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Stealing Strikes? A Look at Which Catchers are Baseball’s Best Pitch Framers

 

In this installment of a series on advanced baseball metrics, we examine what framing runs tell us about the hidden greatness of Austin Barnes and Tyler Flowers and Willson Contreras’ dramatic improvement behind the plate.   

By: Analyst Staff

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 of years. After finishing second in framing runs in 2019, Flowers ended up better than the league average again during the shortened 2020 campaign with 0.6 framing runs over just 22 games.

So how are framing runs measured? Well, command data pushes the called strike probability of a pitch up or down. If the pitcher hits his spot, the called strike probability will be higher and the framing value lower. The expected strike percentage is then used to produce an expected run percentage and that is subtracted from the value of what actually occurred.

However, no one was better at helping his pitching staff with good framing last season than Austin Barnes. He led the majors with 12.2 framing runs a year after finishing 10th. We equate that as Barnes saved the Dodgers 12.2 runs over the course of 2020.

Here is the final framing runs leaderboard from last season:

RankCatcherTeamFraming Runs
1Austin BarnesDodgers12.2
2Sean MurphyA's7.8
3Omar NarvaezBrewers7.7
4Austin NolaMariners/Padres6.0
5Yasmani GrandalWhite Sox5.9
6Jacob NottinghamBrewers5.3
7Joey BartGiants5.2
8Carson KellyD-backs4.4
9Chad WallachMarlins3.8
10Curt CasaliReds3.6

Yasmani Grandal has also been a regular in the top 10, finishing third in 2019 and fifth a year ago. It should be noted that San Francisco Giants’ Buster Posey, a 2016 Gold Glove Award winner, finished fourth in framing runs in 2019 before opting not to play last year.

Flowers has admitted to working on his framing technique by watching video, lowering his body position to help combat the effect of 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.

Austin Hedges, who led the majors in framing runs in 2019, begs to differ as he’s told MLB.com he’s not “stealing extra 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 when he becomes a free agent.

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%.

Because of the rampant inaccuracy behind the plate, there is growing support for “robot umpires.” And MLB is 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 hitter’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.”

After being victimized by Flowers and ranking 109th out of 113 big-league backstops with minus-11.4 framing runs in 2019, Contreras worked hard to improve the skill last offseason. With former catcher David Ross taking over as Chicago’s new manager and the hiring of Craig Driver as catching coach, there was a glaring change to Contreras’ approach in 2020.

Both Ross and Driver 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, Jon 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.

Last year, Contreras moved all the way up to 73rd with minus-1.1 framing runs – still below the league average but a major improvement from his 109th-place finish in 2019.

In other words, Contreras only cost the Cubs 1.1 runs over the course of the admittedly shortened 2020 season after costing them 11.4 in 2019 because of his poor pitch framing.

 

Data analysis provided by Lucas Haupt.