Much like the ability to use a typewriter, read a map, or sell encyclopedias, it’s a dying skill that may only matter for another season or two.
Over the years, pitch framing – the act of presenting a pitch to an umpire to make it appear to be a strike – has become a major component of a catcher’s evaluation. And it will remain a sought-after skill a little longer after Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said last month that the automatic ball-strike system (ABS) being tested in Triple-A won’t be used in the majors in 2024.
Because when it comes to getting a batter out, every call matters. Here are a couple of examples:
Entering Thursday’s action, MLB hitters had a .266 batting average and a .461 slugging percentage once a count reached 2-0, but a .227 average and .373 slugging if the count instead fell to 1-1. On a 3-1 count, the league is hitting .255 with a .459 slugging percentage, compared to just .180 and .294 slugging after 2-2.
So it’s simply about flipping the count – and the odds – in your favor.
In the 2022 postseason, the Sporting News insisted that the opener Cleveland Guardians-Tampa Bay Rays Wild-Card Series “was seen by many as Exhibit A as to why baseball needs robot umpires (or an AI-powered system) calling balls and strikes.”
Ump Scorecards, a tracker of umpire performance, revealed that veteran Doug Eddings had gotten 11.1% of the calls wrong that game. Meanwhile, Umpire Auditor had Eddings missing 17.3% of the calls.
But the art of pitch framing was granted a stay of execution by Manfred. That’s especially big for defensive catchers who don’t offer much in terms of offensive punch and might not have a place in the game once framing becomes obsolete.
“I think there’s some sentiment among the group that we made had a lot of changes here,” Manfred told The Associated Press. “We ought to let the dust settle, and there are clearly unresolved operational issues with respect to ABS. Despite all the testing, we still have some things that are unresolved.”
For now, the league will continue to value the catchers who are masters at getting pitchers more strikes. Framing runs is the metric we use to measure which catchers are elite at this skill. In simplest terms, a catcher is credited if a pitch outside the strike zone is called a strike and docked if the reverse occurs. The value is determined by how far in the zone (for a ball) or out of it (for a strike) the pitch lands.
Here are the previous MLB leaders in framing runs by season:
Even the past leaders remain strong in their craft in 2023. Austin Hedges, who totaled a ridiculous 31.5 framing runs to lead all of baseball in 2019, ranks fifth in the majors with 10.93 this season. We equate that as Hedges saving the Pittsburgh Pirates almost 11 runs so far this year because of his pitch framing.
Austin Barnes (2020) of the Los Angeles Dodgers is 18th with 4.35, Los Angeles Dodgers teammate Will Smith (2021) sits 12th with 8.82 and Jose Trevino (2022) of the New York Yankees ranks 13th with 6.87 but is out for the season with a wrist injury.
Obviously, it’s a tremendous benefit to have someone like Smith, Adley Rutschman of the Baltimore Orioles and William Contreras of the Milwaukee Brewers. Smith also ranks second among qualified catchers with a raw value+ (RV+) of 147, while Rutschman is ninth in framing runs and third among catchers with an RV+ of 138.
RV+ examines how a hitter performs throughout each pitch of an at-bat rather than just the end result, factoring in discipline, contact and damage done upon contact. The league average is 100, with the higher score, the better for hitters.
Contreras ranks ninth in framing runs, fifth among catchers with an RV+ of 111 and fourth in stolen base percentage against (70.7%). That last stat is crucial considering that the league is on pace for the highest stolen base success rate of all time at 79.5% – far ahead of the previous mark of 75.7% set in 2021.
Believe it or not, it’s a couple of rookies who lead the majors in framing this season. Francisco Alvarez of the New York Mets (shown in the video below) has accumulated an MLB-best 13.38 framing runs, while Patrick Bailey of the San Francisco Giants is just behind him with 12.95.
Bailey has also shined in other areas defensively. He ranks second in baseball in stolen base percentage against (67.4%) among those with at least 50 games behind the plate and is tied with Alvarez and the San Diego Padres’ Gary Sanchez for second in the majors with two pickoffs each.
Here are the rest of the top 10 in framing runs:
An argument can be made that Bailey (103.4), Christian Vazquez (104.3) of the Minnesota Twins, William Contreras (103.1) and Jake Rogers (102.5) of the Detroit Tigers have had an advantage when it comes to framing pitches because they all have a catcher’s command+ above the league average (100).
It makes sense that it would be easier to present a pitch positively to the umpire when your staff is consistently throwing the ball where you’re setting up.
The bad news for the game’s worst framers is that they’ll be labeled as such for a while longer. Here is the list of backstops who aren’t quite up to par:
Willson Contreras remains at the bottom of this list, ranking third to last with minus-10.80 framing runs. Remember, we equate that as him costing the St. Louis Cardinals almost 11 runs over the course of 2023 as a result of his poor framing.
Maybe he should try to pick up some tips from his brother William, or just wait it out until the robot umpires invade the league and clear his name. Willson has, however, helped make up for it by ranking fourth among catchers with an RV+ of 131.
Similarly, Gabriel Moreno of the Arizona Diamondbacks sits near the bottom of the majors in framing, but he leads MLB with a stolen base percentage against of 54.3. Elias Diaz was an All-Star for the first time this season despite ranking last in the majors with -18.78 framing runs. He’s hitting .270 (third among qualified catchers) with 10 home runs and 48 RBIs (fourth among catchers) for the Colorado Rockies.
Despite his reputation as one of the game’s best defensive catchers, Martin Maldonado of the Houston Astros has the sixth-lowest framing runs at -10.11. He’s also tied for 16th in stolen base percentage against (83.3%) and has an MLB-high eight passed balls.
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