The Red Sox used five catchers in 2016: Sandy Leon (600 ⅓ innings) and Christian Vazquez (438 ⅔ inning) saw the most action, with Ryan Hanigan (264 innings) losing most of the season to various injuries. Blake Swihart caught 52 innings, and the forgettable Bryan Holaday, picked up on waivers from the Texas Rangers in August, also filled in for 84 ⅔ innings behind the plate. Setting aside their bats and other defensive contributions, how well did these catchers frame pitches?
Sandy Leon joined the Red Sox in 2015 with a reputation as a strong defensive catcher and a weak bat. His offense in 2016 was a pleasant surprise, and he displayed a strong arm with the ability to control base-stealers. His framing, however, was only slightly better than average, contributing about 20 extra strikes over the whole season (0.31 extra strikes per game) compared to the average catcher. (See here for details on the methods I used to estimate these numbers.)
This chart compares the probability of a pitch being called a strike when thrown to Leon, compared to the rest of the league. Areas where Leon was more likely to have a strike called are shaded red, with the intensity proportional to the difference in probability; areas where he was more likely to have a ball called are blue. The grey polygon outlines the strike zone, as umpires called it in 2016:
Leon’s framing was consistent for both right- and left-handed batters. He gained a large number of extra strikes at the top and above the strike zone, but balanced those by losing strikes at the bottom of the zone.
Christian Vazquez was an elite framer in 2014, before missing 2015 to recover from Tommy John surgery. Partway through 2016, it seemed that he may have lost a bit of his framing magic, gaining only about 0.4 extra strikes per game, but with the full season’s sample size to look at, Vazquez is back as an elite framer with 1.53 extra strikes per game, ranking fourth-best (per game) in baseball. However, the vast majority of his gains were at the expense of right-handed batters; against lefties, Vazquez was only slightly better than average:
Against right-handed batters, in 2016 as in 2014, Vazquez expanded the strike zone in all directions, especially the top and outside. To lefties, however, he was about neutral outside and may even have lost a few strikes at the top and bottom of the zone, although he was able to expand the inside part of the strike zone. However, the sample size is quite small for lefties (284 at-bats, compared to 705 at-bats by righties).
We can look at the location of the individual pitches Vazquez caught that were out of their correct zone – that is, pitches outside the strike zone that were called strikes (red), or those that were inside the zone but were called balls (blue):
Although this doesn’t show the overall number of pitches that Vazquez caught in each area (i.e. there is no denominator) or compare to other catchers, it does help show the pitches that he was or was not successful in framing.
If Vazquez is able to contribute about 1.5 extra strikes per game, and if as the starting catcher he were to play 120 games per year, he would contribute 180 extra strikes per season, which is the equivalent of about 20-25 extra runs prevented per season. Unfortunately, those hypothetical extra runs from framing probably don’t outweigh Vazquez’s awful hitting (in 2016, OPS of .585; OPS+ of 54), and unless he manages to improve offensively he is unlikely to be a starting catcher in 2017.
At 36 years old, the Red Sox clearly feel that Ryan Hanigan has sharply declined both offensively (his OPS+ in 2016 was a horrifying 24) and defensively, and declined to pick up his option after the 2016 season. In 2015, Hanigan was just above average as a framer (0.29 extra strikes per game), down from being a very good framer several years ago. In 2016, Hanigan was slightly worse than average as a framer, losing 0.24 strikes per game compared to the average catcher:
Hanigan’s strong and weak zones look much like Leon’s, gaining strikes at the top of the strike zone and losing them at the bottom, but the strong zones are less strong, and the weak zones are larger, than Leon’s.
Blake Swihart and Bryan Holaday had far too few chances to have any confidence in the predictive value of their framing, but we can still look at their outcomes, for entertainment value if nothing else. In the 13 games Holiday caught for Boston, he was a terrible framer, losing 1.44 strikes per game. If he were to continue at that pace for 400 innings (to make my cutoff for catchers in 2016) he would be the third-worst framing catcher of 2016, behind only Dioner Navarro (-2.17 extra strikes per game) and Juan Centeno (-1.83). If he had any strengths as a framer, it was at the bottom of the zone to right-handed batters, but even there he lost about as many strikes as he gained:
Swihart, in an even smaller sample, was almost exactly league average at 0.04 extra strikes per game: