In his end of season press conference, team president Andy MacPhail discussed how analytics can be used to help with a weak area of the team this past season. From Corey Seidman’s recap:
"We don't think as an organization that our catchers' framing is very good. We think we are well-below-average. There are certain technologies that will help you instruct, teach, measure how well someone does that. We need to acquire those technologies to ensure that's an area that gets improved. We think that's an area that needs improvement, significantly. It's a hard thing. You want to take as much subjectivity out of it as you can. The player will likely learn better if he can see tangible results of things he does. Maybe this pitch you took out of the strike zone, maybe you stole one here. It's an ever-evolving thing....It's something that we continually have to evaluate, keep our eyes on. But it's definitely an area of interest for the organization."
The most readily available, and perhaps best, catching stats belong to those from Baseball Prospectus. Not only do they get into the major league catchers, they get into the minor league ones as well, since the technology for determining these stats is making its way into the lower levels of professional baseball. Here is how the Phillies catchers fared, down to the Double-A level:
Phillies’ catchers and framing
|Catcher||Level||Framing Chances||CSAA||Framing Runs||RAA|
|Catcher||Level||Framing Chances||CSAA||Framing Runs||RAA|
At first glance, you can see that there is a lot of negative numbers there, which is bad. Of course, you might also look at these categories and say, “huh?”
Let me explain.
First, I’ll direct you to this series of articles from Baseball Prospectus, in which they explain these statistics and what they mean. Here, the first one introduces their concept of pitch framing. The second is where CSAA comes in. I’ll warn you: read them carefully, as they get wordy and mathy. Basically you can boil the categories down to this - CSAA is Called Strikes Above Average, or how good were they at getting strikes that weren’t in the zone called for their pitcher. Framing Runs turns that number into something a little more tangible and easier to understand.*
Looking at the numbers, it’s easy to see why MacPhail emphasized this point. There isn’t a single catcher who was all that good. Even Jorge Alfaro’s Lehigh Valley numbers are barely above zero, and are close enough that you might say he was average at best. The major league catchers were even worse, with Andrew Knapp ranking near the bottom of the league of any catcher who caught a pitch this year. It’s not even a subjective point of view either. All too often, you could find people complaining about Knapp or Cameron Rupp not being able to get this pitch called a strike, that pitch brought back into the zone.
For example, here’s Cameron Rupp framing a pitch:
Sure, that pitch is probably a ball, but the fact that the glove movement is so noticeable, there is almost a zero chance of this being called a strike. It may have traveled into the strike zone, but the poor technique here may have cost the pitcher, Jeremy Hellickson in this case, a strike.
Here’s Jorge Alfaro framing:
This one, to me, is kind of a double edged sword. It’s the best example of the three catchers trying to frame a pitch, and yet there is still too much glove movement overall. With this pitch, I feel like if there was even a more subtle hand movement, this had the best chance of being called a strike.
Finally, here’s Andrew Knapp:
This one is almost funny. You can kind of feel that Knapp knows it’s not a strike, but maybe he’ll catch the umpire napping. Even still, this is probably the worst example of the three.
While these are but a few of thousands of pitches received this season by this trio, it’s makes the numbers more believable. You can see why they would rank towards the bottom of the league. Bringing a pitch that is borderline on the edge of the zone back almost to your chest will almost never get a strike called. It’s obvious that work can be done with each player if they remain with the team.
My interest is in how they can work with them. Obviously, there are catching instructors that can be utilized in order to iron out mechanics of each catcher, but what about beyond that? So I went searching and found a few pieces that touched on ways teams can improve that area. This article from early 2017 talks about how the Yankees throw smaller balls at the catcher to help with framing:
Yankees scouts look for players who can catch the ball quietly, and then coaches work with them once they are in the system to develop the skill. One of the drills they do during spring training is having a coach toss small balls at them.
Other than that, there are, not surprisingly, very few trade secrets available to the public for improvement. I would go ahead and assume there is lots of video training being used, as well as virtual reality being developed, that can help improve a catcher’s framing numbers.
It’s a sobering thought, that the catchers for the team struggled so badly. With such a young staff last season and one that projects thus far to be young yet again, it would help if the catchers were able to steal a strike here and there. The difference may not make that big of a deal on a macro level, but getting in deeper, it could make a whole world of difference. For example, this season, if a player is in a 1-1 count, the next pitch, if taken, can cause a huge advantage shift in either direction. In the National League this season, when batters were ahead in the count 2-1, they hit .344/.345/.614 (.959 OPS). When they were down 1-2, they hit .160/.167/.247 (.414 OPS). For those scoring at home, that’s a 550 point difference in OPS. Granted, there will always be those times when a batter is an outlier and he hits a home run on a 1-2 pitch, but by and large, that hitter is as good as out if he gets to that point.
These are the small types of changes a team can make if they want to continue their upward path toward winning seasons. It might be a subtle change, but if they are able to get their players going in the right direction, the Phillies may have found a way to improve the roster without spending a ton of money.
Special thanks to Chris Jones, @LONG_DRIVE, for the gifs.