Friday, July 26, 2013

Fooling baseball umpires is a repeatable skill for catchers

Since the start of the 2008 season, 13.4% of all pitches thrown to [Tampa Bay Rays catcher] Molina that were outside the strike zone have been called as strikes, which is by far the highest rate among regular catchers. That is according to an analysis of pitch tracking data by TruMedia Networks, an analytics firm used by 10 major-league teams. ...

The most influential work on the subject was written by Mike Fast for Baseball Prospectus in September 2011. Using pitch location data, Fast determined the number of extra strikes each catcher got over a five-year period. Based on the estimated run value of each extra strike, he found that Molina had saved his teams 73 runs, more than any other catcher despite playing less often than many.

Two months later, the Rays, whose perennially low payroll leaves them ever in search of bargains, snatched up Molina for a mere $1.5 million. "We've placed more value on that skill," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said. Two months after Molina signed with the Rays, the Houston Astros hired Fast to work in their front office. ...

Framing pitches, Molina said, starts with knowing each pitcher. How does each of his pitches typically move? Knowing each umpire's tendencies is also important. Is he known for being more lenient at one particular edge of the zone?

All of that information affects how a catcher sets up for a pitch. The idea is to make every pitch seem as if it went exactly where the catcher was expecting it to go.

"It's all about limiting the movement to the ball, staying quiet with your hands and not moving at all," Stewart said. "Anytime the umpire sees the catcher move a lot, they tend to think he had to move a lot because the ball was out of the strike zone."

How much of a difference can an elite pitch framer make? Consider this: Since 2008, over the same period Molina has excelled, Minnesota Twins catcher Ryan Doumit has been among the worst framers in the game, getting strikes called on only 8.1% of pitches outside the zone, according to TruMedia's analysis.

The 5.3% difference between him and Molina amounts to around three bonus strikes per game, but that only accounts for part of the value of pitch framing. The other part is not losing legitimate strikes. Only 72% of strikes taken by the batter with Doumit behind the plate are actually called for strikes, compared with 83% for Molina.
--Brian Costa, WSJ, on the importance of framing