Teams are always looking for an advantage and the skills of Boston Red Sox catcher framing may be significant. Author Ian York has explored catcher framing and now turns his attention to how well catchers in the PITCHf/x era have framed pitches for the Red Sox.
In a previous article, I examined catcher framing – the ability of some catchers to increase the odds of getting a strike call on a pitch that is outside the de facto strike zone. With the introduction of PITCHf/x data in 2008, it became possible to compare the actual location of a pitch to whether it was called a strike or not, and to compare that to the average across baseball. Catchers vary widely in this ability. Compared to the league average, some catchers can add around three extra called strikes a game, while others lose just as many. Those three strikes can add (or subtract) the equivalent of 20-30 runs over the course of 162 games. A catcher’s framing skills can amount to two to three wins or losses, per season.
This ability tends to be consistent from one year to the next, so it is not just luck or chance. Additionally, different catchers tend to gain (or lose) their “extra” strikes in different – but consistent – regions of the strike zone. Some gain them on the outside but lose them on the inside; quite a few skilled framers essentially shift the strike zone downward, gaining strikes at the bottom of the zone while losing them at the top.
Since 2008, the Red Sox have had 14 catchers. Dusty Brown, Dan Butler, Gustavo Molina, and Guillermo Quiroz barely had a cup of coffee with the team, so I am not going to consider them. As shown below, until the arrival of David Ross, Red Sox catchers were not impressive pitch framers.
Let’s start with the summary:
In this chart, the pitch framing skills of Boston’s 10 catchers are shown as extra strikes per game. A very good framer gains two or more extra strikes per game for his pitchers; a very bad framer loses two or more (that is, -2 extra strikes per game). A league-average framer gains zero extra strikes per game. The size of each circle is proportional to the number of games the player caught in that year.
The chart has a few surprises, but not many.
Jason Varitek, 1998-2011
Let’s start with a closer look at Varitek, the Sox catcher from 1998 through 2011. In his prime – in the late 1990s and early 2000s – The Captain was probably a very good framer. However, by the time PITCHf/x become available he was mediocre at best and simply bad by the time he retired.
In the PITCHf/x era, Varitek was a good framer at the top of the strike zone. Even in his final year, he was still able to expand the high strike zone significantly. Unfortunately, that expansion came at the expense of shrinking the lower part of the zone, where he had a much worse than average called strike rate. Since most pitchers try to work at or below the bottom of the zone, that trade-off leads to an overall loss of strike calls.
Here is how Varitek’s probability of getting a strike called compared to the league average. In these plots, red areas mean more strike calls than average, blue means fewer strike calls than average. (Plots show the strike zone from the catcher’s perspective):
Victor Martinez, 2010
When Varitek was injured in 2010, Martinez caught 110 games and his framing abilities were similar to his precursor: acceptable at the top, mediocre to poor at the bottom, and as a result, mediocre to bad overall:
Kevin Cash, 2008, 2010
Cash did not hit well when he caught 57 games for the Sox in 2008, so one would assume he received playing time because of his defense. In terms of framing, he was better than Varitek, and even better than league average, impressively expanding the top of the zone and not losing much at the bottom, but he wasn’t spectacular (just 0.60 extra strikes per game – methodology explained here):
Cash also caught a handful of games in 2010, when he was outright bad at framing, with -1.76 extra strikes per game to go with his formidable 0.374 OPS.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 2010-13
That brings us to Saltalamacchia and the first real surprise. Salty was a poor framer in 2008 (-0.77 extra strikes per game) and a terrible framer in 2014, among the worst in the game with -2.44 extra strikes per inning. But surprisingly, when he became the primary catcher for Boston in 2011, he was actually above-average, adding 1.07 extra strikes per game above league average.
But it was all downhill from there. Here are his extra strikes per game for his primary team each season since 2008:
|Year||Team||Games caught||Extra strikes per game|
Saltalamacchia is an exception to the rule that framing is consistent year to year. He went from mediocre to quite good, back to mediocre, and then to awful. Here is an animation of his strike map (skipping 2010 when he only caught a few games):
Like Varitek, Salty was generally rather strong at the top of the strike zone, but far worse than average at the bottom. In 2011, he showed the same tendency, though to a greater degree. He still lost a lot of strikes at the bottom of the zone, but that year he more than made up for it by expanding the top of the zone enormously. Salty is tall for a catcher at 6’3”, so maybe he found a way to take advantage of his height.
Intriguingly, the Red Sox organization has hinted they are not only intensely interested in catcher framing, but they may have found some ways to teach the skill. If so, Saltalamacchia’s 2011 is a pretty dramatic success story, though his subsequent decline makes it hard to interpret.
By 2013, his framing rate was average and dropping like a stone. If that was the main reason the Red Sox did not bring him back, they must have been pleased with their decision when his 2014 framing was abysmal.
A.J. Pierzynski, 2014
Pierzynski has been a consistently mediocre, but not terrible, framer. As a member of the Red Sox in 2014, he lost about -0.65 extra strikes per game. He was moderately weak at the bottom of the zone and at the inside for lefties, but was better than average in some other places:
David Ross, 2013-14
Ross has a well-earned reputation for being a very good framer. Like several other catchers with this skill, he has consistently been very strong at the bottom of the zone, but only mediocre at the top; the opposite of Varitek and Saltalamacchia. In his limited playing time for Boston, he delivered high quality framing (extra strikes per game of 2.42 and 2.07 in 2013 and 2014, respectively), consistent with his excellent reputation. Here is Ross’s strike zone probability map since 2008. Since Ross has been a backup catcher most of his career, his sample sizes are relatively small and his map is a little ragged, but the tendencies are clear:
Unlike many catchers, Ross has not just expanded the bottom or the top of the strike zone; he has also significantly expanded the edges, especially the inside to lefties and the outside to righties. Moreover, he has done so without giving up too much on the other side, although there clearly is some loss there.
Christian Vazquez, 2014
Then, there was Vazquez who ranked as the second-best pitch framer in baseball in 2014 ‒ minimum of 5,000 chances ‒ with 2.07 extra strikes per game, behind only Los Angeles Angels backstop Hank Conger (2.63). Here is Vazquez’s 2014 map:
Vazquez absolutely robs left-handed batters, pulling strikes out of every part of the zone. A left-handed batter, with Vazquez catching, had to contend with a strike zone that is bigger in every direction. Inside pitches are much more likely to be called strikes; pitches at the top, bottom, and outside of the zone are also more likely to be called strikes. Right-handed batters still have to deal with an expanded zone, but it’s not quite as dramatic. Vazquez may have a small hole in his framing repertoire – a pitch down-and-in to RHB was less likely to be called a strike for Vazquez than for the rest of the league. This may just be a function of small sample size: Vazquez did not catch a complete season, and I am chopping up the strike zone into pretty small units here. But it’s possible that Vazquez, already the second-best framing catcher in baseball, still has some room for improvement. His loss to injury for the season puts a big hole in the Red Sox plans.
Ryan Hanigan, 2015
To round off this trip through Red Sox catchers, Hanigan is now expected to catch a majority of games for the Sox in 2015. Hanigan has a reputation as a good framing catcher and his numbers reflect that: His extra strikes per game reached a high of about 2.6 in 2009, and were a good, but not excellent, 0.78 and 0.72 in 2013 and 2014, respectively. His map in 2014 with Tampa Bay looked like this:
Hanigan is very strong at the top of the zone, about league-average or a little better at the sides, and only slightly below average at the bottom.
View From the Front Office
We do not know exactly what the Red Sox administration knows about framing, but the evidence says they are very aware of it and have been for several years. They may also have some methods for teaching it and consider framing a very important skill when evaluating catchers.
We do know that Vazquez and Hanigan, the intended projected catchers for the Red Sox in 2015, are both good-to-excellent framers, and between them they would have been expected to add up to 30 runs of value (or about three wins) from framing alone had Vazquez not suffered unfortunate injury. More intriguing still is Blake Swihart, the putative Boston catcher of the future, who has a reputation as an excellent framer to go with his high-quality offense. The next few years should be an interesting time for fans of catching in New England.