Pitch framing data and what it says about catchers like Jose Molina

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Catchers handle the baseball more than any player on a team's roster. They have the most responsibility and defensive duties, including throwing out baserunners, blocking wild pitches and fielding bunts.

Catcher was already weighed as much as any other position in many defensive metrics before analytically-inclined minds realized that the catcher manipulates every pitch thrown. And pitch framing data has been the newest "big thing" in 2014.

As a former catcher, I stayed loyal to the position because I knew I had the most impact on the field. And I was able to swing calls in my team's favor, not just by blocking balls and controlling the running game, but by calling pitches that should be called and catching them in a way that earned my pitchers more strikes. A lot of work has been done by uberly talented people in the last year to quantify pitch framing. I'm just not sure how worthwhile it is to try and make sense of such data. 

I've attended the Saber Seminar in Boston for the last two years. It's a fabulous event put on by Dan Brooks and Chuck Korb that raises money for the Jimmy Fund's cancer research by hosting a plethora of people involved in all sorts of areas of baseball. Sabermetricians, GM's, managers, scientists and doctors present research on everything you can imagine relatable to baseball. This year, Brooks talked about the work he's (along with co-author Harry Pavlidis) been doing in pitch framing data. And his project was the best way I've seen someone try to quantify how much a catcher's framing abilities may be worth.

Essentially, Brooks created a distribution around the plate that indicated the chances of a pitch being called a strike in a certain location. Then he looked at catchers' strikes and how they manipulated the calls positively or negatively. It was fascinating. 

And while I love the work that's been done in pitch framing data, trying to make sense of it is where I kind of draw the line of what's "worth it" and what isn't. Brooks used Jose Molina as an example because he is the best pitch framer in MLB. According to his numbers, and what we know about WAR related to dollars, Molina was worth about $25 million last season. A far cry from the $1.5 million the Rays paid him. I don't want to use Molina - or anyone else for that matter - as an example of why it's not worth trying to make too much sense of pitch framing data. I just think it's worth noting the discrepancy between what we're finding with pitch framing and what the market has been for it. 

I've been reading conversations about how to make sense of this data and people asking what percent of a strike should be credited to the pitcher vs. the catcher. The catcher is framing the ball, but does the pitcher know his catcher can frame the ball, and is thus spotting the pitch just outside the zone? What about the batter's handedness and how that affects balls/strikes (because we know it does)? And what about those umpires themselves? How much effect does human element in variation among the umpires have to do with what's called a strike and what isn't? 

I think the fact that we're beginning to think about pitch framing quantitatively is fantastic, but the best application of it still lies with the human eye. And that's why every team employs scouts. I may sound a little too much like Hawk Harrelson here, but I tend to lean toward baseball people making baseball judgements when it comes to pitch framing. If a front office believes the skill is undervalued in the market, by all means they should send a scout out to find them the best pitch framer out there. But it's hard to believe that we'll be able to value pitch framing ability in dollars with all the variables swirling around each pitch.

Surely I'm being pessimistic because if the ghost of Rogers Hornsby visited Fangraphs today there would likely be plenty of numbers there he would have never considered in two life times. But some things get so complicated that they're just not worth dedicating the time and effort to. Analytical minds in baseball should consider that before the delve too deep into a part of the game that might just transcend what we can represent with a number. 

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Tampa Bay Rays

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