Pitch framing has always existed in baseball, but sabermetrics has only recently grasped the extent to which it impacts the game. We now know that the best catchers can earn enough runs through their pitch presentation to negate even the most putrid of bats (ahem). And because of research from earlier this year, we have a metric — Called Strikes Above Average, or CSAA — that isolates the catcher's contribution to framing. The value of this lies in pitcher analysis, as we can now gauge the effect that their battery mates had on them. In many cases, this reveals intriguing, previously unknown elements of pitcher performance.
To better understand this phenomenon, we'll head on over to Houston. After three years of ridiculously terrible play, the Astros finally made their way back to respectability in 2014. Their 73-89 record signaled that the arduous tanking would soon give way to contention, and the players who helped them earn that mark would presumably help them toward that goal. While few people predicted the club's 2015 success, most knew that Houston's young talent would help it for years to come.
Two of the better players on the 2014 Astros came out of nowhere. Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh — each of whom owned ghastly numbers prior to that year — broke out, posting respective ERAs of 2.93 and 2.73. Their FIPs (3.21 for Keuchel, 3.11 for McHugh) suggested that their skills had legitimately improved. Heading into 2015, they looked to headline an ascending Houston rotation.
This year saw their paths diverge. Keuchel went from awesome to phenomenal — his 2.48 ERA and 2.93 FIP in 2015 netted him the American League Cy Young — whereas McHugh regressed to a more mediocre 3.89 ERA and 3.58 FIP. At one point relative equals, these men have moved in opposite directions. Although several factors caused their 2015 production disparity, framing may be the most interesting one.
On the surface, Keuchel and McHugh's catchers seem to have affected them very differently in 2015. In terms of the difference between expected* and actual strike rate, Keuchel fared incredibly well, while McHugh struggled immensely:
*As gauged by the equation 1 - (1 - Zone%) * (1 - O-Swing%), via FanGraphs' PITCHf/x data.
As I observed in October, Keuchel's rate of excess strikes led the AL; on the flipside, McHugh came in dead last. And both of them did so by large margins (as any interested parties can see here). This means that the other end of Keuchel's batteries helped him, and McHugh's backstops only brought harm. Right?
Keuchel certainly benefited from the men behind the plate this year — but so did McHugh, to an even greater extent. According to CSAA, the two pitchers netted 2.41 and 3.54 runs, respectively, from framing. This checks out, given their catchers:
|Pitcher||Jason Castro Innings (%)||Hank Conger Innings (%)||Max Stassi Innings (%)|
|Dallas Keuchel||119.2 (51.6%)||111.1 (48.0%)||1 (0.4%)|
|Collin McHugh||132.2 (65.1%)||63 (30.9%)||8 (3.9%)|
Conger presented pitches fairly well in 2015, earning 3.6 runs in that facet of the game; Castro topped that, with 11.0 runs above average. The fact that Castro worked more often with McHugh thus helped him to gain a few more called strikes than Keuchel. If the Astros' catchers helped both of them, though, why did only Keuchel outperform his expected strike rate?
Let's return to those catchers for a moment. In 2015, Castro and Conger each framed pitches the most effectively in pretty much the same areas:
While both fooled some umpires on inside pitches, they did so much more frequently when the pitcher threw outside. Now we'll look at McHugh and Keuchel. Check out their different pitch patterns in 2015, first versus righties ...
...then versus lefties:
Against righties, Keuchel threw outside notably more than McHugh did. Against lefties, Keuchel threw outside waaaay more than McHugh did. By targeting the areas where his catchers excelled, Keuchel reaped their rewards — a strategy that McHugh, for whatever reason, declined to employ.
This sort of development is by no means unique. The 2015 AL qualifiers showed a pretty weak correlation between extra strikes and CSAA:
There's still a relationship, clearly — in general, the pitchers who work with great catchers will collect a solid amount of calls — but it doesn't possess the strength that we might think. This happens because framing, like virtually everything in baseball, doesn't solely involve one variable. The sending party has just as much a role in the final outcome as the receiving party does.
Even with this formula, McHugh mostly held his own in 2015. He may simply approach the game differently than Keuchel does, and that won't tank his future. With that said, it's important to keep in mind for 2016 and beyond that the numbers McHugh posts — and that every pitcher posts — have as much to do with his own play as they do with the play of his catchers. Although we still have work to do when it comes to measuring framing, the evidence here proves the truth in this regard.
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