Recently, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about a catcher’s ability to frame or receive the pitch in order to get more strike calls. However, that isn’t the only job of a backstop — blocking pitches in the dirt is a far more visible skill to most. Does being good at one affect your ability to be good at the other?
Listen to the skills that different catchers have listed as important to framing a pitch so that the umpire might best call it a strike:
"The less movement you have, the more likely he’s going to call it a strike." — Jonathan Lucroy.
"Get good at sticking it." — Lucroy
"The emphasis is shifting to being as quiet as you can about receiving the ball and giving the umpire the best view of the pitch that you can." — Jason Castro
"That’s part of what I’ve integrated into my catching this year is thinking about the angles in which I set up." — Castro
"Give the lowest target possible." — Hank Conger
"My stance is narrower." — Conger
"I usually ask the umpire if I should get lower." — Travis d’Arnaud
Now listen to the skills involved in blocking a pitch:
"You want to absorb it. You want to suck it in. You want to be relaxed. You don’t want to be stiff." — Lucroy
"Square it up and keep it in front of you. Get your shoulder on top of it." — Conger
"Just try to catch it instead of sticking it." — d’Arnaud
"Your glove is supposed to stay between your legs, covering the six hole. You never want to use your glove, I would get in trouble for, because I was a glove-y kind of guy." — Mike Newman
"Let the air out of your body as much as you can, so you deflate the ball." — Newman
"Get as wide as possible with your elbows and shoulders." — Newman
You can see that the skills are different. To frame a pitch, you want to be calm, small, and low while you stick the ball in your glove with a stiff wrist. To block a pitch, you want to be big, relaxed, and on top of the ball as you stop it with your body.
Take a look at the list of the top framers last year, according to StatCorner:
Four guys in common, which isn’t enough to make any sort of conclusions.
Let’s take these two metrics and try to correlate them. Looks like framing (RAA) and blocking (RPP) are positively correlated (p-value < .0001) but the relationship is not strong (R-squared = .096) and there’s a chance that there’s survivor bias (really bad blockers or framers may never make the big leagues, but we don’t know which one kept them from making it). So, the numbers say that generally good defensive catchers are good at both things.
Overall, it’s okay. There are many more pitches in the zone than there are pitches in the dirt, and so any appraisal of d’Arnaud’s overall defensive value still comes out positive. If you had to pick one to excel at, choose framing.
Which is good because d’Arnaud can’t undo all the work he’s put into framing. All the training he got in the Phillies’ farm system, all the time he’s spent focusing on being still while receiving the ball — he can’t ignore that. "I’ve always done it that way," d’Arnaud said. But now, he might think differently in different situations. "With runners on base I might get a little too aggressive instead of just being more defensive," the Mets catcher admitted.
There’s reason to think he’ll figure it out and be good at both. Once you the see the runner going, "you’re supposed to give up on the framing and think about the runner and the footwork for the throw," said Newman, a former college catcher who now writes about prospects.
Newman felt that because d’Arnaud was so athletic, and yet so composed, the catcher was his favorite defensively among all the backstops he’d seen live. What "TdA" has to do now is "learn his limitations" according to Newman — he has to understand that he can’t frame every pitch. Learning his pitchers will also help, as a big part of blocking is anticipation of that pitch being in the dirt.
Maybe pitch blocking and framing aren’t completely in opposition, even if there are differences in the underlying skills. Maybe there are different times to implement each, but blocking and framing are both "component skills of being a good defensive catcher" as Newman put it.
Travis d’Arnaud shouldn’t worry too much — he’s better at the more important skill, and all he really needs to do is learn his limitations and get to know his pitchers better.