Despite two decent starts at the end of the Cubs series, the D-backs rotation is still struggling: last in ERA (5.39) and 26th in FIP (4.27). But don’t lay the blame at the feet of Miguel Montero: new statistics show that he’s been much better than the average catcher at getting pitches called as strikes. A study published by Dan Brooks and Harry Pavlidis last month at Baseball Prospectus (free access) looks at pitch framing in a new, more comprehensive way — and that makes Montero look good.
I was surprised to be surprised about this. Earlier versions of pitch framing statistics looked at two simple, probable effects of pitch framing: the percentage of the time that a ball was called a strike (good!), and the percentage of the time that a strike was called a ball (bad!). This is the type of statistic with which I consulted last year, at statcorner.com, and for 2013, which was a down year for Montero in a number of ways, Miggy was slightly below average as a pitch framer. That site (change years manually, here) had Montero worth about 2 runs less than the league-average pitch framer, which is not enormous, but not insignificant, either (that would be like a hitter getting three extra singles, instead of outs).
In their more nuanced approach, however, Brooks and Pavlidis have found that there is about 50 runs difference between the worst framer and the best. That’s about five and a half wins that a catcher could add just due to framing skills. I know that seems crazy, but the method used by statcorner.com actually found the same thing: a penalty (against average) of about 20 runs for Wilin Rosario last season, and almost 30 runs’ worth of value for Jonathan Lucroy above average.
The Brooks/Pavlidis approach is more nuanced in two ways. First, it handles different pitches differently; if a pitch in a particular place outside the strike zone (a ball) is called a strike just 10% of the time, the catcher in question gets much more credit (90% of maximum) than if he had gotten a ball called a strike that was called a strike more frequently. This makes the Brooks/Pavlidis framing statistics a lot more like the advanced defensive statistics we use that give defenders much more credit for very difficult plays than for making plays that most players make all the time.
The second difference in the Brooks/Pavlidis approach is that they’ve keyed the runs “credit” to particular ball-strike counts. This seems like a vast improvement, for as they point out in the article explaining their study, getting a ball called a strike in a 0-0 count is just not worth nearly as much as it would in a 3-2 count, when the difference between a ball and a strike is a walk or an out.
For pitch framing, Baseball Prospectus now shows Montero worth between 11 and 17 runs above average for each season from 2009 through 2012. He did slip last year — down to just 9.3 framing runs above average. But that’s due, in part, to the fact that this is a counting statistic, and Montero was out for part of 2013. Overall, Montero has been worth between 10.5 and 23 runs above average in terms of framing pitches per 7000 framing “chances” (some pitches are swung at, after all), and he’s off to a 16.5 per 7000 pace right now. That’s excellent, across the board. In fact, Brooks and Pavlidis have Montero eighth for the 2008-2013 period in terms of total runs saved with framing (a time period that fits for Montero particularly well). Ahead of him on that list are three catchers who have tended to share time — all three of whom have been snatched up by teams generally considered to be “smart” (Rays: Ryan Hanigan, Jose Molina; Red Sox: David Ross).
Brooks and Pavlidis went one step further to measure something similar with their “regressed, probabilistic model” (call me a sucker for anything abbreviated “RPM”). Measuring the effect of blocked (or not blocked) pitches is a lot like studying framing; sometimes, blocking a pitch matters much more than other times (with blocked pitches, sometimes it doesn’t matter at all). And unlike some of the other catchers who have been above-average framers, Montero has also been very good at blocks.
As a result of his framing and blocking skills, Montero has been worth almost 100 runs above average in his career for the Diamondbacks. That’s the equivalent of about 11 wins. And despite a somewhat down year last year (just 14.5 “receiving runs” above average), Montero has been very consistent every year with those skills. So long as he continues to bounce back in 2014, Montero may be one of the most valuable players on the team.
I’ll be honest, when I started this post the purpose of it was to suggest that, even though Montero wasn’t bad at pitch framing, spending the money to hire an instructor like Sal Fasano (who had an incredible amount of success with J.P. Arencibia last season) would be well worth it. But with these new statistics, it’s clear that Montero is already great at pitch framing. Sure, there’s always room for improvement, but Montero is probably better suited to be a framing instructor than an instructee — although we still know little about catchers’ pitch sequencing skills.
Miguel Montero may not be Jose Molina behind the plate, but he’s also not Jose Molina when standing next to it. Being a tick away from elite as a receiver is extremely forgivable when Montero can slot in as the best lefty hitter on the team.
Another thing this means, though, is that if the D-backs pitchers have been getting more than their share of extra calls, it’s probably fair to say that they’re not quite as good as we thought they were. And we didn’t think they were very good.
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