Pitch framing—the skill to either steal strikes or present borderline pitches as clear strikes—has been in baseball for ages. However, attempts to define and try to measure pitch framing have only begun in the last decade, first investigated by Dan Turkenkopf with subsequent research and refinement by Mike Fast and Max Marchi.
Former Baseball Prospectus Editor-in-Chief and current Ringer writer Ben Lindbergh also wrote about the topic multiple times, including GIFs of our good friend and ex-Rockies catcher Wilin Rosario, who provided examples on what a catcher shouldn’t do. He also had a Q&A with current Colorado Rockies catcher Ryan Hanigan, who was in his sixth season as a Cincinnati Reds catcher at the time. Hanigan then (and now), was regarded as a good pitch framer and Lindbergh was interested in his thoughts on catcher framing and the techniques he used. Hanigan had told Lindbergh back then that though “Most guys do a pretty good job, if you’re a big league catcher, some are definitely better than others. I mean, if you give away strikes, you’re in such a big hole.”
Fast forward to 2017, and Hanigan’s views on catcher framing have evolved. He’s gone from viewing framing as an underrated skill to an overrated one. “I do think they’re putting a lot of emphasis on everything in the game like analytics and stats now but I think that it can be overplayed,” Hanigan said.
Hanigan clarified what he meant by “overplayed”: “There’s a lot more talk about catcher framing in terms of the media coverage and the public perception today but I think catchers have always done that and always will. Obviously they want to talk about stealing strikes. Whether you get a few more calls or lose a few more calls, it’s hard to really put it into numbers in my opinion. But I think everyone takes pride in it and they certainly do here [in the Rockies organization] . . . [but] I think all catchers are trying to make pitchers look good on a consistent basis. You go through stretches where your [catching] percentages are up or down or whatever but you gotta evaluate it over the course of a few years, in my opinion, for it to really matter.”
He doesn’t think some things aren’t quantifiable—I can understand that. But, stats can help emphasize elements of catcher performance that were previously unnoticed. I asked him what he thought about that “There are different things that go into guys that do a good job with their staff,” Hanigan commented. “For awhile there, years ago, it was very simple in terms of errors, caught stealing percentage and stuff. They’re trying to develop the game into the littlest, finest points which, you know, I can appreciate. But again, I kind of get tired about hearing all the numbers. It’s really about how you’re working your staff. Are they winning games, are they having good outings in terms of executing pitches? Obviously if you’re losing strikes, there’s something wrong.”
Hanigan let out a laugh. “But, how many strikes gained? You know that umpires are looking at which catchers are getting strikes and say ‘Alright.’ I mean, I got an umpire sheet right here in terms of hot and cold zones.” As statistics have given catchers better insight on the umpires’ tendencies, the umpires have also gained more knowledge of which catchers are influencing the strike zone. Not only that, but one element of current catcher framing metrics includes accounting for differences in pitchers and umpires to evaluate a catcher’s true skill.
Hanigan doesn’t dismiss the significance of framing. Like he told Lindbergh a few years ago, he still believes that “Getting as many pitches as you can is huge. “But, all of us are trying to do that. We’re all trying to stick pitches, work setups for your pitcher, whatever that makes them feel comfortable with.” However, because the margins have closed between the best and worst framers, littler things that might not be captured are becoming more important.
For example, earlier this year Hanigan noticed that Tyler Anderson’s pitches were coming too high so he set his target lower. After Hanigan moved his glove lower, Anderson started throwing more strikes. Hanigan explained his thought process on how to help pitchers throw strikes: “Some guys, if you give them a target, right at the bottom, throw way down low and then they’re down a lot and they’re going to be in crappy counts. So you want to bring it up a bit. And some guys are mid-thigh so everything is individual. It’s about the pitcher. It’s about what he’s got that day.”
He added, “We all try to do the best we can in terms of all that stuff, but at the end of the day, the numbers I look at are the runs we gave up and if we win. I don’t think it’s easy to put a quantifiable stat on that stuff because there are too many factors to get into it. You look at the result at the end of the game in terms of pitch calling. Did he execute his pitch? Did he hit? Did he miss? Stuff like that we’re more concerned about [than framing pitches] because we’re already expected to catch the ball the right way. . . . We’re concentrating on working our staff and calling sequences and making smart decisions in big situations. That doesn’t get talked about as much because it’s hard to quantify all that stuff because that’s what actually goes into winning games.”
Those kinds of adjustments that a catcher makes and how they call a game is still a gap in evaluating the performance of catchers.
Ultimately, Hanigan concludes, stealing and keeping strikes are not the most critical components of a catcher’s job. Rather, “It is how you worked your pitcher, how you called the game, and were you able to catch the strikes that actually were strikes and get those calls. I mean, a lot of times, guys will catch a ball fine and it was there and they won’t call it. What do you do? It’s just something you can’t control. But you can keep calling your game and keep it rolling.”
Keep it rolling, because a measure of a catcher’s success isn’t necessarily their individual stats, but whether they put their pitcher and team in a position to win.