Pitch-framing might soon be a lost MLB art; but it could still matter for these pitchers and new battery mates
Three AL West pitchers are set to work with new catchers in 2020
At some point within the next few years Major League Baseball will adopt an automated strike zone. MLB calls the system ABS, short for automated balls and strikes, and it was set to be tested in various minor leagues this season. That won't happen because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but ABS is on the way. Once the system is perfected, it'll be brought to MLB.
Whenever ABS does arrive, pitch-framing as a skill will become extinct. Catchers who present pitches to the umpire well will lose value and catchers who don't frame well will increase in value. The difference between the best (Austin Hedges) and worst (Elias Diaz) framers last year was roughly 37 runs, so the value gained (or lost) can be substantial. Soon that will go away.
Of course, catchers are not the players who benefit most from framing. It's the pitchers. They're the ones who gain (or lose) strikes. The White Sox signed Yasmani Grandal, long one of the game's elite pitch-framers, over the winter and he'll help their pitching staff considerably. Chicago's catchers were among the worst framers in the sport last season.
. This week we're going to look at three pitchers who will have new primary catchers this season, and could experience a significant swing in pitch-framing. Some will benefit from their new catcher, others will take a bit of a hit. And eventually ABS will render such discussions moot.
The Rangers will have three new starting pitchers (Kyle Gibson, Corey Kluber, Jordan Lyles) and a new starting catcher (Robinson Chirinos) this season. Chirinos returns to Texas following a one-year stint with the Astros. He played with the Rangers from 2013-18 and, since becoming a full-time big leaguer in 2014, he's consistently ranked among the game's worst pitch-framers:
- 2014: minus-7.5 runs
- 2015: minus-6.9 runs
- 2016: minus-7.8 runs
- 2017: minus-2.2 runs
- 2018: minus-11.8 runs
- 2019: minus-5.5 runs
Fortunately for Chirinos, he can hit. He's authored a .234/.340/.452 batting line with 71 homers in 450 games since 2015. Chirinos turns 36 next month and if he hangs around long enough, he figures to benefit quite a bit from ABS because it will neutralize his greatest weakness. Until then, he'll remain a bat-first backstop.
Kluber barely pitched last season due to injury and Lyles spent most of the season with the Pirates, where Elias caught roughly two-thirds of his innings. He's accustomed to less-than-stellar framing. Gibson spent last season with the Twins, who had one excellent framing catcher (Jason Castro) and one average framing catcher (Mitch Garver). His plus-3.3 runs added via framing were the sixth most among all pitchers in 2019.
Gibson has consistently posted average strikeout and walk rates throughout his career. His game is chewing innings and getting ground balls, and if throwing to a poor framer puts him in more bad counts, it stands to reason Gibson will suffer more than a pitcher who can miss bats. Batters hit .332 against Gibson when he was behind in the count last year. The MLB average was .295.
The Rangers do have one good framing catcher in backup Jeff Mathis, , and it's probably worth pairing Gibson and Mathis together. A guy like Kluber or Lance Lynn can survive a poor framer because they miss so many bats. Gibson doesn't, so those borderline strikes matter to him quite a bit.
Beyond being short on pitching talent last season, the Angels didn't do their staff any favors by giving them two pretty terrible framing catchers. Jonathan Lucroy (minus-4.7 runs), who was released in August, and Kevan Smith (-6.5 runs) caught more than two-thirds of the team's innings. It wasn't until the Angels traded for Max Stassi in July that they fielded a competent framer.
Andrew Heaney spent a good chunk of last season on the injured list with elbow problems and, when he was healthy, he threw more than half his innings to Lucroy or Smith. It is no surprise then that only four pitchers received less help from their catchers via pitch-framing. Pitching in this league is hard enough. It's even harder when your catchers turn borderline strikes into balls like this:
The Angels sought to correct their framing deficiency by signing Jason Castro to a one-year contract over the winter. Castro (plus-3.2 runs) and Stassi (plus-9.9 runs) were both top-20 framers last season, and while Stassi is still establishing himself at the MLB level, Castro is a veteran, and he's consistently ranked among the game's top framers the last two seasons.
Heaney posted strong strikeout (28.8 percent) and walk (7.3 percent) rates last year despite the poor framing, and I can't help but wonder how good he can be with a good pitch-framer behind the plate. Heaney turns only 29 next month, he's a former high draft pick (No. 9 overall in 2012) and top prospect, and the stuff is firm. Don't be surprised if he breaks out with Castro and Stassi.
Yusei Kikuchi's first MLB season did not go as planned. The Mariners signed him to a creative four-year contract worth $56 million that can swell to seven years and $109 million through a series of options. His 5.46 ERA was second highest among the 75 pitchers with at least 150 innings last season. His 5.71 FIP was the highest by a whopping 49 points. Ouch.
Kikuchi's struggles can not be blamed entirely on pitch-framing but framing surely contributed. No pitcher received less help from his catchers via framing last year.
- Yusei Kikuchi: minus-3.2 runs
- Charlie Morton: minus-3.1 runs
- Chris Sale: minus-2.7 runs
- Andrew Heaney: minus-2.6 runs
- Brett Anderson: minus-2.5 runs
The Mariners employed an incredibly productive catcher tandem last season. Tom Murphy and Omar Narvaez caught 97 percent of the team's innings last year and Seattle's backstops led all teams in batting average (.282, by 15 points) while ranking second in on-base percentage (.348) and slugging percentage (.516). All-Star caliber production at catcher.
As far as pitch-framing, Murphy and Narvaez are very different. Murphy rated as a top-15 framer at plus-4.1 runs while Narvaez was the second-worst framer in the game at minus-10.4 runs. Not surprisingly, Seattle's pitchers were quite a bit more effective with Murphy behind the plate:
|Innings||ERA||Strikeout rate||Walk rate|
The difference between Murphy and Narvaez was more than half-a-run of ERA and nearly two percentage points of walk rate. Pitch-framing matters. It's not everything, but it matters, and Murphy is considerably better at it. When it came time to commit to one catcher this past offseason, the Mariners went with Murphy, and traded Narvaez to the Brewers (going from an elite framer like Grandal to a poor defender like Narvaez could be a shock to the system for pitchers in Milwaukee).
Kikuchi threw more innings to Narvaez (95 1/3) than Murphy (66 1/3) last season and now that Murphy is the full-time starter behind the plate, he figures to benefit from extra called strikes. Every Mariners pitcher should, really. Kikuchi is still only 28 and he showed promise at times last year. I'd expect him to be better in 2020 just because he has an MLB season under his belt and has gone through the adjustment period. Throw in better framing and he's a sneaky breakout candidate.
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