If you watch enough baseball, you have likely noticed many catchers moving the pitch as they receive it toward the strike zone. Many refer to this as “framing the pitch”. I prefer to refer to this as funneling the pitch toward the zone.
Ten years ago the standard for catchers was to catch the pitch and stick it. The approach was to be strong and catch the ball and keep it where you caught it. As with every sport there is evolution over time in how the game is played. For instance, in 1909 Ty Cobb led the league in home runs, with 9! Just 12 years later Babe Ruth led the league with 59.
The use of data in baseball isn’t new but in the last 5-10 years the growth of catcher receiving data has changed they way we look at catching. With this data we are able to fine tune our approach to achieve improving results.
The receiving data that is gathered and analyzed at the MLB level has shown us that catchers who move the pitch as they are receiving it, win more strikes.
I see a lot of comments among fans and even coaches stating they don’t like the appearance of catchers moving the ball. They are opposed to the aesthetics of the glove movement that has become common. I understand this movement of the glove is different from what we have seen catchers do in the past.
As a coach, I am far less concerned with how it looks than I am the results. Catchers don’t get style points. It ALL boils down to the results, whether it is receiving a pitch or blocking a pitch in the dirt.
So, let’s break this down based upon the responsibilities a catcher has. I teach my catchers that one of their primary responsibilities is to keep strikes, strikes. Meaning, don’t push the pitch that is a strike out of the zone resulting in it being called a ball. Secondly, the catcher should be working hard to steal strikes. This means working pitches on the border of the strike zone or just outside the zone back to the strike zone with the goal of a ball (by definition of the strike zone) being called a strike. Until the robo-ump makes it’s way into the MLB, we are dealing with human umpires who each have a slight variation of the strike zone. Some umpires will give the pitcher a little more room off the edge of the plate or at the bottom of the zone. At lower levels of play (high school and youth levels) catchers have even more opportunity to win strikes for their pitchers as umpire zones tend to be less consistent, meaning a catcher can actually expand the zone.
To drive home the concept that it ultimately boils down to the results a catchers is achieving, let’s look at some receiving data from a game.
This data coms from a new website that has been launched formatting receiving data from the MLB Statcast database. You can follow them on Twitter: @MLBFrameJobs.
This website allows you to look up the framing statistics for a specific catcher in a specific game. First sort by the date, then sort by game and finally by the catchers who played in that specific game.
Here is a pitch plot chart for September 5th, 2021 for Curt Casali (San Francisco Giants). This chart shows us all the called balls and strikes (not strikes batters hit or swung and missed). Notice the called balls (red) inside the zone and the called strikes (blue) outside the zone. According to Statcast, Casali won some strikes that are outside the zone and lost some that were inside the zone.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these called strikes that were clearly outside the zone as well as some of the called balls that were inside the strike (according to Statcast). I have drawn attention to specific pitches, some won strikes and some lost strikes.
To view the actual pitch circled/numbered above, click the corresponding number/link below to watch the game video.
- Pitch #1 – Casali in a slightly angled stance on inside corner of plate, extends to pitch with thumb down turning back to horizontal with some lift. This is a called strike 3 to Betts. We have to consider the game situation as well. = won strike
- Pitch #2 – Casali extends to this pitch off the plate with the thumb down and snaps it quickly back to horizontal = won strike
- Pitch #3 – Casali chases this ball to his glove side on a pitch he expected to be on the opposite side of the plate. Pitcher missed his spot which makes Casali’s job difficult. The lateral body movement to reach the pitch, and his momentum working away from the zone ruined his chances of winning that pitch = lost strike
- Pitch #4 – Casali appears to be crossed up as he seems to be expecting the pitch middle-away and instead it runs to his glove side. Due to the pitcher missing his spot forcing Casali to work away from his body to catch the pitch he looses the chance to catch it cleanly and work it back to the plate = lost strike
- Pitch #5 – A pitch working up and in (from a lefty) to a RH batter. Casali is able to get around it and work it back toward the plate for a called strike 3. = won strike
- Pitch #6 – Casali tries to get on top of this high “striball” to his glove side corner. He works it back down to the zone slightly but is unable to get the call. = lost strike
- Pitch #7 – Unlike the previous pitch (#6) we looked at, Casali didn’t get on top of the pitch as efficiently. He is actually chasing the ball a little. His inability to work the ball back down even a little likely hurt his ability to win this strike = lost strike
- Pitch #8 – Like the previous two, pitches #6 & #7, this pitch is up in the zone and is a borderline pitch. Pitch #7 and #8 are in very similar spots according to ESPN’s K-Zone (in videos). Unlike pitch #7, Casali gets above this pitch and works in back down to the zone. = ensuring the strike is called a strike
- Pitch #9 – A nice smooth move made by Casali on this pitch off the plate. Works it back to the zone to win the strike = won strike
- Pitch #10 – Another nice lateral move of a pitch off the plate to his arm side. Slides it back with good timing = won strike
- Pitch #11 – Works with the movement of this pitch as it is traveling toward the zone. Good quick lateral move back into the zone = won strike
- Pitch #12 – Two pitches in the bottom corner of the zone that he is unable to win. Casali makes a good move on both unable to win either. = lost strikes
- Pitch #13 – Two more pitches in the bottom corner of the zone. One he wins, and one he loses.
- Pitch #14 – A low pitch recorded as a strike on ESPN’s K-Zone but via Statcast it goes down as a ball. Since we are referencing the Statcast pitch data, this is a ball. If Casali doesn’t move this he has no chance of winning the strike. Notice all the other pitches at the bottom of the zone he won during the course of the game.
After looking at all of this it should be clear that this is far from a perfect system which is why there is so much noise around moving MLB to an electronic strike zone. Until that becomes a reality (which I hope it doesn’t) at the major league level we are working with human umpires. This data shows us that moving the ball can result in balls being called strikes which is what a catcher should be working toward to help his pitcher and team.
If we consider pitch #’s 1, 2, 5, 9, 10 and 11, Casali won six strikes for his pitchers. The way this is determine to benefit a team is in the statistical measure called “Framing Runs Above Average” or FRAA. In this calculation to determine the impact of a strike on potential runs, a ball called a strike by the umpire results in a loss of 0.048 expected runs to the batter. So, these six stolen strikes results in a lost 0.288 runs.
This result by Casali is what catchers are expected to do; win strikes resulting in a reduced probability of the opposing team scoring runs. If Casali isn’t moving the pitch he doesn’t win these strikes.
When you consider Casali’s overall receiving performance in this game, he stole more strikes outside the zone than he lost inside the zone. Unfortunately, the impact of lost strikes in the zone has more weight than winning strikes outside the zone so his “Run Gain/Loss” is a -0.90. If he doesn’t win those strikes outside the zone to win strikes, his Run Gain/Loss would be much worse.
The bottom line is that catchers have to work very hard to ensure pitches in the zone are called strikes and achieve as many strike calls outside the zone as possible. That is how a catcher helps his pitcher and team. If a catcher doesn’t move the pitch toward the zone he has little to no chance of winning strike calls on balls outside the zone. Whether we like the “look” or not, we should be focused on the results: more strike calls.