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Quality Frames: The Data Behind Willson Contreras’ New Approach Behind the Plate

 

Much has been made about how the Chicago Cubs catcher is framing pitches this season. But how much of a difference has his adjustment actually made? We analyze what the data says about the All-Star’s new receiving skills and reveal who the top pitch framers have been so far. 

By: Taylor Bechtold

Willson Contreras has started behind the plate in the past two All-Star Games for the NL despite the fact that he’s been one of the worst pitch framers in the Major Leagues.

That’s hardly an exaggeration. The Chicago Cubs catcher ranked 109th out of 113 big-league backstops with minus-11.4 Framing Runs in 2019. We equate that as Contreras actually costing the Cubs 11.4 runs over the course of the season because of his poor pitch framing.

Because of other skills that have made Contreras an All-Star, the Cubs are willing to live with his shortcomings as a receiver. He plays a key role in helping the pitching staff hold runners on base – especially veteran left-hander Jon Lester, who rarely attempts pickoffs. Contreras is constantly looking to catch baserunners napping. That’s clearly one of his strengths; Contreras tops MLB with 18 pickoffs since the start of the 2016 season, 50% more than the runner-up, Yan Gomes (12).

Willson Contreras

Additionally, Contreras has hit .277 with 26 home runs and 70 RBIs in 117 games since the start of 2019 and among catchers with at least 200 at-bats only Mitch Garver of the Minnesota Twins (.962) has a higher OPS than his .895 over that span.

But with former catcher David Ross taking over as Chicago’s new manager and the hiring of Craig Driver as catching coach, there’s been an obvious change in Contreras’ approach behind the plate this season. Both Ross and Driver have explained that when receiving low pitches, Contreras made a major adjustment by starting with his glove low and moving the ball back toward the strike zone.

“(Contreras) is consistently taking his glove from the target to the ground, and then allows himself to work up to the ball,” Driver told The Athletic. “The big reason for that is every pitch but fastballs — and some fastballs for that matter — move down. So the catcher’s ability to work up through the ball as they catch it has a huge impact on their ability to get pitches at the bottom of the strike zone.

“And in general, the guys that control the bottom of the zone are the ones that have more success as pitch framers. The ones that can’t control the bottom of the zone have less success and that all stems from working below the ball.”

In the first video below, Conteras’ technique from 2019 is shown. Here, Lester doesn’t get the call on a pitch that appears to be in the strike zone.

In the next video, Contreras’ new receiving approach is evident as he starts with his glove low and lifts the pitch back up into the strike zone for Kyle Hendricks.

The rationale behind Contreras’ new receiving strategy makes sense, and it certainly appears as though he’s a much-improved pitch framer. He’s been behind the plate in nine of the team’s 13 games during a 10-3 start and Cubs starters rank fourth in MLB with a 2.83 ERA. Over the first 10 games, the rotation held opponents to a .156 batting average – the lowest allowed by any team’s starters through that many games in the live-ball era (since 1920).

It might not be a stretch then to suggest that the Cleveland Indians’ three catchers in the top 10 in Framing Runs have had something to do with their starters leading the majors with a 2.24 ERA. Or that the Cincinnati Reds’ two catchers high up the rankings have had something to do with their rotation sitting second with a 2.58 ERA.

But how can we really measure Contreras’ improvement and how much of an impact he’s had on the rotation’s early success?

Well, consider that through the first two weeks of the season, Contreras has moved all the way up to 30th with an above-average 0.3 Framing Runs after his 109th-place finish a year ago. This makes a critical difference not only when it comes to coaxing a called-third strike – entering the weekend Chicago starters were fourth in the majors with 23 strikeouts looking – but also in impacting the fate of an at-bat.

In 2019, MLB hitters had a .165 batting average after falling behind 0-2 but batted .231 when the count instead went to 1-1. Likewise, they hit .174 after getting into a 1-2 hole but .246 after the count instead went to 2-1.

“The sexy ones are the called strike threes,” San Diego Padres catcher Austin Hedges, who easily led the majors in Framing Runs last season, told MLB.com. “But it’s more about switching counts. It’s that 0-0 pitch or that 1-1 pitch. … The more often we can flip a count to 0-1 or 1-2, it directly results in outs.”

Here are the catchers who have been best at this so far this season:

RankCatcherTeamFraming ChancesFraming Runs
1Curt CasaliReds6634.4
2Omar NarvaezBrewers7143.7
3Austin BarnesDodgers5303.4
4Sandy LeonIndians6412.7
5Travis d'ArnaudBraves5661.7
6Tucker BarnhartReds6561.7
7Roberto PerezIndians2341.3
8Beau TaylorIndians3691.2
9Tyler HeinemanGiants7011.2
10Austin AllenA's4091.1

Hedges, who racked up 31.5 Framing Runs last season (Tyler Flowers of the Atlanta Braves was second with 13.8), is just outside the top 10 so far with 1.1. The San Francisco Giants’ Buster Posey, the 2012 NL MVP and a 2016 Gold Glove Award winner, finished fourth in Framing Runs in 2019 but opted not to play this season. Rookie Tyler Heineman has done a decent job filling in behind the dish, ranking ninth with 1.2 Framing Runs.

Yasmani Grandal was surprisingly absent from the leaders last week but soared from 33rd with just 0.1 Framing Runs on Friday to 16th with 0.7 entering the week after two starts against the Indians. Grandal ranked third with 12.1 Framing Runs last season and is widely considered one of the game’s top framing catchers.

The Chicago White Sox even made mention of Grandal’s pitch framing in the press release that announced his signing of a franchise-record four-year, $73 million contract in November. It’s possible he’s only just starting to get accustomed to his new pitching staff.

 

Data modeling and analysis provided by Lucas Haupt

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