Proof that pitch-framing catchers are unsung heroes of baseball

Jose Molina should get more credit for helping the Rays to the playoffs in 2013.

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Some years ago now, Major League Baseball installed cameras in all the ballparks, super-duper cameras (or maybe radars) that measured the precise speed and location of every pitch from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s mitt (or the hitter’s bat). Somewhat miraculously, MLB made much of the resulting data available to the public, and the public took that data and created some wonderful things. A fair number of people even made careers of that data.

Perhaps the most interesting new line of inquiry was the sudden ability to measure with some precision the accuracy of plate umpires’ calls on pitches … which in turn gave us the ability to see if some catchers demonstrated an ability to “steal” strikes that some other catchers might not get. This ability had been long-rumored, but never objectively confirmed.

Until now.

There have been various studies confirming the effect and assigning actual values to actual catchers. The latest study at Baseball Prospectus, by Harry Pavlidis and Dan Brooks, seems the most comprehensive yet. And while it merely confirms what we’ve been told in recent years, it’s valuable because it addresses some concerns about previous studies. From the article, a fine primer:

Example? Last season the Rays and the Indians beat out the Rangers for a wild card by the barest of margins: exactly one win. The Rays benefited from Jose Molina, whose pitch-framing alone was worth — according to this particular method —roughly two extra wins. Without Molina, the Rays win 90 games rather than 92. Theoretically speaking (since we’re not accounting for the distribution of runs within games). Meanwhile, the Rangers’ regular catcher was A.J. Pierzynski, and while he wasn’t bad, he sure wasn’t Jose Molina; reading the numbers literally, Molina was 30 runs better than Pierzynski. Which, you might argue, cost the Rangers a playoff spot.

AROUND THE HORN

Here’s the kicker: Jose Molina earned $1.8 million last season. This winter, the Rays got his signature on a new contract: 2 years, $4.5 million. Which is almost certainly the team-friendliest deal that any free agent signed all winter. Because as Pavlidis and Brooks point out, pitch-framing wins “are almost assuredly not properly priced into the free-agent market.” Most assuredly they are not.

If all this is real. It’s a funny thing. For many decades, baseball people would rave about the importance of pitch-framing — Tim McCarver in particular was a champion — but I wonder how many of those old-timers would be willing, right now, to spend $15 million for a season’s worth of Jose Molina? Not many, I will guess. And to be sure, there are still legitimate questions about the methods used to measure these things. Just last week at The Hardball Times, Bradley Woodrum enumerated these questions … but also pointed out that a No. 1 catcher stealing just one strike per game could save 20 runs. Does one strike per game sound like much? It is, because we may assume that few catchers actually do that. At the same time, unless you were watching the games very very very closely, it would be very very very easy to miss that one strike per game. Which is the great thing about computers! They don’t miss as much stuff.

Which isn’t to say computers are actually doing the work! As Picasso supposedly said, “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”

Of course they’re not useless at all. But you can’t get the answers without the questions, and that’s where you come in. For a while now, smart dudes have been asking what the data would look like if pitch-framing was a real and spectacular thing … and thanks to the computers, we know this is what the data would look like.

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Leaving aside the fact that Jose Molina’s probably underpaid (which I don’t care about) and the Rays have themselves a needed bargain (which I do care about), what else does all this mean? Well, another of the Pitch-Framing All-Stars is Brian McCann, so you might want to tack on a couple of extra wins to whatever you were projecting for the Yankees. Meanwhile, losing McCann is going to make staying ahead of the Nationals all that much harder for the Braves.

The other thing is … I just noticed that Martin Maldonado batted ONE-SIXTY-NINE last year in 202 plate appearances with the Brewers. I’m surprised by how many players have been just as bad in at least as many plate appearances. Still, .169 … that’s pretty damn terrible. But there’s a saving grace! With Pitch-Framing All-Star Jonathan Lucroy missing much of the season, Maldonado stepped right in and finished second in the majors with 30 “framing runs” per 7000 chances. Lucroy’s back this season, and so is Maldonado. If the Brewers’ pitchers look good this season, let’s remember to save some of the credit for their catchers. Because they’re going to deserve it.

Oh, and I hate to mention this because I’ve become a softy in my old age, but Ryan Doumit has finished last in the majors in that category in three straight years. Granted, Doumit caught in only 43 games last season. But even that was probably too many.  

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