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J.T. Realmuto, Jorge Alfaro, and how I think the Phillies teach better catcher framing

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The Phillies know how to teach better pitch presentation. How are they doing it?

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

J.T. Realmuto is one of the top defensive catchers in the game today. This is not something that we need to have a discussion about since it is a statistical fact. Using Baseball Prospectus’ numbers, we know this.

Now before you begin to moan and howl and whine about Yasmani Grandal, let me stop you right there in your track. This is not what I am going to be talking about. We can save that conversation for another time. So, move on.

Instead, what I want to focus on is what makes Realmuto a good catcher in the first place. Most will point to his arm and ability to control the run game, and while that’s true, it’s not the part that fascinates me the most. It the pitch framing aspect of his game that I am most interested in. I also am interested in Jorge Alfaro as well. These two, along with Andrew Knapp, are the ones responsible for the bulk of the team’s innings behind the plate the past two years under the new coaching staff assembled by Gabe Kapler and there is something that is not a coincidence. Each of these men were better pitch framers in Philadelphia than anywhere else. This struck me as odd since in the midst of this midsummer slog the offense and pitching has held us captive to, we are turning our focus onto the coaching staff and their seeming inability to help players get better. But when it comes to pitch framing, this is simply not the case.

Last year, for the Ringer, Ben Lindbergh wrote a fascinating article about the gap that is closing between teams that have good pitch framers and those that do not. It’s a talent that has been exploited by teams, and now more are, ahem, “catching on” onto how to teach it and deploy it in games. Ben grabbed a clip of an example of Alfaro framing a ball to be a strike that you should be aware of.

This will be relevant later on. Now, I will mention that I reached out to the Phillies early this year to see if I could do a piece on this exact thing, to see if I could ask questions and visit and see what they were doing, but they politely declined, citing the desire to keep trade secrets. I was, and still am, totally fine with that. If they feel they have something they don’t want to get out, I can back that fully. But it has stuck with me all year. What are they doing behind the scenes to make their catchers better at framing? Well, I think I have it figured out and this is what I will share with you here.

The numbers

When coming to conclusions like this, it helps to show what were talking about. So, let’s get into the data a bit. Using BP’s framing metrics, we can see the trio of catchers and how they have done. I’ll start by reminding you that in 2018, Realmuto was in Miami, while Alfaro and Knapp were in Philadelphia.

Framing runs 2017-19

Player 2017 2018 2019 (thru 8/10)
Player 2017 2018 2019 (thru 8/10)
J. Realmuto 5.3 -0.4 8.3
J. Alfaro -2.6 12.3 1.4
A. Knapp -6.1 -3.5 -0.3

The numbers are pretty clear that improvement comes from increased exposure to the coaching staff that is currently in place here in Philadelphia as opposed to whatever is going on in Miami. That is not a detriment to them since we are all well aware of their lack of analytic thinking in the past, but rather it’s a plus in the Phillies’ column. They’re teaching them better.

Now, the next thing we can discuss is the fact that the Phillies are employing more talented pitchers. When Realmuto goes from catching pitchers like Wei-Yin Chen in 2018 to Aaron Nola in 2019, the quality of arms is striking. However, the numbers tell a slightly different story. Miami is actually throwing more pitches for strikes this year (64.1%) than they did last year (62.7%). The Phillies have actually gone down a full percentage point thus far (64.9% in 2018 v. 63.8%). To me, this is further evidence that it’s not the catchers who are at fault there, it’s the pitchers. This lets me focus on the catchers and they ability to frame a bit more. So, that leads us to the big question: what are the Phillies teaching that is helping their catchers improve?

The findings

Let’s start with this. What is the purpose of pitch framing? I’m pretty sure I read a better definition somewhere, and pardon if I’m lifting this definition from someone else, but we don’t want to think of it as “framing”, but rather as “presenting”. The catchers are taking a ball that isn’t in the zone and presenting it as a strike to the umpire. There is a lot of work that goes into doing this. Teams have come up with ways to teach this skill to their backstops. From Lindbergh’s story, we can tell that there is an almost universal way that framing is taught to begin with and that’s in the setup. From the article:

One need look no further for an example than the first GIF of Alfaro above: There’s the Phillies backstop dropping to his left knee with the bases empty and fewer than two strikes, just as Flowers described—and, in this case, costing Flowers directly. That’s not a coincidence either. First-year Phillies bullpen catcher/receiving coach Craig Driver says the team’s plan this spring was to help Alfaro improve his framing performance at the bottom of the zone, where most of the top-rated receivers excel. “We wanted to devise as much of a plan to get him low and work under the baseball as we could,” Driver says. “So one of the things we encouraged him to do a lot was catch off one knee.” Driver says setting up lower has benefited Alfaro by bringing his eyes closer to where the ball is going to be, making it easier for him to pull low pitches up into the strike zone and saving some strain on his knees compared to squatting.

We also know that it’s all a slight of hand trick, grabbing the ball just off the outer black for example and bringing it back juuuust enough for the umpire to raise his right hand. But what if that’s exactly it? What if the Phillies are teaching their catchers to perform a deft, quick as a blink trick on the umpire in the hopes they can catch him napping? It’s obviously something they try and do. Again, from the article:

The two also go through a pregame framing-practice routine in which Driver uses a pitching machine to fire fast pitches for Alfaro to frame, rather than throwing pitches at slower speeds that wouldn’t prepare Alfaro for in-game conditions.

We’ve all seen enough catcher’s actions in our lifetime to safely say that they know the zone when they see it. When a ball is thrown right down the middle of the plate, they are going to assume that the umpire is not actually dead and knows it is a strike and will receive the balls with such a nonchalant action, it almost looks like they are bored. THAT’S what I believe is going on. I’m theorizing that the coaching staff are teaching their catchers to snap the ball back into the strikezone as quick as possible and force the umpire to assume the ball they just thought was outside the zone should be called a strike simply because of the previously labeled nonchalant action with which they grabbed the pitch. Let’s look at some examples.

To start, the first thing I want you to look at is Realmuto from last season. While with the Marlins, he was obviously not receiving the coaching he is getting from the Phillies now. Here is an example of his presenting a pitch to the umpire that is low in the zone from August of last season.

The ball is just below Odubel Herrera’s knees and the umpire balls it. Close, but it wasn’t presented well and did not result in the pitch being called a strike. Now here is an example from last week in Arizona of almost the exact same type of pitch. Watch the difference in presentation.

Here, Realmuto grabs the pitch with the almost near certainty that it is a strike and the umpire agrees, calling the pitch a strike. You can see, thank to the strikezone box, that it is clearly below the zone. The batter does as well. Same pitch, different result. This is something that is taught.

Now, there are times when being still with a pitch helps. This is from last year, a pitch on the outside corner.

But now that he is with the Phillies, we can see how Realmuto is taking the same type of pitch and manipulating it so quickly, the umpire has to agree with him.

There is definitely something being done in the Phillies organization that involves a lot of hand work here. The evidence is pretty clear. We saw it in the clip of Alfaro above and in the clips here between Realmuto’s work in Miami and here in Philadelphia. We can also appreciate the fluidity with which Realmuto works when we compare Alfaro’s time in Philadelphia and how he is performing in Miami.

Alfaro likes to grab the pitch, move it and hold in place, hoping to grab the strike. It’s something he has continued doing while in Miami.

The difference I see in Alfaro and Realmuto’s work is that Realmuto’s quick moves make the umpire just assume the pitch is a strike while Alfaro is trying to beg a little bit more, saying “Hey, look it’s a strike!”

Look, I’m not saying I cracked some kind of code here. This isn’t some earth-shattering piece of investgative work going on here. There is probably a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to make Realmuto get to where he is at with regards to this talent and someone just saying he moves his hands quick is probably simplistic. However, it’s hard to deny that something is happening with his hands behind the plate. The team identified him as being able to improve and gave him the skills to do so. In this season of disappointment we all share with some of the coaching staff, we should be able to agree that this area of the staff has been amazing the past two years. It’s doing wonders for the team’s lone all-star.

Special thanks to Paul Boye for the gif-grabbing.