Photo credit: Brad Barr-US PRESSWIRE
I’ve had enough.
Notified by Tom Tango via Twitter, I accessed "Overthinking It" by BP’s Ben Lindbergh, posted 11/13, and I’m, of course, chagrined that the new AL pitching staff K record is now 8.5/ 9 innings. That's 1.3 SO/ 9 greater than the Indians’ pre-steroid AL staff record of 1967, achieved by a staff I’ve called the AL’s "top strikeout staff of all time."
But I’m perhaps more upset that the same post promotes a practice that clearly equates with cheating to increase K’s. I’ve previously commented regarding catchers’ receiving techniques, particularly as they pertain to catching balls so as to make the pitch "look" as much like a strike as possible, whether it’s a strike or not. In most circles, that’s known as "framing". Yet the term has different meanings to different individuals.
Do any other events cause me to take up keyboard now to blog on the topic? Today’s post on BTB "Some Factors That Might Affect Pitch Framing" certainly suggested someone really does care about framing technique and results! One distant, single, egregious occurrence stands out in my mind as framing the discussion here. Witnessed several seasons ago, its recollection repeatedly reinforces my posture that something doesn’t taste right at the plate.
On one of my frequent family visits to Cleveland, I was watching a Saturday afternoon Indians’ game on TV, and the Tribe was giving an intentional pass to a Yankee left-hand hitter (Cano, I think), with runners on base. The rookie Carlos Santana was behind the plate, and ready to perfunctorily catch and return the "pitches." One was low and at Santana’s feet, just at shoe-lace level. I couldn’t believe my eyes: Santana bent over at the hips, legs straight, and caught the ball wrist pronated, palm-forward, thumb pointing right, fingers-up. No bending at the knee, and no rotating the glove to a palm-up, supinated wrist/hand position.
I’m still dumfounded here today as I try to explain to you what a departure from appropriate technique that was, on a ball that may well have tailed into he dirt. Yet it reinforced in my mind that this was an exaggerated symptom of an ill in catchers’ technique that I’ve diagnosed for years, yet was powerless to cure. A number of other subsequent incidents of missed strikes due to catcher technique has only served to fortify my biases about receiving pitches.
My biases derive from my personal experience at low levels of amateur baseball many years ago. The games has changed at all levels, and the professional game is certainly a different one compared to the one I knew as a batting practice and bullpen catcher for the Indians in the 60’s. But even casual reflection tells me the laws of optics and physics have not been suspended. Intuitive reasoning tells me there’s a vacuum out there when it comes to Pitch-Fx proponents analyzing balls, strikes, and strike zones.
I’ve always assumed the term "framing" comes from the frame of a photo or a painting. The frame makes a painting look prettier than if it had no border…it gives an edge…a delineation…a demarcation to isolate the image from its surroundings. When it is applied to a pitch, framing is designed to make the pitch not only look as pretty as possible to the umpire, but also to facilitate his decision in calling it a strike rather than a ball. When "painting the corners", framing and painting certainly go hand-in-hand.
What exactly is framing, then? Let’s get it right out front and begin to answer that question with another question: What is framing not? Framing is not trickery or deception. Framing is not the disingenuous movement of the mitt that is seen so frequently from the fringe of, or outside, the strike zone to within the strike zone, as is portrayed in the BP post. Moving balls received initially outside or on the fringe of the zone, then moved into the zone, is a statement by the catcher to the umpire: I think I can fool you into calling this pitch a strike, strike or not. This practice is so transparent (more like framing a window rather than a painting!) that umpires should call such a pitch a ball, just on general principle, strike or not. The act itself is confirmation of the catcher’s opinion that the umpire’s judgment can not only be influenced, but actually manipulated. I’m sure all umpires would get red in the neck at the suggestion that they can’t make a decision without help.
As I explained (in less detail) in STRIKE THREE! My Years in the ‘Pen, framing, as I learned it from my American Legion coach Mike Carrick 50 years ago, is a method that utilizes and emphasizes position of the catcher’s body, arm, forearm, hand, fingers, and glove in relation to the strike zone as the ball is received. It is not a single action, but rather a complex, integrated series of movements that culminate in the received ball looking like it was, or is, within the strike zone, right to left, or top to bottom. If we accept the hypothesis above that the umpire’s judgment can be influenced, we can also hypothesize that there is a range of catchers’ actions short of jerking the ball into the strike zone that might also affect the umpire’s judgment. As a terrible hitter myself, I would be angry if the catcher and the umpire were making hitting tougher on me than it already was!
Focusing now on what framing is, what are the actions that might influence the perception of a pitch as a strike rather than a ball? How might they be applied? For the purpose of description, it’s assumed all catchers are right-handed! "Inside" will assume a right-handed batter, and "outside" a left-handed one. Distinctions will be made for right- and left-handed pitchers, however, as necessary. The actions, which are not necessarily exclusive and which allow combining more than 1 within the same maneuver, can be divided into:
Photo credit: Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE
Top of the Strike Zone
Let’s start with the least controversial, and least-commonly relevant, part of the strike zone: the top of the zone. I term it such because under most circumstances, the range of actions catcher can really employ here to make a strike look like a strike is relatively limited. He has to maintain his crouch to give the umpire vision of the pitch.
Most pitches in the top of the strike zone are on a relative downward trajectory, so keeping the glove back and closer to the umpire gives the appearance the pitch is lower, hence closer to the strike zone, than if caught at arm’s length farther away, where it would generally be higher. The high curve ball or change-up (oops..... not a good thing high in the strike zone!), will be sinking as it crosses the plate, and the "glove back" technique is more applicable.
Exceptions? Well, an occasional fast ball or curve ball from an under-armer like Ted Abernathy or Dan Quisenberry might be actually rising as it traverses the zone. Solution? Be ready to extend the arm forward, and catch the ball before it rises out of the zone. A high, 4-seam fastball can be made to rise in the zone, so it should be caught as far forward as possible so as not to lose the strike the pitcher deserves.
In the top of the zone, the palm of the glove will virtually always be forward, thumb down, with the orientation of the glove more horizontal for outside pitches, somewhat more vertical (thumb-in) for inside ones. Pitcher-handedness has the least effect on catchers’ actions in the top of the zone, and doesn’t bear further discussion here.
Photo credit: Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE
Again, the catcher is limited in his movement on the outside part of the zone. If he wishes to keep his body behind the plate, giving little clue to the hitter as to where his target is, he’s generally going to be catching this pitch with his arm extended across his body, glove horizontal, palm-forward, thumb-down. The more he is willing to lean his body to the outside, the more the options expand.
Application of the principle of catching the ball forward, or back, depending on where it crosses the zone, holds true for the outside pitch. Pitcher-handedness now comes into play. For the right-handed pitcher, the slider, curve ball, or cutter will be breaking outside. The catcher has to be prepared to catch the outside breaking pitch forward, arm extended, before it breaks beyond the plate.
The more horizontal the glove, the greater the likelihood the umpire perceive the ball as potentially off the plate; the more vertical the glove, the greater likelihood the ball’s thought to be over the plate. The general principle of verticality here is not so easily applied, however: it’s physically easier to maintain the glove in a more horizontal position to the outside.
For the left-handed pitcher, the slider, curve ball, or cutter started outside will be breaking inside, or catcher’s right-to-left. When outside, it may be starting outside the zone, and find the plate only late in its path. Implication? Catching it closer to the catcher’s body will allow it to look like it’s over the plate, even if it did sweep around the back corner to get there.
Photo credit: Jake Roth-US PRESSWIRE
Now we’re getting to the meat, as Gary Bell used to call me, where catchers’ options expand and opportunities for saving strikes become greater. Balls can be caught thumb-in, fingers-up, palm-in with glove vertical; elbow-up-and-out, thumb-down, fingers-in, palm-forward; elbow-in, thumb-up, fingers-out, palm-forward; thumb-out, fingers-down, palm forward/up. The principles, of catching the breaking ball forward or back apply generally here as well, for both right and left-handed pitchers, and don’t need to be repeated.
My beef here is with the receivers, errr….catchers, who turn their thumb down, fingers up or forward, with palm facing out for the inside pitch. It just doesn’t make sense. Left handed pitchers’ breaking balls will be going (catcher's) right-to-left, and travelling away from a glove held in that manner. A right-hander’s sinking 2-seamer, will be doing the same. By turning the palm-out, thumb-down, the catcher must actually push his glove away from his body and the strike zone to follow the path of the ball. It violates the principle of receiving the ball toward your body.
As Peter Morse recounts in his book "Catcher", Charlie Fox, a former major league catcher turned manager once said: " A good catcher is actually a receiver. He receives the ball rather than catches it. The good ones always take the ball in; the poorer ones go for it." The general rule should be: orient the open face of the mitt to the strike zone. If the ball were inside to a right hander, that means catching it with your palm turned toward the plate, never with your palm turned toward the batter. If the ball were low, turn your palm up to catch it. Simple enough.
Photo credit: Jake Roth-US PRESSWIRE
The low inside pitch (to the right-handed hitter) is the one where the palm up/forward, thumb out (supinated wrist/forearm) position is most applicable. Where most catchers today catch it fingers-up, thumb-in, palm forward, this pronated position becomes untenable the closer the pitch gets to the ground. The palm-up, thumb-out supine position is especially applicable to the breaking (or sinking) pitch (curve, slider, forkball, Cuban palm ball, spitball, split- finger, sinker etc.), where the pitch now descends to meet the mitt, and can be caught at the optimal height . The umpire sees the pitch all the way, and when it hits the mitt, he still sees the white of the ball in the strike zone. If the catcher extends his arm/hand/mitt forward, he catches it at a higher plane, making the pitcher look a lot better before it sinks below the strike zone. If it’s so low that it threatens to go into the dirt, his glove is in the perfect position for blocking forward in conjunction with his body. Why has this practice ever been abandoned?
The receiving actions and maneuvers I’m encouraging here can’t be viewed in in a vacuum, insofar as they also concurrently contribute positively to other parameters of receiving. For instance, when the low pitch is caught palm-up, thumb-out, or the inside pitch palm-in, thumb-up with runners on base as I recommend, the ball is immediately available to the throwing hand for gripping for a throw. One can even get a brief glimpse of the seams, so as to grip the ball across the seams, contributing to a straight and rising throw, rather than with the seams, risking throwing a sailer or sinker. Any other receiving method requires rotating the glove to allow that action, with delayed opportunity for eyeing and/or gripping the ball.
In addition, the palm-up, thumb-out (supinated) position just happens to be the time-honored position for blocking balls in the dirt, so it’s a natural transition and continuum from receiving the low pitch to blocking the low pitch, or vice versa. Why create muscle memory for two maneuvers, when one will do? This gets back to my Santana story: Why not bend and catch the ball palm-up, thumb-out , JUST IN CASE it sinks to the ground?
Photo credit: David Richard-US PRESSWIRE
So, why DO catchers fail to use the techniques I’ve promoted here? Well, certainly the hinged mitt of the 60’s facilitated the practice of "pickin’ it" when it comes to low pitches. "Pick it, Wilson!" would be Gary Bell’s refrain to me upon a particularly good scoop out of the dirt! The pal-thumb-down technique for low pitches became acceptable, and who could argue the techniques of Randy Hundley and Johnny Bench? Perhaps a sense evolved that similar, repetitive glove position for all pitches outweighs applying a range of maneuvers. A narrower range of receiving positions might allow the umpire to make his decision without the interference of a distracting rotational receiving component. Perhaps the umpires themselves have declared the techniques I’ve promoted acta non grata, concluding they don’t need to be afforded a "better" look at pitches. That may be so, but the result is a counterintuitive
Perhaps there are physical reasons current catchers, more heavily muscled than their ’60s-90’s predecessors, employ their current techniques. Perhaps they themselves are less flexible and mobile, and choose the less taxing technique. If that is not the case, I would think a wider range of movements actually promotes flexibility and mobility, and that a narrower range does just the opposite.
Keeping the glove in the same position as much as possible may reduce wear and tear on the shoulder, elbow, wrist. If that were the case, a good reason to do it. Reasonable and not impossible, but not proven, to my knowledge. Certainly a great project for sports-medicine research.
In conclusion, if anyone can find a clip of Santana catching that ball as I described, please post it on some web site and email me with the URL. Put it on YouTube. Let all of our readers share in my dismay. But please don’t dis me for trying to get my pitchers the strikes that they deserve!
Added to the front page and made just a few presentational edits. Great work! -jbopp