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The Dodgers’ catchers will help Yu Darvish in a specific way

Yu Darvish will be throwing to two of MLB’s best framing catchers in Los Angeles, but the specific nature of their framing abilities is what will help him the most.

Los Angeles Dodgers v New York Mets Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Here are two things we know about the 2017 Major League Baseball season:

  1. Jonathan Lucroy (formerly of the Rangers) has gone from one of the best framing catchers in baseball to literally the worst in baseball.
  2. The Dodgers starting and backup catchers are two of the best framers in baseball.

That’s simple enough. It doesn’t take any more information than that to conclude that Yu Darvish will almost definitely benefit from throwing to his new Los Angeles backstops. Here are the raw framing numbers from Baseball Prospectus.

Dodgers & Rangers 2017 catchers’ framing numbers

Catcher Framing Chances CSAA (Called Strikes Above Average) Framing Runs
Catcher Framing Chances CSAA (Called Strikes Above Average) Framing Runs
Yasmani Grandal 4,564 0.023 14.8
Austin Barnes 1,838 0.031 8.0
Kyle Farmer (AAA) 2,071 0.010 3.2
Robinson Chirinos 2,577 0.000 0.0
Jonathan Lucroy 4,423 -0.026 -16.5
Data via Baseball Prospectus

Yasmani Grandal is second in all of baseball in framing runs (the raw stat, which depends on playing time) — behind Tyler Flowers — and fourth in called strikes above average (the rate stat, that measures framing ability per pitch). His backup Austin Barnes is eighth in the league in framing runs, but his reduced playing time is a factor in that. Barnes actually leads Grandal in called strikes above average and ranks second in the league in that number, again behind Tyler Flowers. Even the Dodgers’ recently called-up third-string catcher Kyle Farmer had positive framing numbers in Triple-A Oklahoma City.

On the flip side, during his time with the Rangers this season, Darvish threw to either Robinson Chirinos and his neutral framing numbers or Lucroy and his disastrous marks. Darvish’s 22 starts were split evenly between the two, with Lucroy and Chirinos each catching 11 games and 68 and 69 innings respectively. The 2017 framing decline of Jonathan Lucroy has been well documented, but his -16.5 framing runs are worst in baseball by a significant margin (James McCann’s -11.8 are second worst). It’s tough to oversell how bad his receiving has been.

This much is certain: no matter who Darvish throws to with the Dodgers, he will get significantly more help behind the plate around the margins of the strike zone. That’s fine, but not all that compelling on it’s own. What’s interesting is specifically where the improved framing will help Darvish the most — at the bottom of the zone.

Here are 2017 heat maps from Lucroy and Chirinos depicting balls tracked inside of the zone that were called balls.

Heat Maps via Baseball Savant

The majority of called balls that should have been strikes are at the top and bottom of the zone. Lucroy seems a little bit better than Chirinos at the top of the zone, but he’s MUCH worse at the bottom. Contrast those heat maps with these from Grandal and Barnes.

Heat Maps via Baseball Savant

They’re not perfect — the Dodgers’ backstops seem to be just as susceptible to losing a high strike as Lucroy and Chirinos — but look at the bottom of their zones. Grandal sees the beginning of a spike on the corner nearest the left-hand hitter’s box, but overall both he and Barnes do not see many low strikes turn into balls.

Now look at a heat map from Darvish’s time with the Rangers this year. He was getting killed at the bottom of the zone. Again, these are pitches that should be strikes, based on the rulebook definition of the strike zone, but were called balls instead.

Heat Map via Baseball Savant

Even with the best framing catchers there are always going to strikes called for balls, and vice versa. It’s the minimizing of those instances that is so important, and the Dodgers two main catchers both excel in the exact thing that was hurting Darvish most with the Rangers. For a pitcher who does the majority of his work at the bottom of the zone, this seems like a significant upgrade.

Darvish has made just one start for the Dodgers so far, but it was fantastic. He threw seven shutout innings against the Mets while allowing just three hits, walking one, and striking out 10. Not only that, but Darvish also got a glimpse of what his future might hold with Grandal and Barnes at the helm. Predictably, Darvish didn’t lose any low strikes on the night, but Grandal was also able to steal him one on a first pitch cutter against Neil Walker to lead off the seventh inning.

Gif via

Grandal was set up high, so it appears that Darvish missed his spot. Even so, Grandal was able to get his glove down to catch the pitch without surrendering downward momentum. His glove only goes as far down as it needs to, and immediately corrects upwards after the catch. Let’s freeze frame that bad boy when it crosses the plate.

Walker battled in this at-bat but ultimately struck out on nine pitches. Maybe things would have been different if he had started off 1-0 instead of 0-1.

Even though the framing bubble may have burst with just about every team employing quality framing catchers, the difference between who Darvish was throwing to with the Rangers and who he’ll be throwing to with the Dodgers is enormous. Not only do they excel at framing in general, but Grandal and Barnes are both lights-out at the bottom of the zone. They’ll save his rightful strikes and even steal him some pitches that miss low. It’s a brand new season for Yu Darvish.

Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @MrChrisAnders.