Who has been helped and hurt the most by the art of pitch framing?
Let’s watch some baseball! Rewind to Thursday night, in Boston, where the Angels were playing the Red Sox. The story of most of the night was Matt Shoemaker, but for our specific purposes, the story didn’t really involve Shoemaker at all.
We’ll pick things up in the top of the sixth. Ahead in the count 2-and-1, Albert Pujols took a high slider, but it got called a strike, much to Pujols’ displeasure. The pitch was received by Christian Vazquez, who seems to be an elite-level pitch-framer.
On the next pitch, Pujols went down swinging. Shortly thereafter, Pujols must’ve said something from the dugout, because he got tossed, and Mike Scioscia subsequently also got tossed for defending his first baseman.
You could say that pitch-framing was largely responsible for two people on the Angels’ payroll getting ejected. For good measure, let’s skip ahead to the top of the seventh, with Collin Cowgill facing a two-strike count:
Framed, and Cowgill didn’t like it. He managed to not get ejected, but he was clearly frustrated as he walked away. The Angels weren’t big fans of Andy Fletcher’s strike zone.
And, that’s fine. We’re looking at some borderline calls, and borderline calls have to go against somebody, and that side is going to be upset. Especially in the heat of late-August competition, when the Angels are trying to win a division and get to the ALDS. But, here’s the thing: pitch-framing is a skill, and every catcher tries to do it. One of the Angels’ own catchers, Hank Conger, seems to be pretty good at it. The Angels benefit from framing effects, and one wonders, do they come out ahead or behind overall? And if they come out ahead, what sense is there in arguing, really?
It’s possible to figure out which teams have benefited the most and least from framing, on the pitching side. It’s possible to do the same on the hitting side. It’s then obviously possible to put those numbers together to come up with an estimate of overall framing help. If you’d like, you could think of it as a measure of which teams would like an automated strike zone the most and the least. I assure you this’ll make more sense in the minutes ahead, as you read on.
The FanGraphs leaderboards contain team plate-discipline data. Using this data, we can calculate strikes above or below what would be expected, given the rate of pitches in the zone and given the rate of swings at pitches out of the zone. We can do the same calculations for pitchers and for hitters, and then it’s a matter of simple addition, or subtraction, as it were. For your benefit I’m skipping over all the ugly math, but it’s really not that ugly, and now it’s time for the part you want: the results table. Below you see all 30 teams, and a number for each. That’s the combined strike benefit I’ve estimated, for 2014. A large positive number means the team has benefited by that many strikes. A large negative number means the team has been hurt by that many strikes. I’ll say again these are estimates, but they should be pretty close to right on.
To summarize, quickly: the Brewers come out on top, more than doubling second place. The Brewers have benefited by 400 strikes over average, while the Blue Jays have been hurt by 280 strikes at the other end. It’s not a surprise to see the Brewers on top — Jonathan Lucroy and, to a lesser extent, Martin Maldonado are well-known exceptional pitch-framers. They allow the Brewers’ pitchers to expand the zone. The Brewers’ hitters, though, have also benefited, albeit by a lot less than the pitchers. As far as the Blue Jays are concerned, they’ve had below-average framing, and they’ve also been hurt by framing at the plate. That’s at least partially explained by sharing a division with guys like Christian Vazquez, Brian McCann, Jose Molina, and Caleb Joseph. All those guys are established or developing quality receivers.
Framing for pitchers is the biggest driver here, but certain teams have been notably helped or hurt while batting. I already mentioned that the Blue Jays have run into a host of good framers, and the Royals have actually paid the heaviest price at the plate. At the other end, no team’s hitters have been helped more than the Mets’ hitters, and then Dodgers hitters have also benefited from less-generous strike zones. This is why you see the Mets fifth in the table above — they’ve had decent framing of their own, but the biggest benefit has happened while they’ve batted. The Dodgers’ framing advantage while batting outweighs their framing disadvantage while pitching.
What does a single strike mean? Calculations in the past have put the value of an extra strike somewhere around 0.14 runs. That’s not very much, but then, you can do the multiplication. These things add up fast. If you use that estimate, then the difference between the Brewers and the Blue Jays, here, comes out to about 95 runs, just from pitch-framing alone. That’s thought to be something like ten wins. That’s just the difference between the two extremes, but that’s an enormous difference, where the Brewers ought to be thankful the strike zone is still judged by humans, while the Blue Jays should be wishing hard that things would’ve been automated all this time.
As for the Angels, with whom we began? We see them above at +60, which means they’ve been helped by subjective strike zones more than they’ve been hurt. Which doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed to express frustration when a close call goes against them, but it’s important to maintain perspective. As long as umpires are going to make calls in part on account of the catchers’ behavior, for the Angels that should be a net positive. It’s too bad for Albert Pujols he had a close slider go against him, but such calls have gone against the Angels’ opponents more often on the year.
What we can’t quite do is figure out what teams would be like with an automated, perfect strike zone. Change the zone and all behaviors are different, and pitchers wouldn’t keep trying to pitch so much off the edges. Brewers pitchers would respond, and maybe they’d still be really effective, even if you removed the Lucroy/Maldonado effect. There’s just no way for us to tell. But we can say this: in the year 2014, the strike zone is still determined by very human umpires. The Brewers have been able to take the most advantage of that. The Blue Jays, on the other hand, have been the most screwed. Other teams are close to the Jays; no one is particularly close to the Brewers. This isn’t why the Brewers still stand in first place in the NL Central, but I can assure you this isn’t hurting.