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Catcher Framing and Winning In Sync

August 24, 2018
 Notice a pattern in the team leaderboard for Strike Zone Runs Saved this season?


Most Strike Zone Runs Saved 
 Dodgers 15 
 Diamondbacks 13
 Blue Jays
 Red Sox  8
 Yankees  8

Five of the six teams listed are among the best teams in baseball. They have a combined win percentage of .578.

Now take a look at the teams that have the fewest. They have a combined winning percentage of .439.

Fewest Strike Zone Runs Saved 
 Reds -11 
 Royals -8
 Rangers -8
 White Sox -8
 Pirates -7
 Cubs  -7
 Mets  -7

Strike Zone Runs Saved is a stat SIS developed to measure a catcher's ability to get more strikes for his pitcher than the average catcher. It looks at whether a catcher got a strike compared to the probability of the pitch being a strike, based on its location, the count and the handedness of the batter among other factors. It divides responsibility for a called strike among the catcher, pitcher, umpire, and batter. This number isolates the catcher's responsibility.

Our numbers above are not to say that good pitch framing leads directly to winning or bad pitch framing assures losing. But having a good catcher who can snag more strikes than he’s expected to get is important.

The Dodgers' success comes from an impressive combination of catchers, whom we note below. You're probably familiar with Yasmani Grandal, but Austin Barnes has been awesome in this area too.

The best defensive team in MLB, the Diamondbacks, has a unique situation at catcher, with three players splitting duties. Each has been good at getting extra strikes for his pitchers.

Jeff Mathis rates among the best in baseball at getting called strikes on pitches at the knees or just below the knees, where Zack Greinke, for whom Mathis serves as a personal catcher, often works.

J.R. Murphy got off to a strong offensive start and had good results on the defensive side as well. The latter has carried over. The former has not. Both Murphy and Mathis saved five runs with their framing. Alex Avila had poor numbers framing while in Detroit but has picked them up in Arizona. He has three Strike Zone Runs Saved.

Which catchers rate best?

The top two catchers in pitch-framing this season are not household names -- Max Stassi of the Houston Astros and Barnes. Stassi has a slightly higher runs saved total because of more playing time. Barnes is netting more strikes on a per-pitch basis.

Most Strike Zone Runs Saved
Catcher Team  
 Max Stassi Astros 
 Austin Barnes Dodgers
 Sandy León Red Sox
 Tyler Flowers Braves  7
 Yasmani Grandal Dodgers

Both excel at catching both the low pitch (around the knees) and the pitch on or just off the outside corner. Barnes has the highest called strike rates among catchers on those, with Stassi right behind him. Want references? Just ask Justin Verlander, who has 77 strikeouts and eight walks in nine starts caught by Stassi, or Clayton Kershaw, who has 40 strikeouts and two walks in five starts caught by Barnes.

Barnes and Yasmani Grandal ensure that the Dodgers have a catcher strong in pitch-framing starting every game behind the plate. Stassi has teamed with well-skilled Brian McCann and Martin Maldonado for a similar level of comfort in Houston.

Over the last three seasons, the premier catcher in this regard has been Tyler Flowers of the Braves, with Grandal right behind him. It’s worth noting that Flowers ranks first in Strike Zone Runs Saved despite ranking 22nd in innings in that span. Flowers has saved seven runs with his pitch-framing this season.

The trailers in Strike Zone Runs Saved are two catchers who excel in other areas -- Salvador Perez of the Royals and Tucker Barnhart of the Reds. Each has cost his team seven runs. Perez has had issues in this area throughout his career, but makes up for it by being the top catcher at thwarting basestealers. Barnhart overcomes his deficiency by being one of the game’s top pitch-blockers. They would be even more valuable if they could find a way to improve upon their pitch-framing performance.


COMMENTS (5 Comments, most recent shown first)

Real good job on this, both with the correlation and the enterprising details about where the best framers excel. This was very enjoyable and informative.

One thing that caught my eye is that three of the bottom four teams have young and inexperienced pitching staffs, especially in their rotations. For the Royals, White Sox and Reds, pitchers under 26 or with less than two years' MLB service made more than half the team's starts through Thursday — ranging from the Royals' 51.6% to the White Sox' 70.1%. Pitchers meeting both of those criteria made 45.3% of the Royals' starts, 46.4% of the White Sox' and 58.6 of the Reds'

Have you noticed a correlation between lower pitch-framing success with a pitcher's youth or inexperience. Are adjustments made for youth/experience and a pitcher's command or control? Also: how consistent are individual catchers' success rates when they change teams?

These aspects are closely related to KaiserD2's point.

You mentioned particular pitch-framing success around the lower and outside boundaries of the strike zone. They are the farthest from the umpire's eyes, setting up over the catcher's inside shoulder. I wonder if that's where the most strikes are gained by catchers, and also where the most are lost. Umpires would understandably be more accurate on the upper and inside boundaries.

9:39 PM Aug 26th
It is probably just selection bias. Pick six teams on any random quantity, such as the number of players with a name starting with 'M'. We would expect three to be in the top half of teams. If it is a quantity associated with success, we'd expect more than half. So maybe we'd expect four and got five. Big deal. It should not be too hard to find a quantity that is six for six.

Same thing at the other end. Five of the poorer teams in this measure are in the poorer half of teams. Ho-hum.​
6:01 PM Aug 25th
I think better teams might be favored more in the late innings as they are ahead more. I think the umpires sometimes widen the zone at the end of the game.
5:39 PM Aug 25th
David Kaiser, I had a similar thought, that umpires may be (unconsciously) favoring better teams. I'd be interested in seeing whether framing/umpires' strike calls change over the course of the season -- do umpires increasingly favor the better teams as the season progresses?
9:33 AM Aug 25th
I have not up until now tried to study the issue of framing systematically. One reason is that my own work is historical and we will never have historical data on this subject.

This is a very interesting article but it seems to me there's a small elephant lurking in the corner.

The impact of framing, as defined here, would explain only a very small part of the superiority of the teams whose catchers have the most success doing it. My hunch is that what we are seeing here is a variant of what might be called the Ted Williams effect. Everyone complained, during Williams's career, that the umpires would not call him out on strikes because of his reputation. I'm sure those complaints were exaggerated but there may well have been something to this. In this case, it sure looks as if umpires have a subconscious bias in favor of the most successful teams. I would be very interested to see more comments on this.

David Kaiser
8:01 AM Aug 25th
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