Catcher Framing: Tyler Flowers Is The Best.

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Catcher framing is a run-saving skill that some catchers are much better at than others. In the follow up from his mid-season report, Ian York shows us who was the best overall and grades others, including who was the worst.

We looked at catcher framing for 2017 in mid-July, with the expectation that the sample size would be large enough to make a pretty good prediction for the full season. That did turn out to be the case. At the end of the season, a few more catchers made my arbitrary cutoff, but other than that, little has changed compared to the mid-season report. At mid-season, I used a 35-game cutoff to give me 32 catchers; using a 70-game cutoff for the full season results in 45. For methods, see here. The full list, with breakdowns of framing against left- and right-handed batters, is here.

The best framer of 2017, by far, was the Braves’ Tyler Flowers. Flowers was just an average framer until 2015, when he took a big step forward to be among the league leaders, and he was among the best in 2016 as well. In 2017, he improved even more, adding about 3.35 extra strikes per game to his pitchers’ totals. Flowers was this year’s outlier, with the second-best framer, Austin Barnes (who didn’t make the mid-season report), checking in at 1.98 extra strikes per game, far below Flowers. Here’s the distribution, with the best, the worst, and Red Sox catchers pointed out:

Overall, Flowers added a remarkable 271.5 extra strikes to Braves’ pitching. That’s roughly the equivalent of 35 extra runs, or between 3 and 4 extra wins. FanGraphs doesn’t include framing in catcher WAR, but gave Flowers 2.5 WAR for his 2017 season; adding in his contributions from framing suggests that Flowers was worth about 6 WAR in 2017, making him by far the most valuable member of the Braves (Freddie Freeman, at 4.5 fWAR, would be second).

Here are charts showing how Flowers contributed his extra strikes. Red areas are regions where Flowers gained more strikes per called pitch than the average catcher; in blue regions, he had fewer strikes than average. The numbers in parentheses after the left- or right-handed batters are the actual number of extra strikes Flowers added for those batters, compared to an average framer.

Flowers was particularly strong at the bottom of the zone, and at the right (from the umpire’s viewpoint), and was just about neutral over the rest of the strike zone.

Jonathan Lucroy has followed the opposite path to Flowers. After spending several years among the best framers in baseball, he began to drop down the list in 2015. In 2016, he was still slightly above league average, but in 2017 he plummeted; he was the second-worst framer in baseball, ending up with -1.78 extra strikes per game. Even that represents a significant improvement from his mid-season framing, when he checked in with a terrible -2.27 extra strikes per game. Here is Lucroy’s chart:

There are no good areas in there at all, and he especially hurt his pitchers with high pitches to left-handed batters.

Bad as Lucroy was, James McCann was even worse. His -1.93 extra strikes per game mean that over the season, he took away 174 called strikes from his pitchers that even a league average catcher would have had.

Surprisingly, McCann actually has one strong area; for left-handed batters, he actually gains strikes at the top of the zone. That’s more than made up for by right-handed batters, to whom he gave away 135 strikes at the bottom and outside of the zone.

At mid-season, the Red Sox’s Christian Vazquez ranked fifth-best at framing, with 1.48 extra strikes per game. He finished the season almost exactly the same, with 1.46 extra strikes per game, but other catchers who made the full-season but not the mid-season cutoff pushed him down a couple of places, to seventh. Overall, the 122.2 extra strikes Vazquez gained his pitchers are roughly equivalent to about 16 extra runs, or about 1.6 extra wins. FanGraphs gave Vazquez 1.6 WAR for his 2017 season, so adding his framing into the mix doubles his value.

Unlike Flowers, Vazquez is especially strong at framing the top of the strike zone, and is about neutral at the bottom.

The Red Sox other catcher, Sandy Leon, is a very good defensive catcher in general, but framing isn’t a big part of his game. He was a little better than league-average at mid-season (0.10 extra strikes per game) and stayed that way over the full season (0.34 extra strikes per game).

Leon is average by being an excellent framer at the top of the strike zone, but being considerably worse than average at the bottom, especially to right-handed batters.

Just as an idle observation that I haven’t actually checked out: It’s my impression that several Red Sox catchers over the years have excelled in framing at the top of the strike zone, but have been weak at the bottom, and I wonder if this is something that is taught to them.

The biggest differences between mid- and full-season numbers (not counting those catchers who didn’t make the mid-season cutoff) were all among very bad framers who improved in the second half of the season. At mid-season, Mike Zunino was the fourth-worst framer, with -1.36 extra strikes per game; by the end of the season, he was in the middle of the pack, at -0.24 extra strikes per game. Zunino has been somewhat better than average for the past couple years, and was excellent as recently as 2014, so his improvement brings him back to around his expected level. Jonathan Lucroy and Cameron Rupp also both improved by 0.49 extra strikes per game, bringing them from awful to… well, still awful, really: at -1.78 and -1.45 they ended up as second- and third-worst framers respectively.

Welington Castillo is the only catcher who was already around average at mid-season (0.08 extra strikes per game) and who improved significantly over the full season, ending up at 0.55 extra strikes per game. The worst decline over the full season belongs to Manny Pina, who was earning 0.47 extra strikes per game at mid season but ended up almost exactly average, at 0.09.

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Featured image courtesy of AP/John Raoux

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