A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I posted my first article with Beyond the Box Score. It concerned catcher framing, and how the Chicago Cubs were doing everything they could to install the best pitch framers behind the plate. Rather than let Wellington Castillo remain the everyday option, and cost their pitchers strikes, and ultimately wins for the team, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer went out and acquired Miguel Montero and David Ross.
Each had a reputation, and the stats to back it up, for squeezing the absolute most out of the strike zone. In 2015, that hasn't changed, and both players rank in MLB's top 10 in RAA (Runs Above Average). The table below highlights zBall% (the percentage of pitches caught, within the strike zone, called a ball), and oStr% (the percentage of pitches, caught outside the strike zone, called a strike). The table also shows every catcher that has posted a positive value in terms of RAA thus far in 2015.
|Tyler Flowers||White Sox||3455||12.5%||9.0%||50||1.13||6.7|
|Geovany Soto||White Sox||2057||10.5%||8.2%||30||1.14||4.0|
|Josh Thole||Blue Jays||578||11.9%||8.8%||7||0.93||0.9|
|Russell Martin||Blue Jays||4704||12.2%||7.0%||6||0.11||0.9|
|Ryan Hanigan||Red Sox||1456||14.7%||8.5%||5||0.29||0.7|
*Note: Francisco Pena somehow has a 0.1 RAA with a zero percent zBall% and oStr%, and no +Calls. That seems like an error but the data has been copied exactly as it was presented on StatCorner.
Sorting by RAA, Ross ranks fifth best in baseball, while Montero is ninth. Together, they've combined for a value of 14.6, and represent the only teammates that have an RAA of six or higher. The Cubs have done an amazing job to ensure that they're maximing all they can from their catchers, and Montero has even proved to be an above average hitter. He's posted a wRC+ of 111, and an unexpected amount of power. Chicago is clearly reaping the benefit of their new duo, however they surprisingly don't rank first in team RAA.
The difference is fairly minuscule, but the fact is that the Pittsburgh Pirates reign supreme in RAA, and it's undoubtedly one of the reasons for the success of their pitching staff, which ranks fourth in major league baseball according to fWAR (10.5). There was concern coming into the season about how the Pirates would fare behind the plate after Russell Martin bolted for the Blue Jays, as he posted an RAA of 11.7 in the 2014 season, the 10th best value in MLB. However he's regressed significantly this year, while Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart have teamed up to form the best duo in baseball with a combined RAA of 14.9 (although the majority comes from Cervelli).
There's another team on these charts that's worth looking at, and that is the San Francisco Giants. Buster Posey is a fantastic pitch framer, and is loved by the entire pitching staff for his ability to call a game. Out of all the players that have been a part of their championship runs, he's been the most vital to their overall success (although Madison Bumgarner might have something to say about that for their most recent title). While Posey has made it no secret that he wants to remain in his current role as long as he can, the numbers don't lie, and it may be worth it to shift him to first base full time in the near future.
|Career as C||1930||9.20%||12.90%||0.177||137||0.364|
|Career as 1B||468||8.80%||11.90%||0.212||173||0.418|
There's a clear difference between his offensive output as a catcher versus when he plays at first base, and in 2015, the gap is even greater. His ISO as a catcher is .170, compared with .271 while playing first base. There's seemingly no room for debate that Posey would be better offensively for an entire season if he played a position that was less taxing on his body. But the Giants are reluctant to lose his defensive contributions, and rightly so.
The determining factor in his eventual move to first, or potentially third base, might be Andrew Susac and his development as a catcher. He's proven that he can hit major league pitching, but in 2014 he contributed an RAA of -3.2 in 195.1 innings. However in 2015, he's posted a positive value of 0.7, still far below Posey's output of 9.2, but it's a start in the right direction. If Susac can continue to improve his framing ability, it might be in the Giants' best interests to install him as the full-time catcher. This isn't likely to happen this season, or even in 2016, but it's something to watch. He's been getting much more playing time this year as the Giants have dealt with injuries, and his bat has been a welcome addition to the lineup.
As catcher framing becomes more widely accepted as fact rather than fiction, teams will start to emphasize it within their organizations much more frequently. While the Athletics don't rank particularly high in RAA, (13th), they frequently practice their craft of framing pitches.
Framing practice for the Athletic catchers. Calls out situation, then pitch comes in at the knees. pic.twitter.com/71tSkonFQ9— Eno Sarris (@enosarris) June 30, 2015
It's unclear how widespread this drill is throughout the league, but it's surely something that will become commonplace over the next few years. While the sabermetric revolution has been ongoing since Bill James published his first book in the late 1970's, and in the public eye for the last decade or so, catcher framing is relatively new. Advances in technology, and analytics have helped give it steam, and it doesn't appear to be slowing down anytime soon.
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Matt Goldman is a Featured Writer with Beyond the Box Score, and a Contributing Editor with MLB Daily Dish. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheOriginalBull.