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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Catcher Framing is a Thing

Devin Mesoraco isn't bad at framing.  But
it's an area where he can improve.
Photo credit: Shawna Pairan
Arguably the biggest change that occurred in the time that I was away from blogging has been the growing realization of how important catcher framing is.  While some of the initial studies were dismissed because of preposterous effect sizes, subsequent work--though more conservative--has found that nevertheless catcher framing is really important...so important that it can completely dwarf the catchers' other contributions, including their offensive contributions.

I've had a longstanding interest in catcher fielding.  At one point, I developed my "own" catching metric that inadvertently converged on work of Chris Dial in an effort to evaluate overall catcher performance due to stolen bases, errors, passed balls, etc.  But I'm way behind on this framing stuff.  Here's an attempt to catch up.

The Data

Last month, Harry Pavlidis and Dan Brooks pushed out a new set of catcher framing statistics that they call RPM (for Regressed Probabilistic Model) framing.  They seem very rigorous.  They are WOWY measures (to account for pitcher influence), include adjustments for umpires, and are regressed to the mean.  Their top-10 table is pretty interesting for Reds fans:
2008-2013 Catcher Framing Leaders, per 7000 opportunities (~1 year)
Jose Molina35.9
David Ross32.8
Yasmani Grandal32.4
Jonathan Lucroy31.0
Chris Stewart28.3
Gregg Zaun23.8
Mike Zunino23.5
Ryan Hanigan23.3
Carlos Corporan22.3
Brian McCann22.2
Those are totals for 2008-2013...and wow.  Not only was Ryan Hanigan brilliant with his arm, but he also provided outstanding value with framing.  I think it's interesting to see David Ross there near the top, who is another long-standing favorite of mine.  Also right there at the top, despite far less playing time, is former Red farmhand (and exchange currency for Mat Latos), Yasmani Grandal.

But more than the names, look at the magnitude!  +36 runs for Molina?  +23 runs for Hanigan?  That's worth ~3.6 and 2.3 wins apiece!  The swing is something like 50 runs per season.  Honestly, I can hardly believe the size of this effect, and it certainly makes me regret that Hanigan trade--despite my hopes for Devin Mesoraco this year.

And you can see what the Rays are doing here: if Jose Molina and Hanigan can keep doing what they do this year, it (almost) doesn't matter what they do on offense--they're bound to be above-average players.

Also, since they'd already done it for catchers, they can do it for the pitchers as well!  Here's the top 5:
40
21
Mariano Rivera
20
20
18

Heck, yeah, Sam LeCure!  I think it must be the facial hair.  Plus, the guy is unquestionably crafty.  For a right-hander.

Projecting Framing

On Monday, Harry published a set of catcher framing projections for the coming seasons.  Because the RPM data are already regressed, they were able to use a simple 3-2-1 weighting on past years to generate projections for 2014 catchers.  The highlights for Reds players:

Brayan Pena: +4.4 runs
Devin Mesoraco: -6.6 runs

I *think* these are based on projected playing time, rather than a full season of play.  Therefore, Pena is probably a bit better than his +4 rating would suggest.  Last year, for example, he was a +3 player in a half-season of play.

FWIW, Ryan Hanigan projects a +18 runs/season.

I'm going to add these projections to my series preview spreadsheets.  For most players, it doesn't matter much.  But for some, it makes a big difference.  For example, Friday night during the Reds broadcast, Chris Welch correctly pointed out that Travis d'Arnaud is an excellent pitch framer.  He projected as a +16.6 run framer in Harry's data.  Adding that to his other projections pushes his fielding projection to +16 runs, and his WAR projection shoots from +2.5 WAR all the way to +4.1 WAR.  It's a huge boost, but I can't see any reason to discount those projections.

At the team level, with both Jose Molina and Ryan Hanigan behind the dish, the Rays are projected to be +40 runs (4 wins) above average, by framing alone.  It's really impressive.  Catchers are really important.

Catcher Height Matters

One last thing.  Last April, I was listening to an episode of Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller's excellent Effectively Wild podcast, which was my main link to baseball last season (and is mandatory listening).  On it, Ben mentioned a study that he did that checked whether catcher height was related to framing skill.  In particular, he found that taller catchers, like Joe Mauer, were better at framing pitches that were high in the strike zone.  And further, shorter catchers, like Jonathan Lucroy, were better at framing pitches low in the strike zone.  

It's not a huge effect: the correlation between high strike calls and catcher height was 0.35.  For low strike calls, it was -0.12, which is probably not significant.  But it's a neat idea, and at least for tall catchers, it might be a thing.  If you have a pitcher who lives up in the strike zone, all else being equal, you're best off choosing a taller catcher than a shorter catcher (assuming otherwise equal framing skill).  Fun tidbit!