Perusing the Baseball Savant leaderboards is a great way to kill time if you are a baseball fan. This week, I stumbled upon pitch framing data that I had not seen on the site before, so I decided to dive right in. Turns out, there is some good news for Reds fans.
Since he started his career with the Reds, Tucker Barnhart has built a reputation as a strong defensive catcher. He provides good stolen base prevention, blocking abilities, and has good rapport with the pitchers, understanding their strengths and weaknesses. While current defensive metrics available to the public are far from perfect, one area that Barnhart has always struggled in is pitch framing, the ability to get incremental strike calls on borderline pitches. This year, however, Tucker has flipped a switch.
From 2015 to 2018, Barnhart ranked as the second worst catcher in all of baseball, giving away 31 runs or roughly three wins, just on his poor receiving. Last year was by far his worst performance, driving -18 runs with less than 44% of non-swings called a strike. Below is the breakout by section of the plate.
The inside and outside parts of the plate get worked a lot by pitchers. Barnhart’s numbers in those areas, while better than his overall rates, lagged league average by a good amount. He was much closer on the top and bottom of the zones and even outperformed average on the down and in zone. Still, a 3.8% overall gap is significant. 3 or 4 missed calls a game, especially if at the wrong times, can make a big difference.
This season, however, Tucker is out to a great start and is actually creating positive runs with his framing.
Although the top of the zone is now a weak spot, both inside and outside, as well as down, are significantly improved. He is converting over 70% of non-swings on pitches to sides into strikes and is above leave average in six of the eight zones. Jumping from 43.5% to a 51.3% overall strike rate is a massive improvement.
This past offseason, FanGraphs added in Pitch Framing to their catcher WAR totals, which did not bode well for Barnhart. FanGraphs also gave Tucker poor marks last year, pegging him for -14 framing runs and driving his overall WAR down to -0.3. Tucker has proven he deserves playing time at the Major League Level, and the Reds clearly agree by signing him to an extension last year. But with a more wholistic view (admittedly not perfect, but at least directional) it should make a little more sense why there were rumors of the front office looking into J.T. Realmuto trades this past winter. It is still very early, but this framing improvement could be a significant boost to Tucker’s overall value to the Reds.
An important aspect to address is that the Reds pitching staff is significantly improved from last year. The ability to make good pitches obviously factors into a catcher’s ability to frame them well. Looking at the same data set for the entire league, there is a relationship between K/BB ratio and Framing Runs, but it is not all that strong. Having a good pitching staff does not make a catcher a good pitch framer, and vice versa.
The top four catchers above have played on teams with very good pitching, yet only Yasmani Grandal has been exceedingly strong at framing. Brian McCann and Wilson Ramos have driven negative value. On the flip side, Tyler Flowers and Caleb Joseph have contributed positive framing value despite working with pitchers that were just as bad as the Reds.
Pitch framing is a skill just like hitting and pitching, except with a bit less of an impact. Catchers are already one of the more integral players on the field and this stat further quantifies their total contribution to their teams. While having a better pitching staff this year has most likely contributed to Barnhart’s improved numbers, the pitching staff is not the sole factor of a catcher’s framing ability. It appears that Barnhart (maybe with the help of a new, data-driven coaching staff?) has made a point to improve this area of his game.
More like he is catching much better pitchers….
So Tucker is getting better at cheating.
It’s not cheating if the league is relying on the human element to make a black and white call. There will always be a gray area and the catcher’s job is to turn as many of those pitches to strikes as he can
The framing should have nothing to do whether it is a ball or strike, the call is where it crosses the plate not where catcher catches it. So not only do better pitchers and pitches change the stats but so do the umpires. The best framing is just turning the glove so the umpire can see the ball. I have noticed Tucker moving his glove more this year.
Almost as important, and definitely not cheating is when a catcher cost his pitcher a strike by having his glove leave the zone instead of framing it up so the umpire can see it. That happens sometimes and is part of pitch-framing. Umpires are human after all. I’ve been around baseball a very, very long time in various ways at various levels and I’ve never heard framing described as cheating. It simply isn’t.
I’ve noticed a positive difference in the pitch sequencing this year. I’m sure a lot of that is the influence of DJ. Under Price, they did everything ‘by the book’ and were quite predictable. I mean, you never would’ve seen our relievers throw 3 of the same pitches consecutively, but now you see it quite often. I’m a big fan of his philosophy of pitching to your strength rather than trying to exploit a hitter’s weakness with a pitch you may not have mastery of.
On The Athletic, there is a good article written by C. Trent Rosecrans on how exactly Tucker and the Reds went about improving his pitch framing.
That’s a really fantastic article. The sad part is that the previous staff didn’t provide this information and Tucker said “I don’t want to throw anybody under the bus by any means, it’s just something we didn’t work on. I didn’t know the numbers.”
Again, the whole article is well worth the read!
So basically, pitchers are better at hitting their spots this year. Makes sense. Of all the metrics they push at us, pitch framing has got to be the weakest. I guess the mets catcher is the best framer in the MLB because he stole thirty some odd strikes from yesterday’s home plate umpire. Oh wait, he was just bad.
After yesterdays game, where the home plate ump was calling everything 5 inches off the plate a strike, makes me question the legitimacy of pitch framing data. It seems like one of those stats that unless you watch every play, you can easily be mislead by the data.
Casali and Ramos both statistically improved their pitch framing numbers yesterday because of an umpire who decided to make the strike zone into his own shape and size.
Not saying there isn’t an art to framing a pitch but I’d rather see an improvement in Tucker’s ability to throw guys out more than in pitch framing.
Matt, thank you for the article. I have bemoaned Tucker’s negative framing on this site several times, but also commented on his noticeable efforts to do it this year. Thank you for adding research and more data to what had previously been simply observed trends.
For those who think framing is not a big deal, give my pitcher 2-4 more inches around the zone than your pitcher gets and see if it makes a difference. It is admittedly hard to quantify and involves umpire variability, but it is very important.
Previously, Tucker was the worst kind. He would catch a pitch on the edge of the plate with his glove moving away from the plate. I’ve seen him catch strikes as if he were saving a wild pitch. This undoubtedly had a negative effect on the pitchers’ results, even if it is hard to quantify.
Now, Tucker has been trying to catch some of those pitches with his glove moving toward the center of the plate. It is obvious what he is doing, but it is much better than making strikes look like balls, which is where he was.
The better framers are more subtle with movement toward the plate.
The best framers do not move the glove at all. Thus, it looks like they are not trying to frame the pitch. They catch a pitch two inches off the plate with the edge of the mitt. The center of the mitt is over the plate and the mitt does not move during the catch. These catchers really expand the zone for their pitchers.
I’m really glad to see and hear that Tucker is making a conscious effort to improve this aspect of his game.
I heard a segment earlier this spring on MLB Radio on this topic. They paraphrased I think Yasmani Grandal as saying that a catcher who focuses wholly on framing actually puts himself in a worse position for both throwing and pitch-blocking. (And vice versa.)
I know that they try to normalize it statistically, but It is much harder to be a good pitch framer for the erratic Reds staff last year, than it would be catching the staffs of the Dodgers or Red Sox. The multiple rookies the Reds trotted out there would often miss the target by 2 feet, making pitch-framing a theoretical question, as Barnhart would be lunging just to catch the pitch.
I always thought that Barnhart did not give a solid target – often just flashing it as the pitcher prepared to deliver it. He has improved that this year. His starting with a moving glove may have been adversely affecting his pitch-framing.