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Pitch Framers and Readily Available Overachievers

December 17, 2012

What are teams valuing these days? I’ve noticed a couple of trends that are worth mentioning.

It appears that teams are starting to recognize catchers who make pitched balls look like strikes. The work pioneered by Dan Turkenkopf and unearthed by Max Marchi at Hardball Times and Mike Fast at Baseball Prospectus (see my Scoresheetwiz article on this) has clearly been embraced by some major league teams. How else do you explain the Tampa Bay Rays going with Jose Molina–a 37-year-old career 68 OPS+ hitter (that’s .223/.286/.355) as their starting catcher for the second year in a row? Jose Molina is the king of "pitch framing."

I can’t find a complete list of pitch framers, but the last three Blue Jay catchers acquired were all above-average pitch framers: Jose Molina, Jeff Mathis, and John Buck (twice). Boston’s newest catching acquisition David Ross has also been above average in pitch framing.

An even newer trend, it seems to me, is the opposite of what we might expect. One of Bill James’ revelations in the early 1980s was the significance age was as an indicator of future career success–at least among position players. If a young player can nail a starting position in the majors by the age of 20, there is a much better chance he will stick around long enough to have a Hall of Fame career. He will likely reach his peak at 27, just as other players who typically break into the majors at 24 or 25 do, so he’ll have and an extra four or five years of getting even better before reaching that downhill slide. Thus, we stat nuts have been applauding general managers who acquire younger players.

Yet, Boston just signed two thirty-two-year-old major league veteran outfielders—Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes—as well as a 31-year-old Mike Napoli to play first base. Players that age are supposed to be in steady decline. Their new catcher David Ross will be 36 before the season starts.

Oakland and Tampa Bay are reputedly sabermetric-oriented teams. Although they can’t afford expensive free agents, they haven’t shied away from cheap major league or minor league veterans. Last year, Oakland was boosted by Brandon Moss–a six-and-a-half-year veteran of AA or AAA baseball–who had one major league year as a Pirate.  They finally gave Chris Carter a shot after 3 ½ years in their upper levels. They took a one-year shot at Jonny Gomes before Boston did. They actually traded prospects for 29-year-old veteran Seth Smith. 

Then, as they neared the trading deadline, they sent another prospect off for a partial-season rental of shortstop Stephen Drew. What they didn’t do was sit and wait all year for their younger, supposed future stars—Jemile Weeks, Daric Barton, and Collin Cowgill—to figure things out at the major league level. Oakland saw only a month of Josh Donaldson at third-base before they claimed Brandon Inge, who had been released by Detroit a couple weeks shy of his 35th birthday.

Similarly, last year the Rays gave a shot to 32-year-old journeyman utility infielder Jeff Keppinger. Their big free agent splash last year was 33-going-on-34-year-old Luke Scott. When neither Reid Brignac nor Sean Rodriguez was cutting it at shortstop, the Rays were not afraid to go with the older, less touted eight-year vet of the upper minors, Elliot Johnson. One exception to this pattern was their patience with Desmond Jennings.

Then, I’m not sure what to make of the latest Tampa Bay player acquisitions. Wil Myers certainly does not fit this pattern. Ryan Roberts is 32, but James Loney and Yunel Escobar are still in their prime (28 and 30). Both had major league success at an early enough age that they were expected to have impressive long careers ahead of them. Both have been disappointments–disastrously so last year. Lumping Escobar in with Scott, the Rays certainly don’t worry about political correctness.

The moves this year by the Blue Jays got me thinking about this. Toronto’s Alex Anthopoulos had been praised by the SABR-savvy press the past three years for his trades. He’d gone after youngish, highly-prized talents such as Kelly Johnson, Colby Ramus, Brett Lawrie and the above-mentioned Yunel Escobar (when he was 27). None of this quartet had a good year last year–and AA seems to have made a complete shift in team-building strategy.

Toronto does seem happy with Lawrie and they are willing to give Rasmus another chance, but they are through with Escobar and Johnson. Instead they traded a pile of players–mostly prospects–for established stars and veterans, including 29-year-old Jose Reyes—who immediately becomes the best shortstop in the league--and soon-to-be 28-year-old Emilio Bonifacio, who will battle with the newly acquired 32-year-old free agent Maicer Izturis for playing time at second-base. No more waiting around for young outfielders Anthony Gose or Moises Sierra to turn into major League contributors.

Toronto also splurged on 28-year-old free agent Melky Cabrera. Actually, at $16 million/2 years, that was a heck of a pick-up–an embarrassment to the Tigers, who paid $26 million for two years of Torii Hunter, who is nine years older and last year hit almost .100 points less of OPS.  Toronto rid itself of the Yunel Escobar controversy, but acquired one in suspended-for-PEDS Cabrera. No doubt that was why he was such a bargain.

These teams best known for scouring for market inefficiencies have apparently found one in the over-value placed on young players with years of pre-free agency left. There are plenty of major league quality players looking for a regular job with a year or two of team control still left. A team can just keep filling in and re-filling in with these superior older vets instead of losing games, while their younger players learn at the major league level. If a prospect can develop in the minors while the team fills in with vets, all the better to keep his arbitration clock from ticking. If another team wants your future star at the cost of right-now quality players who fit your team, it might not pay to stay stuck on your prospect.


COMMENTS (4 Comments, most recent shown first)

Seems to me that Boston has a long history of using old players. I've never previously thought they knew what they were doing, but your article now makes me wonder. Of course, if Bill James is on their staff....
4:36 PM Dec 18th
Well, it sure looks like the Rays are sold on pitch framing - and the Astros probably are, too, because they hired Mike Fast. Perhaps, CERA is too wobly for the pitch framing effect to show up clearly in it. Of course, what the Rays believe isn't proof that it is so. I think it is cool, however, that it is standard now for teams have a stats staff. Besides the money tossed around on players, the best teams will have the best scouts, player development, wheeler-dealers, and statasticians!
3:36 PM Dec 18th
* well, pitch framing might be -difficult- to capture within CERA, that is, might be failing to show up through our metrics in ways that we can perceive. ... Broad point being, though, that if a guy behind the plate is preventing runs (through framing, calling the right pitch, comforting his pitcher, whatever) we expected to see all of that in CERA.

Here's a macro stat, CERA, that we thought showed no overall pitcher-batter-matchup contribution by the guys behind the plate, and yet you isolate one subsector of that realm of the game ... and it shows up to be worth 10-40 runs per season.

There's a takeway here, I think, as to the general assumption that our measurements are nearly perfect.
2:28 PM Dec 18th
We remember a number of years in which many saber authorities insisted that GM's should pay zero, no, attention to Catcher ERA (CERA). Nowadays it's all the vogue to analyze pitch framing -- is it worth 20 runs a year, or 40?, with 20 runs being worth about $10M on the free agent market.

Bill argued in reply that even if CERA existed and was worth 1 run per game, the models being used would not detect CERA. So don't be so quick to insist that the org's are overvaluing defensive catchers.

Note carefully that "pitch framing" value, if it exists, would be captured within the CERA metric.

One more warning that we need to have MUCH more respect for the complexity of the problems than we usually have. :- )
2:23 PM Dec 18th
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