This is an article about pitch framing—maybe the first that has appeared on Purple Row this season. It is also an article about something the Rockies have not been good at. At this point in the season, it feels like piling on. The rotation: not good. The bullpen: bad. The offense: bad and not good. Base running: TOOTBLAN-y. But a good way for the Rockies to avoid this in future years is to stop being bad in so many facets of the game. In any case, the agenda here is not just to point at the bad pitch framing. Instead, we want to diagnose the issue more precisely and translate the meaning into something manageable.
Before getting into how Rockies catchers have done, some reminders are due. The first thing to remember is that catcher framing is the most important quantifiable and actionable part of catcher defense. That is because the run value good or bad framing contributes exceeds the run value of good or bad pitch blocking and a strong and accurate arm.Game calling is probably a more important part of the catcher’s job, but it hasn't been convincingly quantified, and game calling action takes place in between pitches. There is no immediate physicality to game calling.
Another thing to remember is that pitch framing isn’t just about deceiving umpires by making balls look like strikes (though that is part of it). It’s about negotiating the strike zone’s fuzzy edges. Finally, while contextual variables such as umpire, battery-mates, and batter handedness can alter instances of framing, they don’t significantly alter the very large samples from which the data below are pulled.
That last point is especially true for the metrics I’m going to use. Baseball Prospectus contains the most advanced pitch framing metrics. They are probabilistic, meaning that the likelihood of called balls and strikes in certain instances are taken into account, and they are regressed, meaning that they don't overstate the extremes of good and bad.
Now let's turn to the Rockies catchers. By Baseball Prospectus’s estimation, Hundley was been the second worst pitch framer in baseball this season (minimum 1500 chances). He has, they assert, had 6,074 framing chances and has cost the Rockies almost eight runs (-7.9) this season due to his framing. Over the past few years, a win, as appears in Wins Above Replacement models, has been about nine runs. That means that Hundley’s framing has cost the Rockies close to a win. The only catcher below Hundley on the framing leaderboard is Carlos Ruiz.
It helps to see what these numbers look like. According to Baseball Savant, Hundley has received 4,898 called balls this season. This is where they landed:
Hundley has a hard time keeping balls down and away in the strike zone. One might assume that the location is a product of batter handedness. That is the location one expects to find sweeping sliders landing, which might be harder to frame. But the following heat maps indicate that down and away is where Hundley misses to both lefties and righties, though it is more pronounced for right-handers.
RHH called balls
LHH called balls
Additionally, it’s not just a matter of breaking balls. The heat map below shows only two and four seam fastballs, which constitute about half of the almost 5,000 balls Hundley has received in 2015. The lost strikes are in the same location.
Fastballs called balls
These lost strikes down and to his right of home plate reveal the area where Hundley’s framing is most costly. He does, however, have strengths. To find those, we can turn to the called strikes he’s received. Hundley has received 2,148 called strikes this season, and not all of them have been inside the typical strike zone. As the heat map below indicates, Hundley has added strikes off the edges of both sides of the plate.
The fact that he’s received about 2,700 fewer called strikes than balls, however, means that adding these strikes hasn’t compensated for the strikes he gave back.
If you think that this is all a function of a (mostly) young and (mostly) bad pitching staff, Michael McKenry has a counterpoint. McKenry has had much fewer framing chances, 1,814. Whereas Hundley ranks 58th out of 59 catchers with at least 1,500 chances, McKenry ranks 30th. According to BP, McKenry has added 0.6 runs with his framing this season. Framing isn’t among his skills that offer value, but it also doesn’t hurt the team. Turning back to Baseball Savant, let’s see where McKenry has missed. The heat map below charts the 1,443 balls McKenry has received in 2015.
Like Hundley, McKenry misses low, but McKenry’s problem area is more at the center of the plate rather than either of the edges. Like Hundley, McKenry’s map remains consistent regardless of batter handedness or pitch type.
Notably, McKenry’s called strike heat map also resembles Hundley’s. McKenry has been able to steal strikes at the edges of each side of the plate, as long as they aren’t down in the zone.
One of the basic lessons that can be drawn from all of this is that the lower part of the zone is most contested; that’s where successful pitch framing takes place. That correlates to what catchers themselves say is one of the keys to being a good framer. Namely, that one has to get low to receive the ball in order to present a clearer picture to the umpire. Indeed, we can see this in two charts from the catcher who Baseball Prospectus thinks, at 17.6 runs added, is the best framer in baseball this season: Yasmani Grandal.
His received balls:
His received strikes:
While Grandal does have the luxury of receiving pitches from Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, the Dodgers’ staff isn’t full of aces. Additionally, BP pegged Grandal as a potentially elite framer as early as March 2014, when the current metrics were still in development and Grandal played for the hapless Padres.
This shouldn’t be read as a fatalistic. What’s most compelling about pitch framing is that it appears to be a learnable skill in the middle of a career. For examples, we can point to a former and a current member of the Colorado Rockies.
In 2014, Chris Iannetta ranked 44th out of 60 qualifying (1,500 chances) catchers, costing the Angels 2.7 runs over the course of the season. In 2015, his framing has accounted for seven runs, which is 10th in baseball (his rapidly declining offense is another story). That's a difference of almost ten runs. Also in 2014, Michael McKenry ranked just below Iannetta at spot 45 on the leaderboard. He cost the Rockies 3.5 runs. As revealed above, McKenry has improved this season. Not only that, but he told Ryan Hammon about a year ago that it’s something he intended to work on. "[Framing] is going to be one of my main focuses," he told Hammon. Whatever McKenry did paid off.
In recent years, it has not appeared that the Rockies have sought out good pitch framers. At this point in a rebuild, cultivation is more critical than pursuit. I'm far more interested in how well Tommy Murphy and Dom Nunez frame than how many runs Nick Hundley adds or takes away in 2016. In the end, knowing the area of the strike zone where framing appears to be most contested, and knowing that framing is a learnable skill even for veterans, can certainly help turning pitch framing into an organizational asset.