Pitch Framing: Just Stop it Already

Ok, enough already. Admittedly, I’m a little old fashioned when it comes to baseball and sabermetrics. I’m coming around a little bit, though. While I still think the multiple formulas out there for WAR (wins above replacement) still seem awfully arbitrary to me, they generally seem to be in the neighborhood of making sense most of the time. Guys like Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw, Giancarlo Stanton, and Yadier Molina get justifiably awesome scores. Guys like Ryan Ludwick, Gordon Beckham, and Travis D’Arnaud get suitably poor scores. And perpetually and criminally underrated guys like Hunter Pence and Brett Gardner get a bit of deserved props. And then there’s the curious notion that Corey Kluber (excellent, don’t get me wrong) had a higher WAR than Kershaw. Just sayin’, who would you rather have as your number one guy?

Then there are stats like UZR (don’t worry, we’re getting to pitch framing in a second) which measure a fielder’s defensive value based on how many runs they purportedly save based on defensive prowess. Ok, Billy Hamilton somehow outscored Juan Lagares in this metric. Hamilton’s blazing speed is indisputable, and it no doubt helps him chasing down batted balls. But he takes poor routes, and isn’t fast to react to the ball being hit. Lagares lacks the speed of Hamilton, but reacts practically instantly to batted balls, and takes near perfect routes every time. How do you figure? Chase Headley leads the pack for third basemen, far ahead of the immeasurably superior Nolan Arenado. Somehow, Luis Valbuena and Cody Asche chart, while the outstanding Juan Uribe isn’t even on the list. Soooooooo, yeah. 

Finally, we get to pitch framing. Admittedly, this is a bit of a homer area for me, being a Dodger fan. In brief, before he signed with the Blue Jays, Russ Martin was a popular pick to go to the Dodgers in free agency because of his high pitch framing stat, something new VP Andrew Friedman is supposedly high on. Couple that with the fact that incumbent AJ Ellis is ranked low in that “statistic,” the writing is on the wall, right?

Let’s just put this to bed as simply as possible. This “metric” is as close to absolute crap as you can get. Here’s why. If you have pitchers that throw predominantly strikes, you don’t have to “frame” pitches. 

Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t value in being able to receive a pitch in a manner that doesn’t resemble a seizure. There are plenty of catchers who stab at every ball thrown to them. And they’re all in AA ball or below. 

Two of the leaders in the pitch framing “stat” in 2014 were Martin and the Rays’ Jose Molina. One of the worst was the Dodgers’ AJ Ellis. Martin caught the likes of Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. Both guys have superb stuff but struggle with command from time to time because of youth in Cole’s case, or persistent mechanical issues in Liriano’s case. In Molina’s case, he’s catching guys like Jake Odorizzi, Chris Archer, and Alex Cobb; brilliant young talents who have the ability twirl gems any time they are on the mound…but also have the command issues that come with being hard throwers in early stages of what might become brilliant careers.

Plenty of pitches to frame for both of those catchers, right?

Here are a few names for you. Clayton Kershaw. Zack Greinke. Dan Haren. Hyun Jin Ryu. Every single one of those pitchers, even Ryu in his brief career, are universally recognized as having good command. Exactly how often does the catcher need to “steal” a strike by “framing” a pitch?

AJ Ellis’ 2015 status with the Dodgers was secure the moment that Clayton Kershaw told Andrew Friedman that AJ was his guy. You don’t eff with your all-universe pitcher and his favorite catcher.

But none of that matters. The bottom line is, guys that throw strikes get calls. Let’s put it this way. Catchers who have to catch a staff of pitchers who don’t necessarily know where the ball is going are going to have to “frame” more pitches than catchers with a staff of guys with solid command.

Guys who throw the ball where the catcher is set up are going to get more strike calls than guys who make the catcher reach for the pitch. Ask any umpire from little league to the pros.

Now for part two of why this pitch framing crap is just that…crap. The two most impactful pitches a pitcher can throw are strike three or ball four. Strike three gets you an out, ball four means a base runner, at the risk of stating the obvious. Those two pitches also share something in common. They signify the end of an at bat. If a borderline call goes against the pitcher on the first pitch, he can still recover to make good pitches after that and get the hitter out. Or, if Jose Molina perfectly frames a borderline pitch for a strike on the first offering, there is nothing to say that the hitter can’t line the next pitch into the gap for a double. 

So can we please knock off this bull butter about pitch framing?  Can we please stop helping Scott Boras get richer? Please?

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