A little more than a week ago I told you that Welington Castillo is a bad pitch framer. He’s more or less average at the other, more traditional parts of catching – namely blocking and throwing. People have talked about him being good with the pitchers and that they like working with him and I can’t really speak to that other than to say that if it is indeed true, well, that’s probably a good thing, too. Then was traded for the guy who hit #DINGERZ and then proceeded to hit some #DINGERZ of his own. That’s all the more I’m going to talk about his offense.

Earlier this week, Jeff Sullivan checked in on pitch framing and added a new twist that’s surely relevant to the discussion about Castillo. He found that the value of pitch-framing dropped substantially in 2015, resulting in its lowest value since the inception of the PITCHf/x era (2008). Putting it simply, catchers were far less effective at having balls called strikes than they have been in the past. Jeff offers two explanations. Here’s the first:

I’ve had to think about this for a few days, but I’ve almost fully come around. We’ve definitely seen teams respond to pitch-framing data. Some of them have talked about it publicly, and last year there was the lowest-yet standard deviation for pitch-framing value. Teams have understood the importance, so there have been fewer awful receivers, raising the floor. It’s been a point of instruction. Why should teams be the only people paying attention? Framing has to do with strikes and balls. You’d better believe this is relevant to umpires, and to the people in charge of them.

The theory would go like this: more than ever before, umpires are aware of good framers. They’re aware that good framers can get strikes out of the zone, so then that introduces a bias. Umpires don’t want to be wrong, and their bosses don’t want for them to be wrong. It’s not like an umpire would watch a pitch, then think about a call, then think about the catcher, then change his mind. These decisions happen way too fast, but you’d just have to believe there’s some effect. A different call out of every 10, or 20, or 30, or 50. Something that would show up in bigger samples. It makes sense that, if umpires became aware of great pitch-framing, they might become aware of ways to call the game that have a little less to do with how a catcher moves. And you have to think framing has been on their radar.

One has to think that, at some point, MLB umpires became acutely aware they were being had. Those guys can read, they know pitch framing is a thing and they see the video. They also take their jobs very seriously. Could umpires be behind this change, having adjusted to pitch framers? I think there’s some plausibility here.

The second suggested reason is perhaps even more intriguing from Sullivan:

There is an alternate explanation, or — if you prefer — a partial explanation. As noted earlier, we’ve seen league buy-in as far as framing goes, and last year individual framing value among the catchers had the lowest standard deviation yet. Which means there’s less of a spread between the best and the worst, and maybe what we’re seeing is just randomness somewhat taking over. The lesser the spread of talent, the greater the role of randomness in determining the results. That could get at the lower correlations, and it would kind of point toward the end of framing in a different way. If everyone’s good, then no one is good.

Because many of our statistics are based off of “the average player,” something major happens when the baseline of average starts to move, especially if it moves rapidly. Sure players have progressed as athletic specimens since the earliest days of baseball, but physicality could only change so quickly. Demographics, politics, Americans’ diets, the Sports-Industrial Complex – all of it has changed slowly over the years. But the phenomenon that is pitch framing has exploded and done so somewhat publicly whether the casual baseball fan knows it or not.

So when teams jump aboard and make decisions with pitch framing in mind, that baseline of the average can change in a big way. There are really only 30 opportunities for a full time catching gig. Sure, there are some timeshares, so maybe 45 catchers is our sample size if we’re looking guys who get at least 50 starts. If 20 of those 30 teams are choosing to employ guys who are at least decent at pitch framing – they don’t have be total revelations back there, they just can’t be black holes – that’s going to change the baseline as compared to an era before pitch framing was quantifiable. In other words, it was a big advantage if you caught on early (no pun intended) and were far better than the competition, most of which didn’t even know they were behind. But like any information bubble, pretty soon that competition does catch up and your competitive advantage goes away.

If this is the case, the Diamondbacks might be farther behind the pack than we initially thought. Maybe it’s umpires. Maybe its a one-year blip – a statistical anomaly. Maybe the new 2016 strike zone will make a big difference. Or, maybe, the Diamondbacks either haven’t caught on or valued pitch framing at all as of late. Another year of data might help, but looking at the situation, it looks like theD-backs will lag here once again in 2016.

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19 Responses to Double Plus: Framing, or Not Framing, the Strike Zone

  1. Terry says:

    So the value of pitch framing has dropped, and Beef is not a great framer, and that puts the Diamondbacks farther behind, how?

    • Larry Person says:

      Yeah, I had the same reaction Terry had. The last sentences didn’t flow from the rest of the article. I thought the conclusion would be “So, whether the D’backs knew this or not, it was probably a good decision to keep Beef’s offense.”

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      Because the average has risen. It’s like this:

      Student A gets a 3/10 on his test but the class average is 5/10. He’s only 20% below average.

      Student B gets a 8/10 on her test in the same class where the average is 5/10. She’s 30% above average.

      But the class catches on that there’s a pattern in the test that can be exploited. Student B had noticed early and was already exploiting it. Student A doesn’t notice the pattern.

      On the next test, Student A scores the same, 3/10. Student B scores the same, 8/10. The class average jumps to 7/10. Student A is now farther behind the curve while Student B’s advantage has pretty much evaporated.

      The movement of “average” changes things drastically.

      • Lamar Jimmerson says:

        I think the respondents are seeing the argument differently. Perhaps wrongly, but I’m in the same boat. I thought the argument was that umps weren’t calling as many actual balls as strikes as they used to be. Or at least, that’s one of the theories Sullivan offers. If *that’s* the reason pitch-framing is now less valuable, it would mean that even if Beef is no good at it, it doesn’t matter as much, and hence his value relative to other catchers rises. Isn’t that right?

        • Jeff Wiser says:

          Good catch, Lamar. I think we’re working off of two different premises (the same two that Sullivan provided us (although there are surely more)). The initial questions focused on the first explanation offered – umps are calling the game differently. My explanation was based upon the second – that the average catcher is just better now, which makes the guys who were at the top a lot closer to the middle. Certainly two different explanations with very different consequences for Arizona.

      • Larry Person says:

        Ok, but you didn’t say that. You said the class average went down, not up. Therefore Castillo is closer to the league average, not further from it. You also said that pitch framing is de-valued now because umpires have caught onto the scam, so the fact that Castillo isn’t good at the scam no longer matters as much as it once did.

      • Larry Person says:

        Define “average”, as in “average what”…”average catcher” or “average pitch framer”? You crossed us up by talking about “pitch framing”, so we thought you meant “average pitch framer”. At some point, in your mind you started to compare “average catcher” and that’s where Castillo was falling behind the rest of the class as the class average rose. However, my thought would be that if Catillo is average in most traditional catcher metrics, but his grade on pitch framing drags down his overall evaluation, then if pitch framing isn’t so important, throw it out as an evaluative category, and suddenly Castillo looks much better, much closer to average.

        • Jeff Wiser says:

          Two things:

          1. Yes, I’m referring to Castillo as well below average as a pitch framer specifically. That’s the title of the article and the purpose of the post.

          2. Just because the value of framing has shown itself reduced for one year (and remember, this could just be a weird data blip) does not mean you throw it out of the entire evaluation of a catcher. It still matters. It’s just that the high end of the value wasn’t as high in 2015. We’ve already discussed why that might be.

          If it’s still hazy, I suggest reading Sullivan’s original work, which is linked in the post for this very reason.

          • Larry Person says:

            I appreciate that you always respond to questions, even when we can be exasperating!

            I still feel (even if the pitch framing stats are a one year outlier) a little bit better about Castillo as the D’backs catcher this year, than I felt about him before reading your article.

          • Jeff Wiser says:

            Haha! You’re very welcome, Larry! Look, when the questions come, sometimes I overlooked something and I’m glad someone has let me know. Also, it makes me think a little differently. That’s the value of all of this – that we all learn and grow. It works both ways. Now, if I just wasn’t running from work meeting to work meeting on a Friday and trying to answer questions in between…

  2. Dave-Phoenix says:

    MLB has video equipment that is used to evaluate the umpires success at calling balls and strikes. Umpires are evaluated every game. I’m sure that the video data is revealing that umpires are being fooled by these so-call “pitch framers”.

    Additionally pitch framing has become a very public stat. Look how much “we” are talking about it.

    What that all ads up to is that MLB umpires are “very” aware of pitch framing, and its impact on their ability to call balls and strikes.

    In the end the goal of MLB umpires is to get the calls right. If MLB teams are finding ways to undermine their ability make the right call, they will adjust. To think that MLB umpires are not making adjustments to counter-act the impact of pitch framing is naive at best.

    So while pitch framing may have been a secret weapon for teams when it was first discovered, I believe that its impact is diminishing and will continue to diminish even more over time.

  3. Dave-Phoenix says:

    My favorite pitch framing video is still AJ Pierzynski trying to frame a 50-foot curve ball that bounced 5 feet in front of the plate.

  4. rye says:

    As the technology has improved over the last 10 years, not only have umpires’ ability to accurately call balls and strikes been openly questioned, some are calling for their jobs to be replaced with automation. The threat of losing your job due to poor pitch calling is sure to be incentive enough for a change. Personally, I miss the days where a team had to know each umpire’s specific “zone” or adjust in-game to how balls and strikes were being called. I understand the argument for consistency and precision but feel that something uniquely human is being slowly taken from the game.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Starlin Castro is a gold glove compared too…why even bother with this analysis. Brings you guys down

  6. Larry Person says:

    I’m delighted to hear that Howie Kendrick has re-signed with the Dodgers. I thought it a bad move, despite your analysis here on this web site, for the D’backs to sign him and especially to give up their 2nd round pick to get him. I think the D’backs are right to rely on our existing young guys to take a step up this year. I think Owings and Lamb are sure bets step up like Peralta and Enciarte did last year.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I hope they start drury and owings all spring and in reno until its time…. Guess if money is no question and playing for now,kendrick wouldn’t of been a bad signing for us. He,sdisappointing in that that hes a guy you expect more defense and offense from, comniserate with his ability. Hes Better than good but not great.

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