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Catcher framing revisited

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Catcher framing discussion has become much more prominent over the last two seasons, and it's time to check in on some of 2015's best.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Player Team Sample zBall% oStr% +Calls Per Game RAA
Yasmani Grandal Dodgers 3976 11.2% 9.9% 96 1.88 12.8
Francisco Cervelli Pirates 4221 14.4% 11.0% 95 1.75 12.6
Chris Iannetta Angels 3303 11.3% 9.9% 78 1.85 10.4
Buster Posey Giants 3698 10.4% 8.7% 69 1.46 9.2
David Ross Cubs 1594 9.2% 11.3% 64 3.14 8.5
Jason Castro Astros 4296 11.5% 8.4% 57 1.04 7.6
Tyler Flowers White Sox 3455 12.5% 9.0% 50 1.13 6.7
Miguel Montero Cubs 3700 12.0% 8.6% 48 1.01 6.4
Kevin Plawecki Mets 2749 10.6% 8.8% 46 1.31 6.2
Yadier Molina Cardinals 4825 12.2% 8.2% 46 0.74 6.1
Mike Zunino Mariners 4740 12.1% 7.9% 38 0.63 5.1
Rene Rivera Rays 4435 10.6% 7.3% 38 0.68 5.1
Hank Conger Astros 1913 9.3% 8.5% 38 1.54 5.0
Derek Norris Padres 5124 13.7% 8.4% 34 0.51 4.5
Austin Hedges Padres 836 10.7% 12.2% 33 3.05 4.3
Tucker Barnhart Reds 1686 12.3% 9.9% 32 1.49 4.3
Geovany Soto White Sox 2057 10.5% 8.2% 30 1.14 4.0
Caleb Joseph Orioles 3935 13.9% 8.7% 29 0.58 3.9
Martin Maldonado Brewers 3078 13.1% 8.6% 29 0.74 3.9
Josh Phegley Athletics 2119 13.0% 9.1% 27 1.01 3.7
Travis d'Arnaud Mets 1352 10.8% 9.1% 28 1.59 3.7
Roberto Perez Indians 2973 12.9% 8.2%
23 0.60 3.1
Carlos Corporan Rangers 2414 13.9% 8.8% 20 0.63 2.6
Jose Lobaton Nationals 1337 10.4% 8.1% 19 1.11 2.5
Bobby Wilson Rays 1310 12.3% 8.8% 18 1.06 2.4
Chris Stewart Pirates 1408 11.8% 8.8% 17 0.96 2.3
Jesus Sucre Mariners 679 10.2% 8.7% 13 1.46 1.7
Jonathan Lucroy Brewers 2558 13.1% 7.7% 8 0.25 1.1
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
Andrew Susac Giants 1800 12.1% 7.4% 4 0.15 0.5
Carlos Perez Angels 2030 12.9% 7.7% 4 0.14 0.5
Robinson Chirinos Rangers 4100 14.1% 7.8% 3 0.07 0.5
Tony Sanchez Pirates 142 10.9% 9.4% 3 1.70 0.4
Tuffy Gosewisch D-backs 2642 14.1% 7.8% 2 0.07 0.3
Drew Butera Angels 545 13.2% 7.6% 1 0.19 0.2
Jeff Mathis Marlins 727 13.8% 7.8% 2 0.17 0.2
Stephen Vogt Athletics 3927 15.2% 8.2% 1 0.03 0.2
Wellington Castillo Cubs 590 12.7% 7.5% 2 0.24 0.2
Francisco Pena Royals 17 0% 0% 0 1.73 0.1
Jhonatan Solano Marlins 439 10.9% 6.8% 0 0.07 0.1

*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.

Team Cumulative RAA
Pirates 15.3
Cubs 14.9
Astros 12.6
Angels 11.2
White Sox 10.7
Dodgers 9.8
Giants 9.4
Padres 8.6
Rays 7.5
Mets 7.0
Cardinals 6.0
Mariners 5.9
Athletics 3.9
Brewers 3.1
Rangers 3.1
Nationals 2.0
Reds 1.9
Orioles 0.4
Blue Jays 0.1
Indians -0.4
Twins -1.8
Yankees -2.4
Marlins -3.2
Red Sox -4.0
Royals -5.0
D-backs -7.0
Rockies -8.0
Phillies -9.2
Braves -9.7
Tigers -11.5

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.

Buster Posey PA BB% K% ISO wRC+ wOBA
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.

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.