One area of sabermetric analysis that is still very much in its “rough draft” stage is the effort to measure defense. Even popular statistics such as UZR have plenty of detractors, and it seems that little agreement will be reached on this issue until Field f/x provides more accurate data to build statistics upon. However, even within the frameworks of the existing statistics, it is widely accepted that there are elements of catcher defense that are not even addressed by the metrics. Game calling and pitch framing, for example, are not included in any measure that I can think of, primarily because they have proven very difficult to quantify. However, Mike Fast of Baseball Prospectus has begun to work at measuring pitch framing by using Pitch f/x data, and released a stunning article yesterday that attacked this issue:
For example, as mentioned earlier, the zone for left-handed batters is shifted toward the outside. Do umpires have some bias against left-handed hitters? If so, why? Perhaps a more likely explanation is that they simply call more strikes outside to lefty hitters because that’s where the catchers are setting their targets, and the umpires are using the target as a cue. While right-handed batters see 58 percent of pitches outside of the midpoint of the plate, left-handed batters see 66 percent of pitches on the outside half. The average pitch to a left-hander is 2.4 inches farther outside than the average pitch to a right-hander, which dovetails nicely with John Walsh’s finding that the average strike zone for a left-handed batter was shifted 2.3 inches farther outside than the average zone for right-handed batter.
If umpires are influenced by the catcher target, it also explains why individual pitchers see such different zones…..Livan Hernandez aims toward the very edges of the zone, or even a little outside, both to righties and lefties, and it appears that the umpires give him the strike call when he hits the middle or inside of the catcher target. Felix Hernandez, on the other hand, aims closer to the middle of the zone. If he locates a pitch at the edge of the zone, he’s very likely to have missed his catcher target, and the umpires don’t give him the strike call in those cases.
Fast uses the graphic posted above to explain that Javier Vazquez received a larger zone against both lefties and righties with Francisco Cervelli behind the plate than he did with Jorge Posada back there. He then suggests that the catcher framing talent is worth about +/- 20 runs per season (“When Bill’s catcher framing numbers for 2008-2009 are normalized by pitcher, the best and worst catchers are around +/- 20 runs per season”). That is a lot of runs (10 runs = 1 win), and suggests that framing pitches is a very important part of a catcher’s defensive skill set.
I do not want to use the anecdotal evidence of Javier Vazquez‘ strike zone to draw conclusions about Posada and Cervelli, and it is important to note that Fast linked to a study by Dan Turkenkopf that had Posada in the middle of the pack and slightly above average at framing pitches. What I do want to extract here is the fact that there are elements of catcher defense that are extremely valuable but have yet to be properly quantified and are not easy to observe as a layman. Quantifying these elements of catcher defense could turn our rankings of catchers on its head, at least for those players at the extreme fringes of the pitch framing spectrum. For example, if we could prove that Francisco Cervelli saves 20 runs a season with his pitch-framing skills, that would drastically alter our view of him as a player. Until that time, we have to acknowledge that there is a lot that we do not know, and we must rely on scouting reports and our own powers of observation to try and determine the quality of a catcher’s defense.
(I just noticed Mike Axisa addressed this as well. Check it out).
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