Things turned ugly at Wrigley Field last week when the Cubs’ Willson Contreras took exception to a strike call Braves catcher Tyler Flowers coaxed for right-hander Julio Teheran in the second inning.
Contreras voiced his displeasure with the umpire, Flowers chimed in and things got heated after the next pitch when Contreras homered and continued to yell at Flowers while running around the bases. The benches and bullpens cleared before cooler heads eventually prevailed.
It all started with a called strike on a pitch that was indeed shown to be low and out of the zone. Contreras, though, isn’t the only one that has been frustrated by Flowers’ ability to take an errant pitch and make it appear to be a strike.
The veteran backstop has been considered one of the game’s top pitch framers over the past couple years. And according to STATS, he ranked third in both framing runs and called strikes above average (CSAA) among those with at least 2,000 chances entering the week.
STATS has taken its revolutionary Pitch Intent data and assigned every pitch with a probability that it will be called a strike. A run value is also given to each pitch based on the outcome – the bigger the situation, the larger the value – and getting a pitch that has a 100 percent called strike probability has no value.
Basically, STATS’ command data pushes the called strike probability up or down. If the pitcher hits his spot, the called strike probability will be higher and the framing value lower.
CSAA is calculated similarly, but without the “value” aspect and is rated on a pitch-by-pitch basis. For instance, if the catcher gets a call in his favor on a pitch considered to have a 67 percent chance of being a called strike, he’s assigned a CSAA of 0.33. If the pitch is called a ball, he receives a CSAA of -0.67.
Flowers has admitted to working on his framing technique by watching video, lowering his body position to help combat the effect his 6-foot-4 frame and adding several different setups to choose from depending on pitch type, location and the umpire’s strike zone that day.
A good example of his work can be found in the following video of the previously referenced pitch, which only had a 19 percent probability of being called a strike.
Framing metrics have become increasingly mainstream since PITCHf/x tracking began in all big-league ballparks as a way to evaluate and grade umpires in 2008. Some believe the art of framing should be considered cheating – a way of tricking the umpire.
Padres catcher and framing-runs leader Austin Hedges begs to differ as he’s told MLB.com he’s not “stealing strikes” as much as his pitchers are hitting their spots and he’s doing his best to make sure the umpire notices the quality of the pitches. These days, pitch framing is almost always referenced in terms of a catcher’s value in free agency.
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While the analytics have shown that umpire accuracy has improved since the PITCHf/x technology has been introduced, a Boston University study showed that umpires made incorrect calls at least 20 percent of the time between 2008-18. When batters had two strikes, the error rate increased to 29 percent. The data also revealed that 55 games were ended when umpires made incorrect calls in 2018.
Because of the rampant inaccuracy behind the plate, there is growing support for “robot umpires.” And MLB is already testing a computerized system as part of a three-year agreement with the independent Atlantic League. Until the big leagues implement the technology, there figures to be tremendous value in having a catcher that excels in pitch framing. Especially when one considers how much a batter’s average changes dramatically depending on the count. (see chart)
“The sexy ones are the called strike threes,” Hedges said. “But it’s more about switching counts. It’s that 0-0 pitch or that 1-1 pitch. … The more often we can flip a count to 0-1 or 1-2, it directly results in outs.”
Though he was hitting just .185 with six home runs and a .561 OPS entering the week, Hedges has kept himself in the lineup by leading the majors in both framing runs and CSAA. If Hedges, who has a career .206 average over five seasons but totaled 32 home runs in 2017-18, can turn things around offensively, he’ll no doubt become one of the top catchers in baseball.
“He’s the best defensive catcher in the game,” San Diego closer Kirby Yates told MLB.com. “There’s nothing he doesn’t do extremely well, from blocking to calling games to receiving to throwing.”
Below is an example of Hedges working his magic on a curveball off the plate. This one only had a six percent probability of being called a strike, yet Hedges gets the punch out on stunned Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez.
If Hedges had set up way outside, the pitch would have had a much higher called strike probability. The probability was lowered because he had to reach across the plate, but Hedges managed to make it look good anyway.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising to Cubs fans, but there is an All-Star near the bottom of our rankings. Notoriously poor pitch-framer Willson Contreras comes in 91st out of the 93 big-league catchers with framing chances at a remarkably low -10.3 framing runs entering the week.
Contreras, however, acts as an extension of Cubs pitchers holding runners on base. This is especially the case when Jon Lester, who rarely makes pickoff attempts, is on the mound. Contreras is extremely jumpy behind the plate, constantly looking to catch baserunners napping, and he leads the majors by wide margin with 18 pickoffs since the 2016 season.
Couple that with Contreras’ .285 average, 17 home runs and 48 RBIs entering the week, and the Cubs will certainly live with 2019 NL All-Star starter’s shortcomings when it comes to pitch framing.