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The Chicago Cubs and catcher framing

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What did the Cubs have in mind with their acquisitions of Miguel Montero and David Ross? It might go deeper than you think.

New Cubs catcher David Ross
New Cubs catcher David Ross
Brian Kersey/Getty Images

I was listening to Chicago's 670 The Score and heard afternoon co-host Dan Bernstein discuss with Sahadev Sharma of Baseball Prospectus the Cubs' acquisitions of Miguel Montero and David Ross specifically and catcher framing in general. Sahadev had written about framing on BP (available to subscribers only, and if you're a subscriber, it's well worth your time), and I decided to expand and illustrate the notion.

There are over 700,000 pitches thrown every year, and courtesy of Daren Willman's baseballsavant.com, we can tell the outcome of every one of those pitches -- these were the pitch results for 2014:

Pitches

Over 250,000 of those pitches (thirty-six percent) were called balls and over 123,000 were called strikes (eighteen percent). The rest we're not particularly concerned about, since they were pitches requiring no call by the umpire or framing skill by the catcher. It's the fifty-four percent of pitches around which the framing issue settles, and more specifically, the called strikes.

Defining framing is very straightforward --  it's the "ability"* to get pitches outside the strike zone called as strikes and making sure pitches in the strike zone, especially on the edges, are actually called strikes. I wrote about this in context of umpires around a year ago and fully intended to view it in terms of pitchers and catchers as well but never did, so thanks to Sahadev for the impetus to return to the subject. I also have better tools to illustrate the issue than I did then.

* I'm not a big fan of quotes but use them liberally in this post since I will be using terms like correct and incorrect and don't want to give the impression I'm impugning anyone. I use the quotation marks to denote terms that need to be viewed in a relative context. And if you ever see me in person and I use air quotes, feel free to punch me.

To place called strikes in context, every team throws approximately 25,000 pitches a year, meaning they have around 4,500 called strikes a year (the eighteen percent figure is very consistent). If catcher(s) can eke out an additional five percent of strike calls on balls outside the strike zone, that's over 200 additional strikes in a given year. Some of those could result in a strikeout, possibly a key strikeout in a high-leverage situation, and could have lasting effects if hitters conclude they can't lay off pitches in a particular part of the plate.

This chart from Baseball Savant shows the location of called strikes by Cubs pitchers in 2014:

Cubs Pitches
This is from the catcher's perspective, and I manually added the box that denotes the strike zone, but it's very close to the actual zone. This shows two things very clearly. The first is that most "incorrect" calls are side-to-side, and I suspect if I isolated pitches to left or right-handed hitters, a healthy number of  "incorrect" calls would be on the far side of the plate. The second is many of these "incorrect" calls are quite literally on the edge of the strike zone.

I created a Tableau data viz to show graphically how well catchers framed pitches in 2014, and this is a screen grab (click here to go to the actual viz):

Catcher Framing

This table shows the differences in framing between Miguel Montero, David Ross (recently signed by the Cubs to a two-year, $5 million deal) and Welington Castillo:

Catcher Called Strikes In Zone Pct Out of Zone Pct
Montero 3,261 2,119 65.0% 1,142 35.0%
Ross 1,254 760 60.6% 494 39.4%
Castillo 2,477 1,744 70.4% 733 29.6%

That's a healthy margin, and assuming Montero and Ross can maintain these rates, that's around 200 additional strikes Cubs pitchers could get in 2015.

The data viz has tabs for pitchers and umpires as well, and also how balls are called, but the effect there is far less dramatic -- across the board, less than five percent of pitches in the strike zone are called balls. It's also important to remember where the vast majority of these "incorrect" calls occur -- right at the edges of the strike zone. My umpire piece referenced earlier suggested around fifteen percent of called strikes were "incorrect," and at the time Harry Pavlidis, the PITCHf/x guru for Brooks Baseball and Baseball Prospectus, told me that after correcting for close calls it's probably closer to ten percent. That's a healthy reduction but still makes pitch framing by catchers a very useful asset, everything else being equal.

Scrolling through the data viz shows a persistent 30-35 percent of balls outside the strike zone that are called strikes regardless of whether it's the pitcher, catcher, or umpire, so perhaps all the credit shouldn't go to the catcher when framing is a kabuki dance between three people. The definition of skill is something that can be repeated over and over -- for example, Tiger Woods won't hit a driver 325 yards down the fairway each and every time, but he'll do it far more often than I will. This table shows how well each catcher framed since 2008 by showing percent of called strikes that were outside the strike zone:

Year Montero Ross Castillo
2013 28.5% 36.7% 29.9%
2012 29.8% 36.1% 35.7%
2011 32.8% 38.2% 25.6%
2010 33.3% 39.6% 23.4%
2009 34.8% 42.1%
2008 30.7% 43.3%

I once served on the school board of our daughters' school and asked the principal to list all her duties. This was an exercise in masochism for her since the list contained well over 100 items, but the point was to prioritize the primary tasks and identify those that could be off-loaded to other people or simply ignored. A catcher has a similar long list of responsibilities -- call a good game, position the defense (not as much as in the past, I suspect), handle the pitching staff through rough situations, field his position (itself a lengthy list), keep stolen bases in check, and not be a huge liability with the bat, and that's only a partial list.

With five postseasons spots per league, often one game is the difference between October baseball and golf. 200 extra strikes a year will never outweigh a minus bat, but it could be the icing on the cake and be part of the almost-infinite list of small things that, taken together, can yield that one important win. If the Cubs are going to spend big money on pitchers, they might as well acquire catchers who can squeeze out as many strikes as possible for them.

PITCHf/x data from baseballsavant.com. Any errors in processing or amalgamating the data are the author's. Thanks again to Sahadev Sharma for the inspiration. I'll repay the favor with a cool, delicious Busch Light tall boy next time I see him.

Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.