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The long history of Colorado’s pitch-framing woes

Until last season, the Rockies have struggled to develop a strong starting rotation. Their catchers have not done much to help.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Coors Field is a home run haven that inflates ERAs like nowhere else. Since 2012, Coors Field has ranked as the most friendly hitter’s environment in both ESPN’s park factors and FanGraphs’. In every season since 2001, the Rockies home field has finished as one of the top 5 most friendly hitting environments in major league baseball. While this information doesn’t come as a particular shock to anyone, it’s important to illustrate a point: The Rockies have a significant problem attracting free agent pitchers to their team, and similar problems with developing young pitchers, because of their unique ballpark conditions.

For years, the Rockies have done their best to develop young pitchers and sign free agents. While the free agent market still hasn’t yielded much, they were finally able to show some success in developing young starters this past season. In 2016, their rotation showed substantial promise through the likes of Jon Gray, Tyler Chatwood, Tyler Anderson, and Chad Bettis, all of whom came up through Colorado’s farm system. And there is more help on the way, with top prospect Jeff Hoffman making his debut late last season. It seems the Rockies have finally developed a young core of controllable arms that matches their position player talent.

Now that the pitching talent is there, it’s time for the Rockies to look to the other half of the battery. Matthew Carruth has been tracking pitch framing at StatCorner since 2008, cataloging for each catcher how many pitches outside the strike zone are called as strikes and how many pitches inside the strike zone are called as balls. The league average rate of in-zone balls is about 15 percent, while the out-zone strike rate is about 7 percent.

In every season since 2008, the Rockies have had a negatively rated pitch framer-behind the dish. While this may not seem like a major indictment of the team’s catchers as a whole, the number of calls their pitchers don’t get can really add up.

Here is the Rockies framing history, via their primary catchers each season since 2008:

This data puts the Rockies backstops consistently near the bottom in almost every pitch-framing category for as long as it’s been a stat. For all of the grief that’s been given to Rockies’ pitchers in the last decade, the team has done nothing to aid them through the catcher position. While Chris Iannetta and Nick Hundley have somewhat positive defensive reputations, pitch framing is arguable the most important part of a catcher’s game. While a catcher with a strong arm seems nice, a starting catcher is only given an opportunity to throw out a base stealer between 40 to 50 times a season. Through framing, the catcher makes an impact (positive or negative) on every single pitch.

In every year since 2008, Colorado’s starting catcher has produced a bottom-10 finish in both zBall and oSTr percentage among catchers with at least 6,000 pitches received. StatCorner also assigns an estimate to how many calls each catcher earns or costs his team through their per-game call ratings. Unsurprisingly, those are not particularly bullish on the Rockie catchers either.

Per-Game Call Rating Finishes:

  • 2008: 4th worst
  • 2009: 7th worst
  • 2010: 9th worst
  • 2011: 5th worst
  • 2012: 2nd worst
  • 2013: 2nd worst
  • 2014: 6th worst
  • 2015: 3rd worst
  • 2016: 2nd worst

Last year alone, Nick Hundley finished with the 3rd highest zBall percentage and the 2nd lowest oSt percentage. In per-game call rate, Hundley ranked 21st out of 22 qualified catchers. Stat Corner also converts calls added into a Run Allowed Average that is assigned to each catcher. Over the course of Hundley’s 6,042 pitches caught, he accumulated a brutal -12.8 RAA. If we use the rough measure of one win being equivalent to ten runs, then it isn’t out of the question to assume that Hundley’s poor pitch framing amounted to a -1.3 WAR subtraction from his overall value. For most of the past decade, that has been par for the course for Rockies pitchers to deal with.

Looking forward, the Rockies have to find ways to help their crop of young pitchers continue to improve and gain confidence. It’s hard enough to establish yourself as a legitimate 180- to 200-inning starting pitcher at the major league level. It’s even harder to do it at Coors Field, and harder still when you’re not getting borderline calls on the plate.

According to MLB Trade Rumors, the Rockies have $66 million in guaranteed contracts and roughly $36 million in arbitration eligible contracts to be paid out. With a 2016 payroll of $112 million, the Rockies are currently about $10 million below their 2016 mark. Jake McGee and Jordan Lyles are two non-tender candidates that are projected to earn about $9 million in arbitration this offseason, and dropping their salaries from the books would add additional space. On top of that, owner Dick Monfort has already come out and said that the team will increase payroll in 2017. Realistically, the Rockies could be left with close to $30 million to address their various needs.

With their history, it seems like former free agent Jason Castro would have been a perfect fit for the Rockies. He provides most of his value through pitch framing and only commanded an annual average salary of about $8 million. The Rockies’ lack of interest in Castro probably suggests that the team believes in young catcher Tony Wolters. Wolters broke into the majors last season and went on to compile a respectable 0.9 fWAR in 71 games and 230 plate appearances. He also earned a very solid 6.5 defensive rating on FanGraphs, which doesn’t include pitch framing, and when we add in his StatCorner framing numbers, the results are really positive.

Over 4,319 pitches caught in 2016, Wolters produced better-than-average zBall and oSTr rates of 12.1 and 9.1 percent, respectively. In just about half a season, Wolters was credited with a 9.5 RAA, close to a full win. If Wolters could produce these values over the course of an entire season, the Rockies would have a top-5 pitch framer receiving the majority of their pitches. The drastic flip from consistent bottom-5 pitch framer to a top-5 pitch framer could be a huge boon to a young pitching staff in need of stability.

For an organization that has struggled to support its pitching staff, deploying a terrific pitch framer would be a huge first step. Sometimes players can improve not through any specific mechanical change, but rather because the game changes around them. As the Rockies fight to contend in 2017 and beyond, they ought to seek out every advantage they can. Pitch framing may be the best place to start.