The Boston Red Sox have dealt with inconsistency and injuries behind the plate this season, and yet the team is in second place. This made Ian York wonder how Christian Vazquez’s framing has been thus far since his offense has been truly putrid.
In Christian Vazquez’s stint with the Red Sox in 2014, he showed himself to be an elite pitch framer, adding an average of about 2.07 strikes per game to his pitchers’ outcomes – second only to Hank Conger in Major League Baseball. Over a hundred-game season, that translates to about 25-30 runs per season, or about 2-3 added wins from framing alone. Combined with the other aspects of Vazquez’s excellent defense, this probably easily compensated for his weak offense that year and made him a net valuable contributor.
We have shown that relatively small sample sizes allow a reasonably accurate prediction of a catcher’s framing ability. Around 2,500 framing chances (that is, pitches that were either balls or called strikes) was enough to consistently distinguish “fairly good” from “just average” framers. As of June 19, Vazquez has had 2,608 framing chances so far this year. How is he looking now?
So far, Vazquez has been a good, but not extraordinary, pitch framer. Overall, he contributes about 1.46 strikes per game more than a league-average catcher (see here for details on how I calculate this) – a very good mark, in the top ten for all catchers, but significantly below his 2014 mark. Given his feeble offense (wRC+ of just 45, 25th of 28 catchers with at least 140 PA), his value is unclear if he can only sustain his framing at this level. Of course, given the error bars even on 2,500 framing opportunities, it is quite possible that Vazquez’s true level is over 2 extra strikes per game – though probably not over 2.5.
One unexpected and interesting point about his present framing is that he is a very different (framing) catcher for right- and left-handed batters. So far in 2016, Vazquez has been about league average against lefties (0.4 extra pitches per game), but elite against righties (2.2 extra pitches per game). (Here I use at-bats times 31 as an approximation of a “game.” It should be noted that by splitting Vazquez’s framing chances into right- and left-handed batters, the sample size becomes smaller and therefore any predictions become less reliable). In 2014, Vazquez also showed a moderate handedness split, but he was much better against lefties (2.3 extra strikes per “game” for right-handed batters; 1.7 for lefties).
Breaking down splits pitcher-by-pitcher yields small sample sizes that don’t mean much going forward; but just looking at ball/strike location, it is easy to see the effect of stance. For example, looking at balls and strikes from Vazquez catching David Price (2.0 extra strikes to RHB, -3.7 to LHB, 0.82 overall):
For left-handed batters, see how many of the pitches right on the outside and bottom margins of the strike zone were called balls; and compare that to the RHB, where the great majority of called pitches on the inside and outside margins of the strike zone were called strikes.
Here is Vazquez catching Clay Buchholz; this battery did better than Price for extra strikes (3.7 to RHB, 0.0 to LHB, 1.84 overall):
Again, Vazquez appears to have struggled getting pitches outside to LHB to be called strikes. But in Buchholz’s case, this was compensated for by added strikes on the inside part of the LHB strike zone. Notice that Price threw almost no called strikes or balls in that region, so Vazquez had nothing to work with.
Rick Porcello has had a much more even split: 1.80 extra strikes per game overall, 1.7 for RHB, 1.9 for LHB:
Like Buchholz, Porcello hasn’t thrown many pitches to Vazquez’s apparent framing weak spot, away or down-and-away to LHB, and he has mostly benefited from framing in Vazquez’s strong zones.
Breaking down framing by individual pitcher is probably not very predictive. Even as descriptive measures, we are almost certainly giving Vazquez credit (or blame) for some things out of his control – some of those balls and strikes are just bad calls. Still, the story for these pitchers fits with the overall framing numbers he has put up this year.
The bad news for Vazquez is that he hasn’t been as spectacular, framing-wise, as he was in 2014. The good news is that he seems to have a single, specific weak spot, that can presumably be corrected. Even so, it’s unclear if his excellent defense can counterbalance his feeble offense.
Ian York uses the PITCHf/x to monitor the strike zone, highlights great performances, monitors league-wide trends and tracks the performances of some interesting young hitters.
Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork.