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Honor Among Thieves: A Data-Driven Look at MLB’s Top Pitch Framers and Defensive Stars

 

In the final installment of a series on our advanced baseball metrics, we examine what Framing Runs and Clean Fielding Percentage tell us about the hidden greatness of Austin Hedges and Tyler Flowers, why Willson Contreras isn’t the best pitch-framer and the game’s “cleanest” fielders.  

By: Taylor Bechtold

Things turned ugly one summer day at Wrigley Field in 2019 when Chicago Cubs slugger Willson Contreras took exception to a strike call fellow catcher Tyler Flowers coaxed for the Atlanta Braves.

Contreras voiced his displeasure with the umpire, Flowers chimed in and things got heated after the next pitch when Contreras homered and continued to yell at Flowers while running around the bases. The benches and bullpens cleared before cooler heads eventually prevailed.

It all started with a called strike on a pitch that was indeed shown to be low and out of the zone. Contreras, though, isn’t the only one that has been frustrated by Flowers’ ability to take an errant pitch and make it appear to be a strike.

The veteran backstop has been considered one of the game’s top pitch framers over the past couple years. And the Braves showed how much they value that skill by bringing Flowers back on a one-year deal and signing Travis d’Arnaud in the offseason.

That gives them two catchers who ranked in the top 10 in Stats Perform’s Framing Runs in 2019:

RankCatcherTeamFraming Runs
1Austin HedgesPadres31.5
2Tyler FlowersBraves13.8
3Yasmani GrandalBrewers12.1
4Buster PoseyGiants11.4
5Mike ZuninoRays11.0
6Russell MartinDodgers10.6
7Max StassiAstros/Angels10.3
8Christian VazquezRed Sox10.1
9Travis d'ArnaudMets/Dodgers/Rays10.0
10Austin BarnesDodgers9.4

Basically, Stats Perform’s command data pushes the called strike probability up or down. If the pitcher hits his spot, the called strike probability will be higher and the framing value lower.

Flowers has admitted to working on his framing technique by watching video, lowering his body position to help combat the effect his 6-foot-4 frame and adding several different setups to choose from depending on pitch type, location and the umpire’s strike zone that day.

A good example of his work can be found in the following video of the previously referenced pitch, which only had a 19% probability of being called a strike.

Framing metrics have become increasingly mainstream since PITCHf/x tracking began in all big-league ballparks as a way to evaluate and grade umpires in 2008. Some believe the art of framing should be considered cheating – a way of tricking the umpire.

San Diego’s Austin Hedges, who leads the majors in Framing Runs, begs to differ as he’s told MLB.com he’s not “stealing strikes” as much as his pitchers are hitting their spots and he’s doing his best to make sure the umpire notices the quality of the pitches. These days, pitch framing is almost always referenced in terms of a catcher’s value in free agency.

While the analytics have shown that umpire accuracy has improved since the PITCHf/x technology has been introduced, a Boston University study showed that umpires made incorrect calls at least 20% of the time between 2008-18. When batters had two strikes, the error rate increased to 29%. The data also revealed that 55 games were ended when umpires made incorrect calls in 2018.

Because of the rampant inaccuracy behind the plate, there is growing support for “robot umpires.” And MLB is already testing a computerized system as part of a three-year agreement with the independent Atlantic League. Until the big leagues implement the technology, there figures to be tremendous value in having a catcher that excels in pitch framing. Especially when one considers how much a batter’s average changes dramatically depending on the count. (see chart)

“The sexy ones are the called strike threes,” Hedges said. “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.”

Though he only hit .176 with 11 home runs and .563 OPS in 2019, Hedges played 102 games in part because of his MLB-best Framing Runs. If Hedges, who has a career .201 average over five seasons but totaled 32 home runs in 2017-18, can turn things around offensively, he’ll no doubt become one of the top catchers in baseball.

“He’s the best defensive catcher in the game,” Padres closer Kirby Yates told MLB.com. “There’s nothing he doesn’t do extremely well, from blocking to calling games to receiving to throwing.”

Below is an example of Hedges working his magic on a curveball off the plate. This one only had a six percent probability of being called a strike, yet Hedges gets the punch out on stunned Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez.

If Hedges had set up way outside, the pitch would have had a much higher called strike probability. The probability was lowered because he had to reach across the plate, but Hedges managed to make it look good anyway.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising to Cubs fans, but there is an All-Star near the bottom of our rankings. Contreras was 109th out of 113 big-league catchers with framing chances at a remarkably low -11.4 Framing Runs in 2019.

Contreras, however, acts as an extension of Cubs pitchers holding runners on base. This is especially the case when Jon Lester, who rarely makes pickoff attempts, is on the mound. Contreras is extremely jumpy behind the plate, constantly looking to catch baserunners napping, and he leads the majors by a wide margin with 18 pickoffs since the start of the 2016 season.

Couple that with Contreras’ .272 average, 24 home runs and 64 RBIs in 2019, and the Cubs will certainly live with the NL All-Star starter’s shortcomings when it comes to pitch framing.

CLEAN FIELDING PERCENTAGE

Like many mainstream statistics, fielding percentage doesn’t tell the whole story when it comes to measuring defensive performance. More specifically, it does not account for the other plays that fielders aren’t making.

Stats Perform’s Clean Fielding Percentage (CF%) helps us get a handle on this as it breaks down not only plays in which the team is charged for an error but also aspects of that play and others that aren’t ‘clean’ even though it may not be officially ruled as an error.

So CF% would degrade, for example, an outfielder that takes a poor approach to a carom, and turns a double or triple into an inside-the-park home run. It would also mark down fielders for having poor reads off the bat and failing to get to balls or finish off plays.

Here are the players who finished atop their respective position in CF% in 2019: (To standardize across positions, we only observed catchers with at least 700 chances and first basemen with 500. For all other positions, we looked at players with 200.)

PositionTop PlayerTeamCF%
CYadier MolinaCardinals99.6
1BPaul GoldschmidtCardinals98.8
2BDJ LeMahieuYankees96.0
SSJose IglesiasReds94.3
3BMike MoustakasBrewers93.7
LFMichael BrantleyAstros96.7
CFGeorge SpringerAstros99.1
RFMitch HanigerMariners98.5

As their CF% ratings indicate, the defending NL Central-division champion St. Louis Cardinals have one of the best defensive infields in the majors. And though his Framing Runs total was below average, Yadier Molina – a nine-time Gold Glove winner – more than made up for it with his top-ranked CF%.

Likewise, the Houston Astros showed in part why they finished atop the AL West with five players in the top 10 in CF% at their respective spots, including positional leaders Michael Brantley and George Springer.

Advanced analytics and data analysis provided by Stats Perform’s Lucas Haupt