How Has Sandy Leon’s Framing Been in 2016?

Between chasing knuckleballs to the backstop and rolling ankles in the outfield, the 2016 season has been a rough one for Boston Red Sox catchers. However, there has been one steady hand behind the dish for much of the season. Ian York uses PITCHf/x to analyze Sandy Leon’s framing to determine if the catcher has made any improvements behind the plate.

In spring training this year, no one would have expected to hear, “With Sandy Leon’s bat, he doesn’t need to be a great defender to help win baseball games.”

However, Leon is a solid defensive catcher. He has a strong arm, with a career caught-stealing rate of 44%; in 2016 he has thrown out 10 of 24 stolen-base attempts for a 42% average, well above the MLB average of 28.3%. He has a reputation as a good game-caller and a good manager of pitchers, though this is difficult for outsiders to measure.

We can also look directly at his framing ability using PITCHf/x data. Having started 38 games at catcher (plus one at DH – another contestant for least likely sentence in spring training), he’s now caught just about enough games with the Red Sox this season for his framing numbers to have some predictive value, though just barely.

Briefly, the way I look at framing is to break the area around the strike zone into smaller sections; ask what fraction of pitches in each region are called strikes across the league (the background level); and then ask what fraction of pitches in each area were called strikes for Leon. In other words, this directly compares Leon’s strike-framing ability to the average catcher across all of baseball.

Measured this way, Leon is almost exactly neutral for framing pitches. Compared to the average catcher, he has lost 0.09 strikes per game from framing. Considering the small number of games we have to look at (meaning that the variation from his “true” framing value is still fairly high) this is essentially MLB average.

Last year, also in a limited number of games (32 starts at catcher), Leon ended up with a slightly worse number, losing about 0.67 strikes per game compared to average. Based on our simplistic look at sample sizes, even with the small number of games, this suggests that Leon really was at least slightly below league average in 2015.

PITCHf/x gives us enough detail on called strike location that we can chart out Leon’s strong and weak areas. First let’s look at his 2015 framing chart:

In these charts, red shows regions around the strike zone where Leon earned called strikes at a higher than league-average rate, and blue shows areas where he was worse than average. The grey polygon outlines the de facto strike zone as umpires called it in 2015; the charts are from the umpire’s viewpoint. Overall, there is more blue than red, and the blue is more or less evenly distributed; with the exception of up and inside to left-handed batters, Leon was losing strike calls all around the strike zone.

Now let’s look at his 2016 charts:

This time, the blue and red regions are roughly equal, but more interesting is how they are distributed. Leon has been losing strike calls at the bottom of the strike zone, but making them up by gaining high strike calls.

(To be fair, probably not all of this is Leon’s work; pitchers and umpires also have some influence on whether pitches are called strikes or not. But the catcher does play the most important role.)

It seemed possible that this markedly asymmetrical framing chart might affect some pitchers more than others; pitchers whose strikeout pitches target the top of the strike zone might do better with Leon than those who prefer to target the bottom of the zone.

(This next part is really for entertainment purposes only, because sample sizes now become absurdly small.)

The only pitchers who have enough innings with Leon to make this worth asking about are David Price, Rick Porcello, and Eduardo Rodriguez. Price and Porcello end up roughly neutral (-0.53 and 0.50 extra strikes per game respectively, where “game” is extrapolated from the number of at-bats). Rodriguez, though, has apparently lost about 1.38 strikes per “game” to Leon’s framing, which would be a significant effect if we were taking these small sample sizes seriously. We can see these lost strikes by looking at balls (blue dots) vs. called strikes (red dots), relative to the de facto strike zone as it was called in 2015 for Rodriguez when Leon caught him this year:

The lost called strikes at the bottom of the strike zone are especially obvious for left-handed batters, but there were also some lost to right-handed batters. Rodriguez just doesn’t throw very many pitches that are near the top of the strike zone, meaning that the battery wasn’t able to take advantage of Leon’s strongest framing region. Conversely, Porcello in 2016 has been aggressively targeting the top of the strike zone with his fastball, and Leon may be helping him gain occasional extra strikes in that area.

Overall, the numbers are too small to draw sweeping conclusions, but this year’s framing numbers are consistent with Leon over his career – a neutral to slightly negative framer. This may be the one part of his game where he is not actively contributing. Still, as long as his OPS is above 1.000, there is plenty of room for him to be average in other ways.

Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork.