), Chris Iannetta (-75), John Buck (-55) and Nick Hundley (-55).

The article also lists some of the pitchers who have received the "worst" support from pitch framing. Justin Masterson (-40 runs) and Felix Hernandez (-30) have been hurt the most here. Masterson, of course, has thrown a lot of innings to Carlos Santana, who isn't regarded as a positive behind the plate, while Hernandez has thrown to a variety of poor pitch framers (five the 10 lowest-rated catchers on a rate basis played for the Mariners in this period).

The big question: Do the results pass the sniff test? Is it possible the best pitch framers are worth 20 runs (about two wins) a season? That's about one run a week. It seems like a lot of value, especially when the best players (Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Miguel Cabrera) are worth 7 to 10 wins above replacement level. Is Ryan Hanigan's ability to frame pitches worth one-fifth of Mike Trout's overall value? I think it's reasonable when you consider that catchers are involved in every pitch.

The value of framing explains why a smart team the Rays signed Jose Molina a couple years ago and traded for Hanigan this offseason. For teams that don't value pitch framing, look at the Mariners, who traded for non-catcher Jesus Montero a couple years ago and signed Buck this winter. With Montero flopping on defense, the Mariners were forced last season to rush Mike Zunino to the big leagues.

But maybe there's good news there: Zunino, in his short time in the majors, has rated very well at framing pitches.