Pitch-framing in olden times

I’ve got too many baseball books. By “too many,” I mean I’ve got more than will fit on my available shelves, and I’ve got books I don’t even know I have. Which makes a bunch of them practically useless. But then I’ll stumble upon something interesting!

Yesterday I happened across a 33-year-old tome titled Major League Baseball Manual: The Authentic Guide to Strategy and Tactics Prepared and Used by the Milwaukee Brewers. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually looked at this one, but a question came to mind: What were baseball men saying about pitch-framing in 1982?

As it turns out, quite a lot! With the added bonus of a baseball term I’d never seen before. The following opens the section, “FRAMING THE PLATE” …

Most coaches are satisfied if they can put a player behind the plate who wants to catch, can throw, and will catch the ball. If the individual has those three attributes, there is probably very little time spent on the technique of catching the ball. However, just catching the ball is not enough. How the catcher catches greatly affects the pitcher’s performance and the outcome of the game.

Our goal is not have balls called strikes, but to have every strike called a strike. We especially want the marginal strike, the “stri-ball,” called a strike. This is the ball on the corners, the pitch just at or slightly below the knees, the fastball just above the waist, and the curveball at the waist. How we catch this pitch determines whether it will be called a ball or a strike. Would you rather hit with a 3-1 count or a 2-2? The answer is obvious, but how this applies to the catcher is not. If we catch the 2-1 stri-ball correctly, it is a strike and the count is 2-2; if not, it’s a ball and the count is 3-1. Poor catching also puts the pitcher in jeopardy of throwing too many pitches. The more pitches the hitters see, the better chance they have of making solid contact. Also, those extra pitches wear out the pitcher’s arm.

And if you’ve ever seen or heard the term “stri-ball,” today’s No-prize will be arriving in your Non-box shortly. Alas, stri-ball doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue and seems to have disappeared nearly as soon as it appeared.

But of course framing’s bigger than ever, with Milwaukee’s Jonathan Lucroy one of the craft’s best-known practitioners. I’ll bet Lucroy would just smile, with perhaps a small nod of acknowledgment, upon reading this advice:

Every pitch in or near the strike zone should be caught with a minimum of body movement. We tell our catchers to shrink the strike zone with their hands. We liken it to picking fruit off a tree. The ball should be caught with very smooth hand action. We do not want to jerk or pull any pitches into the strike zone. Remember, we want only those strikes we are entitled to. Good framing technique will usually get you more marginal pitches. We are not trying to put one over on the umpire, only to give our strikes the best showcase possible. If you are not smooth, the umpire will feel that you are trying to take advantage of him by pulling pitches into the strike zone, and he could take pitches away from you.

When I started writing this, it was supposed to be just a quick little post illustrating that pitch-framing’s been a serious part of the game for a long time now. Which I suppose we already knew, but I enjoyed seeing the proof in an old book.

Now, though, I see two interesting lines of inquiry.

One – and maybe this isn’t new, but I have trouble remembering everything I see – I’m wondering how much of pitch-framing is getting strikes in the strike zone, and how much is actually stealing strikes. Because despite what the Brewers might have been officially teaching in 1982, you gotta figure they weren’t averse to the occasional strike that really should have been a ball. I don’t know that answering this question has any practical utility – once it’s called, a strike is a strike – but I guess it’s just something else I’d like to know about pitch-framing in the real world.

My second question is something that occurred to me just a few weeks ago, in a different context. When we measure the value of a fielding play, we’re measuring that value through the lens of linear weights; save one-third of a single, and you’ve saved one-third of the standard value of a single. Does that do the play proper justice, though? Because you’ve also turned one-third of a single into an out (or maybe two-thirds of an out; I’m an amateur swimmer in these waters). Which is one fewer out the pitcher needs to worry about, and thus fewer pitches he has to throw, and thus he’ll throw those he does throw slightly better. So should our fielding metrics somehow account for not just the base that’s saved, but also the future pitches saved? Maybe.

And I believe the same question might be asked about pitch-framing. If this – “Poor catching also puts the pitcher in jeopardy of throwing too many pitches. The more pitches the hitters see, the better chance they have of making solid contact. Also, those extra pitches wear out the pitcher’s arm.” – is true, anyway.

See, this is why I just can’t seem to get rid of all these damn books.