As piping hot as the hot stove has been at this week's Winter Meetings, this 2014-15 MLB offseason has actually been a relatively quiet one for one position in particular: catchers. With only one significant option available via free agency, and very few backstops available via trade, the position isn't one we've heard a particularly large amount about thus far into the winter. And beyond Yasmani Grandal moving farther north up the California coast, that isn't likely to change.
What is particularly intriguing about the group of catchers that we've seen move, and that could be dealt eventually, is what they're being evaluated on, at least in the perception of the mainstream audience. In the case of Russell Martin, there were obviously several aspects that teams were attempting to acquire him for. He's a veteran leader with a high upside bat, at least for the next couple of seasons. But much of the emphasis, at least in the eyes of the outside media, was placed on his ability to frame pitches. And this wasn't the only time.
The Chicago Cubs went out and acquired Miguel Montero for a couple of lower level minor league pitchers earlier this week. In doing so, they brought in a catcher who is older than the incumbent, Welington Castillo, and actually brings less impressive fWAR totals in the last couple of seasons than those of Castillo. He's a marginal improvement offensively, assuming he can rebound (a rather safe assumption) and is a slight upgrade as far as his blocking skills are concerned. But you know where Miguel Montero absolutely blows Castillo out of the water? Pitch framing.
As analytics become more mainstream, we're going to hear more and more about a catcher's ability to frame pitches. This isn't a new evaluative tool that front offices have suddenly decided to examine when deciding on a catcher. However, it has become much more of a focal point in regard to catchers throughout the league, with the two catchers this winter serving as early examples of the "new" obsession.
The real question in this case is this: how do the best catchers in baseball perform at pitch framing? After all, framing was an extraordinarily large factor in Russell Martin taking home an absurd five-year, $82 million deal. Have we overrated the concept as a whole, at least as far as a somewhat mainstream analytics audience is concerned? Just for the sake of keeping the sample size small, how do the top five catchers, in terms of salary, stack up in the pitch framing department? First, let's identify those catchers (based off 2015 salary):
1. Buster Posey - $17,277,777
2. Brian McCann - $17,000,000
3. Yadier Molina - $15,200,000
4. Miguel Montero - $12,000,000
5. Carlos Ruiz - $8,500,000
***Contract numbers via spotrac.
Names that you won't find on that list: Jonathan Lucroy, widely considered to be one of the top two or three backstops in the game, and Salvador Perez, a player lauded for his defense. Also, Russell Martin is absent due to the fact that his contract is backloaded. In measuring their framing skills, the following categories will be utilized (while comparing them against catchers that caught a minimum of 6,000 pitches in 2014):
- zBall% - Percentage of strikes caught inside of the strike zone called a ball.
- oStr% - Percentage of pitches caught outside of the strike zone called a strike.
- RAA - Runs above average.
- PerGame - Extra strikes called per game.
So what exactly do these numbers mean? Well, for one, we can establish that of the five highest paid catchers in the game, Miguel Montero is the best pitch framer out of the bunch. In relation to oStr% and PerGame averages, only Montero and Buster Posey ranked in the top five. In the other two categories, none of the five highest paid catchers in baseball was among the top five performers. Yet, Posey, McCann, and Montero were all in the top nine in baseball in WAR for a catcher, certainly helping to indicate that their hefty salary comes from their ability to generate offense, more so than what they can do behind the plate. This is especially true in the case of Posey and McCann.
Who ranks among the top backstops in the game when we consider catchers who received a minimum of 6K pitches last year? Rene Rivera, Jonathan Lucroy, and Mike Zunino round out the rest of the top five in oStr%, while the same three fill in the top five in their PerGame averages as well. Runs Above Average paints an identical picture, with the five (including Posey & Montero) changing spots as the category varies. Just for fun, Lucroy ranks 13th among catchers in terms of salary, Rivera made six figures in 2014 and is arbitration eligible this winter, and Zunino made barely over $500k last year and isn't even arbitration eligible until 2017.
This doesn't necessarily indicate that pitch framing is an overrated quality in a catcher in any way, shape, or form. What it may indicate, however, is that teams are not paying for pitch framing nearly as much as we think they're paying for pitch framing. We're looking at guys who may bring very little to the plate, and subsequently are much farther down the salary totem pole, that are leading the field in their ability to frame pitches. Yet, the highest paid backstops are the ones who can make the impact at the plate, which we didn't even touch on here.
Nonetheless, pitch framing is getting its due in becoming much more of a mainstream idea for those aiming to evaluate catchers. It helped to better rationalize throwing so much money at Russell Martin. It helped to rationalize why the Cubs would trade for a 31-year-old catcher with $40 million left on his contract. While we may not yet be at the point where we're seeing teams pay catchers exclusively based off their ability to frame (and may never), the impact is there, and it becomes more and more of a clear picture each day.
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Randy Holt is a staff writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.