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  • Joe Mauer and catcher framing

    Catcher framing is extremely popular in baseball research circles right now. Go over to Fangraphs.com or BaseballProspectus.com and you will find several studies and articles on the subject. It’s Hansel hot right now.

    While we can determine which catchers are better at getting more out-of-zone pitches called strikes than others, we still do not have a full grasp on what it means to a team’s bottom line. In some ways, it feels like a butterfly effect. If a catcher is unable to get a borderline pitch for a punchout strike, it could mean an addition pitch for the pitcher which could mean a base hit which means another at bat which means an additional four or five pitches which runs up the pitch count and could mean going to the bullpen in the fifth rather than the sixth or seventh.

    One of the more recent studies on Baseball Prospectus found that Joe Mauer’s ability to coax the low strike. As Ben Lindbergh’s data shows, Mauer’s 19.5% strike rate low in the zone is well-below the average for catchers –in fact, 41.3% below average. By comparison, Milwaukee’s Jonathon Lucroy has excelled at getting this pitched called. His strike rate in the low portion is 77.1% (or 66.1% above average).

    (On the other hand, because of his tall statute, Mauer has been much better at getting high strikes versus the smaller framed Lucroy. Much, MUCH better. According to Lindbergh’s figures, Mauer is 86.3% better than the average at coercing the high strike.)

    Lindbergh provides a .gif that visually shows the difference between the two catchers’ called strike zones, not the bottom dark dots on Mauer’s chart that represent called balls:


    As a real-life example, in Tuesday night’s game against the Angels, with Anthony Swarzak cruising through his first inning of work, retiring Howie Kendrick and Chris Iannetta on seven pitches. He was in the middle of doing the same to Angels’ third baseman, Luis Jimenez, up 0-2 and twirled off this exquisite curveball:




    Everybody in the ballpark had thought Jimenez would be rung up. Swarzak, Mauer, the fan sitting behind the foul pole in right field, Jimenez, heck, even Jimenez’s mom probably thought he needed to grab some pine. Home plate umpire Paul Nauert, the most important person in that decision-making process, did not believe it was a strike.

    Here’s the location via MLB’s Gameday:



    That pitch -- pitch number 4 -- certainly falls within that area where Mauer has not had those pitches called strikes.In the grand scheme of things, this was a non-event. Swarzak would retire him on the next pitch – a curve in the dirt – and no damage would be done beyond the extra pitch. However, as I revisited the location of the pitch, I couldn’t help but think of Lindbergh’s study and how we have another incident to add to the collection of Mauer not getting the low strike call.

    Admittedly, this may have nothing to do with Mauer’s framing or stature that affected his ability to get this pitched called a strike or not. After all, Nauert was having somewhat of a rough game – as evidence by Chris Parmelee’s called third strike in the bottom of that inning:




    Here’s a thought: How does Mauer’s inability to get low strikes effect what is predominately a sinker ball rotation? In years past, Mauer’s height and tendency to get high strikes called would have played well for pitchers like Scott Baker who work mainly up in the zone with their fastballs. But with Vance Worley and Mike Pelfrey toeing the rubber, their arsenal is more reliant on getting borderline pitches called strikes in order to get strike three. So far, both pitchers are well-below their career strikeout norms. Obviously, plenty the blame needs to be assigned to the pitcher, but how much influence does Mauer’s handling have?
    This article was originally published in blog: Joe Mauer and catcher framing started by Parker Hageman
    Comments 32 Comments
    1. Willihammer's Avatar
      Willihammer -
      I don't know if its really fair to compare Mauer to Lucroy, who is about as elite as Jose Molina in terms of framing.

      Might be that Mauer still gets an above average number of low strikes called.

      edit:
      Mauer’s 19.5% strike rate low in the zone is well-below the average for catchers –in fact, 41.3% below average.
      So, the average low strike rate is 19.5/.587 = 33.2%?
    1. Willihammer's Avatar
      Willihammer -
      We classified pitches within two inches above the strike zone as “high,” within two inches below the strike zone as “low,"

      rea Called Strikes Called Pitches Called Strike Percentage
      High 5200 27302 19.0
      Low 16666 50145 33.2
      Side 28725 123832 23.2
      So that's 1.34 low pitches per half inning. 12 per game. Mauer gets 2.3 of them called strikes, and the average catcher gets 3.8. A strike and a half per game on average. yeah that seems significant.
    1. gunnarthor's Avatar
      gunnarthor -
      "Hansel hot"? Not sure I've ever heard that expression before.
    1. Don't Feed the Greed Guy's Avatar
      Don't Feed the Greed Guy -
      Another great article for us novices, Parker. You raise my knowledge of the game, and appreciation for the finer details. Also, good use of graphics/links. Nice work.
    1. Parker Hageman's Avatar
      Parker Hageman -
      @Willihammer,

      I don't think you are incorrect in questioning the impact of a catcher's ability to corral more strikes, because I don't think there is a straight line you can draw and say this skill is worth X amount of wins. However, Mike Fast at BP (now an Astros front office staff) attempted to quantify it. His research said an elite catcher like Jose Molina was work 72 runs over five season -- roughly 7 wins.

      To me, what it is, which I attempted to explain in the begin, is the butterfly effect caused by a catcher's inability to get a strike called -- similar to a fielder's inability to make a play on a batted ball. The totals may be few -- as you pointed out -- but the events that transpire after that occurrence is what may effect the pitcher/team.

      "Hansel hot"? Not sure I've ever heard that expression before.
      Not a Zoolander fan? Is that reference too dated? Am I getting that old?
    1. Oxtung's Avatar
      Oxtung -
      Quote Originally Posted by Willihammer View Post
      So that's 1.34 low pitches per half inning. 12 per game. Mauer gets 2.3 of them called strikes, and the average catcher gets 3.8. A strike and a half per game on average. yeah that seems significant.
      You have to take into account the other half of the equation though. How many strikes got called balls? The differential is the important part. That number is not nearly as large. For instance Yadier Molina's NET strike's called is 3 for the entire season so far. That's 3 more strike's than should have been called through 45 Innings.
    1. Dave T's Avatar
      Dave T -
      I have a different "other half of the equation". Joe is getting more high strike calls than Lucroy. Even a sinker ball pitcher has to throw high once in a while.
    1. husker brian's Avatar
      husker brian -
      Those are just two terrible calls on both pitches highlighted. Umpires are so inconsistent with the strike zone, its a tough stat to track, IMO.
    1. Willihammer's Avatar
      Willihammer -
      Quote Originally Posted by Oxtung View Post
      You have to take into account the other half of the equation though. How many strikes got called balls? The differential is the important part. That number is not nearly as large. For instance Yadier Molina's NET strike's called is 3 for the entire season so far. That's 3 more strike's than should have been called through 45 Innings.
      Out of curiosity where did you get that info?

      Its a complicated question no doubt. There are also the merciful umpire and the ruthless umpire effects. So count has to be factored into the equation somewhere. If you have a strikethrowing staff, it woudl stand to reason that you are going to lose a lot more of those borderline 0-2 calls, and likewise, if your staff falls behind a lot, you might get the benefit of more 2-0 and 3-0 strike calls. But maybe Mike Fast and the guys at BP are already accounting for things like this.
    1. Willihammer's Avatar
      Willihammer -
      Quote Originally Posted by Parker Hageman View Post
      @Willihammer,

      I don't think you are incorrect in questioning the impact of a catcher's ability to corral more strikes, because I don't think there is a straight line you can draw and say this skill is worth X amount of wins. However, Mike Fast at BP (now an Astros front office staff) attempted to quantify it. His research said an elite catcher like Jose Molina was work 72 runs over five season -- roughly 7 wins.

      To me, what it is, which I attempted to explain in the begin, is the butterfly effect caused by a catcher's inability to get a strike called -- similar to a fielder's inability to make a play on a batted ball. The totals may be few -- as you pointed out -- but the events that transpire after that occurrence is what may effect the pitcher/team.
      I was trying to scale the rates and totals into something digestible but maybe it was a vain attempt since yeah pretty much impossible to zip up the cumulative effects into a single statistic. Its all too easy to imagine a scenario like last night where Swarzak gets screwed out of 1 lousy strike and it leading to a 9 run rally and lost game.
    1. ThePuck's Avatar
      ThePuck -
      Quote Originally Posted by Willihammer View Post
      I was trying to scale the rates and totals into something digestible but maybe it was a vain attempt since yeah pretty much impossible to zip up the cumulative effects into a single statistic. Its all too easy to imagine a scenario like last night where Swarzak gets screwed out of 1 lousy strike and it leading to a 9 run rally and lost game.
      speaking of Swarzak, he seemed to be throwing completely different than he used to. I couldn't believe my eyes last night. Throwing with determination, movement all over the place...snapping off pitches. Totally in the zone. It was great to see.
    1. cmathewson's Avatar
      cmathewson -
      That Parmelee strike was made worse by the fact that he had been very stingy on strikes on the outside corner with a lefty hitting all night. Pelfry had several that I thought were on the corner or on the black called balls. Relative to many of those, that one was six inches outside and four inches low. It was one of the most inconsistent zones I've seen all year.
    1. Thor's Avatar
      Thor -
      You also have to take the pitcher into account. I could catch Greg Maddux and get a lot of borderline calls but Swarzak isn't going to get near the calls regardless of who is behind the plate.
    1. h2oface's Avatar
      h2oface -
      It is a shame that this even comes into play now. A shame that the balls and strikes can't just be balls and strikes, because they are and the tech is there to make it right all the time.
    1. Oxtung's Avatar
      Oxtung -
      Quote Originally Posted by Willihammer View Post
      Out of curiosity where did you get that info?

      Its a complicated question no doubt. There are also the merciful umpire and the ruthless umpire effects. So count has to be factored into the equation somewhere. If you have a strikethrowing staff, it woudl stand to reason that you are going to lose a lot more of those borderline 0-2 calls, and likewise, if your staff falls behind a lot, you might get the benefit of more 2-0 and 3-0 strike calls. But maybe Mike Fast and the guys at BP are already accounting for things like this.
      I got it from the original BP article linked to in Parker's article. They are tracking Yadier Molina's weekly and yearly totals in their weekly article. It would be nice if we could see ALL the background data and look at Mauer and Doumit specifically but I don't know that the raw data is easily available.
    1. fairweather's Avatar
      fairweather -
      Those bottom inches of the strike zone are critical. Mauer shouldn't catch.
    1. Ultima Ratio's Avatar
      Ultima Ratio -
      I'm beginning to join the unpopular position of letting technology call the strikes, not a human. It's real time, no delay, no bias, complete viewing coverage of the plate. Umpiring is becoming a "make-work" program. I don't hold this view in any strong way, but would love to hear the arguments on both sides. I guess one obstacle would be letting the catcher know in real time whether the pitch were a strike or not when runners are moving and on dropped third strikes. Would there be and immediate flash of light or sound indicating a strike -- like they have in tennis on serves to call it out? I dunno, but I think this eventually will happen.
    1. USAFChief's Avatar
      USAFChief -
      Quote Originally Posted by h2oface View Post
      It is a shame that this even comes into play now. A shame that the balls and strikes can't just be balls and strikes, because they are and the tech is there to make it right all the time.
      I'm not sure that's true. I'd like to believe it, but just because a mechanical system measures a given pitch, doesn't mean that measurement is actually correct. Small sample size, but go take a look at the BP article in Parker's article. Down near the bottom you'll see "worst frames." Take a look at number 5 (Hendriks Doumit)...a pitch measured as 0.000 ft from the strike zone. The pitch is clearly well inside, a fact even mentioned by the author in his comments. Yet according to "the tech," the pitch should have been called a strike. I'd like to see some independent proof that pitch f/x or any other system is more accurate than umpires before I assume it to be true. We already know questec was basically garbage, and you only have to watch a game, and simultaneously watch one of the gameday-like simulators, to know the gameday representation of pitches is questionable at best.
    1. cmathewson's Avatar
      cmathewson -
      Quote Originally Posted by USAFChief View Post
      I'm not sure that's true. I'd like to believe it, but just because a mechanical system measures a given pitch, doesn't mean that measurement is actually correct. Small sample size, but go take a look at the BP article in Parker's article. Down near the bottom you'll see "worst frames." Take a look at number 5 (Hendriks Doumit)...a pitch measured as 0.000 ft from the strike zone. The pitch is clearly well inside, a fact even mentioned by the author in his comments. Yet according to "the tech," the pitch should have been called a strike. I'd like to see some independent proof that pitch f/x or any other system is more accurate than umpires before I assume it to be true. We already know questec was basically garbage, and you only have to watch a game, and simultaneously watch one of the gameday-like simulators, to know the gameday representation of pitches is questionable at best.
      There will come a time when a mechanical balls-and-strikes umpire will be clearly more effective than a human. I remember when Wimbeldon went to our system (I work for IBM) for line judge calls. It took that error out of the game. Now, that's in one dimension and the strike zone is in two dimensions, so it's more complex. But just looking at Fox Trax gives me confidence that a machine would be better than many umpires right now. Given Moore's Law, it's a matter of a couple of years before the machines are better than all human umpires.

      At the very least, they should consider a system like the NFL has: Managers get a few calls a game to challenge. If the system shows that the ump made an obvious bad call, it will be reversed. If not, the manager is charged with something--a ball to the next batter or something. That call in the Rangers/Rays game would never happen with such a system.
    1. USAFChief's Avatar
      USAFChief -
      Quote Originally Posted by cmathewson View Post
      There will come a time when a mechanical balls-and-strikes umpire will be clearly more effective than a human. I remember when Wimbeldon went to our system (I work for IBM) for line judge calls. It took that error out of the game. Now, that's in one dimension and the strike zone is in two dimensions, so it's more complex. But just looking at Fox Trax gives me confidence that a machine would be better than many umpires right now. Given Moore's Law, it's a matter of a couple of years before the machines are better than all human umpires.

      At the very least, they should consider a system like the NFL has: Managers get a few calls a game to challenge. If the system shows that the ump made an obvious bad call, it will be reversed. If not, the manager is charged with something--a ball to the next batter or something. That call in the Rangers/Rays game would never happen with such a system.
      A) I get your point, but in fact the strike zone is three dimensional, not two. B) Machines may very well be better than humans right now, for all I know. But I don't know, and I also don't know if a machine derived strike zone does anything to improve the game. C) I am in favor of a 5th umpire in the booth, who reviews safe/out calls, fair/foul etc as they happen. In most cases, we know before the next pitch is thrown whether an ump blew a call at 1st, for example. That would be simple to fix, and would most likely not affect game time or flow too seriously. I am most definitely NOT in favor of an NFL-style challenge system, which IMO is just about the worst possible way to go about things if your goal is to get as many calls correct as possible.
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