Framing the Padres catching debate

When Sportvision’s PITCHf/x debuted in 2006, there was plenty of excitement about the seemingly limitless set of questions and answers that it could provide. How does a pitcher succeed with an 89-mph fastball? Is the strike zone the same (PDF) for left handed and right handed batters? Did Trevor Hoffman’s release point contribute to his (post-San Diego) late-career struggles?

Baseball analysis was indeed still alive and kicking, and PITCHf/x pioneers like Mike Fast, Joe P. Sheehan, and Josh Kalk were quickly gobbled up by major league teams looking to gain a competitive advantage and harness a robust new dataset. Websites like Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs were also quick to utilize the new stream of data to create PITCHf/x profiles and add to their already comprehensive player pages.

While most of the early PITCHf/x research was focused on pitchers, eventually more attention made its way to catchers. Ben Lindbergh wrote an exhaustive article at Grantland on catcher framing, and he’s tracked the highlights and lowlights of framing weekly at Baseball Prospectus. More recently, BP published a new model for catcher framing along with the full results. (They also created a similar model for pitch blocking).

Catcher framing is essentially an art of deception, as catchers try to subtlety convince umpires to call pitches that cross the plate outside of the strike zone as strikes. Pitch framing isn’t a new development, but prior to the PITCHf/x Era it was largely unquantifiable. Sure, scouting acumen and/or video analysis could probably point out the best and worst framers, but how much were they really worth? The answer, as it turns out, is a lot.

According to BP, the best pitch framer from 2008-2013, Jose Molina, was worth a whopping 35.9 runs above average per 7000 opportunities (about a season’s worth). On the other hand, John Hester rates at 35.7 runs below average and the more experienced Ryan Doumit comes in at -35.5. And keep in mind, these numbers are already regressed.

The ability to frame pitches is likely the main reason why Molina, coming off a .233/.290/.304 line as a 38-year-old in Tampa Bay, was re-signed on a two-year, $4.5 million deal this offseason by the saber-inclined Rays. (Of course, if you believe the numbers, Molina isn’t getting paid nearly enough). As the market adjusts to the realization that pitch framing is a valuable skill, players like Molina will probably start to get paid more generously for their contributions.

With that preamble out of the way, what does pitch framing research mean for the San Diego Padres?

The Padres have three likely candidates at the catcher position for 2014: Recovering Yasmani Grandal, Nick Hundley, and journeyman Rene Rivera. How good are they at framing pitches, per BP’s numbers?

Player

Framing Runs per 7000 Chances

Career Chances

Grandal

32.3

4,323

Hundley

-14.7

37,294

Rivera

14.7

2,512

Grandal has been one of the best pitch framers in the game so far in his early career, albeit in an extremely small sample size. Rivera, generally regarded as a defensive specialist (you better be when you hit like Rivera), also rates well despite having even less chances than Grandal. Rivera was also a highly regarded minor league pitch framer. On the other side of the spectrum, Nick Hundley rates as a well-below average pitch framer, and he has more than five times as many opportunities as Grandal and Rivera combined. While we may be hesitant to crown Grandal or Rivera as world-class pitch framers based on a limited sample, we can say with some degree of confidence that Hundley isn’t very good at the craft.

If we combine the framing numbers with BP’s pitch blocking metric and FanGraphs’ stolen base defense stat (rSB), we can get a solid glimpse into a catcher’s overall defensive game. (Leaving out, of course, other likely important aspects like game calling.)

Player

Framing Runs/7000 Chances

Blocking Runs/7000 Chances

Stolen Base Runs/1000 Innings (rSB)

Total Catcher Defense per season

Grandal

32.3

7.1

-1.5

37.9

Hundley

-14.7

4.1

1

-9.6

Rivera

14.7

5.4

4.7

24.8

We certainly shouldn’t project Grandal to be worth nearly 40 runs above average on defense next season, based on this limited sample, but these numbers help to display just how important catcher defense (and, specifically, pitch framing) can be. Even if we project Grandal at just, let’s say, 15 runs above average for a full season and Hundley at 10 runs below average, that’s a 25 run swing between the two. Rivera, as his reputation suggests, has been excellent behind the dish in his scarce major-league playing time. (By the way, if you haven’t already, check out Padres Prospects article from last year on Padres catchers and the running game.)

Offensively, Grandal is far superior to Hundley and Rivera. In fact, it isn’t a stretch to imagine Grandal as one of the best hitting catchers in the league.

Using BP’s weighted means PECOTA spreadsheet*, the switch-hitting Grandal projects to post the 5th-highest TAv in MLB, tied with Miguel Montero and behind only Buster Posey, Joe Mauer, Carlos Santana, and Brian McCann. With Mauer and Santana set to leave catcher for less demanding defensive positions, Grandal, assuming reasonably enough health, could be the third best hitting catcher in 2014. Hundley, on the other hand, is in a projected tie for 57th with A.J. Pierzynski. Rivera ranks further down the list, tied in 73rd with another pitch framing deity in Chris Stewart (among others).

*Edit: I was somehow mistakenly using the 2013 spreadsheet here, so obviously some of these numbers/rankings will change slightly for 2014. Grandal still projects for the 7th-highest TAv among catchers, while Hundley (50) and Rivera (85) still rate poorly.

Here’s how the trio is projected based on the systems available at FanGraphs:

catcherprojections

With Grandal’s Opening Day return still in question, Hundley coming off two subpar post-contract extension seasons, and Rivera’s Padres fate likely resting on Grandal’s comeback, it’ll be interesting to keep tabs on the Padres catching situation early in the year. Grandal, once healthy, should command a majority of the playing time, as long as the knee holds up and the PED suspension is behind him.

The Padres could get aggressive and try to deal Hundley (as Nate briefly mentioned in the article linked above), sticking with the defensive-minded Rivera as a capable backup. That’s probably unlikely, considering the extension Hundley signed just two offseasons ago (he’ll be paid a very reasonable $4 million this year, with a $5 million club option next season), but it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea if any team were willing deal a usable piece or two for the chance to see if a change-of-scenery would help Hundley regain his 2011 form.

More than likely, though, Hundley will stay on as the backup while Rivera will be relegated to the waiver wire. And, let’s face it, while Rivera profiles nicely as a backup catcher, his offense is likely poor enough at this point to eat up most of his defensive value.

While Grandal, Hundley, and Rivera fight for playing time at the major league level, Austin Hedges looms in the minor leagues and is expected to continue his rapid ascent up prospect lists this year. Hedges is clearly the best defensive catcher in the minors, and he has the kind of plus catch-and-throw, plus game calling, plus pitch framing skill-set that could rival Yadier Molina’s. Hedges bat is still a question, but if everything goes  according to plan this year in the minors, he could be ready for the big leagues next year, potentially relegating Grandal to a position switch or trade and/or phasing Hundley out of the organization.

Until the inevitable arrival of Mr. Hedges, the Padres are still in good hands at catcher. Grandal has a chance to develop into a star if he’s able to flash the kind of on-base skills he showed in his 2012 debut and in the minor leagues, and Hundley is a capable quasi-offensive-minded backup. Further, it’ll be interesting to continue to track Grandal’s pitch framing ability as more data pour in. He might quickly establish himself as the guy somebody forgot in the contract extension guide.

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  • Padres Prospects

    Awesome work. Makes me giddy thinking about the data we will soon have on Austin Hedges.

  • Great stuff, Dustin.

    I remember reading a framing piece by Ben Lindbergh last year which led me to watch Nick Hundley closer during the subsequent Padres game. He. Was. Terrible. There was so much movement with his glove that it became evident how an umpire would likely never give him the benefit of a borderline call.

    • That or the total lack of interest/effort in getting a close call. We sat behind home last April and, as you said, Hundley’s movement is staggering – distracting even for the fans.

  • Dustin

    Thanks, guys.

    I’m definitely looking forward to watching Grandal and Hundley’s (and Rivera, if he’s around) framing more closely this year. Framing is something that I, too, never paid too much attention while watching games. I think the key is to move the glove just ever so slightly back toward the zone, and it can also be important where and how the catcher sets up.

    Regarding Hedges, MLB’s new player-tracking system should be out just in time for him, and that could be fun. In case anyone hasn’t seen it yet: http://tinyurl.com/kmjkwet

  • ballybunion

    In defense of Hundley’s defense, several Padres pitchers in recent years have preferred pitching to Hundley. The part of the equation not covered, game calling, (and pitcher rapport) might be Hundley’s strength. How much it makes up for not deking out the umpire, I don’t know, but I’m still wary of new saber metrics on defense. Having the pitcher comfortable throwing his assortment of pitches to you just seems to be the most important factor.

    • Dustin

      That’s very true, and those are both areas of catcher defense that are difficult, if not impossible, to measure at this point.

    • All fair points, but while we shouldn’t discount any potential pitcher preference entirely, what value does comfort provide; how much is that worth? Is Hundley exceptional at game-calling? Do pitchers just feel more comfortable with a guy who is constantly referred to as a leader in the clubhouse? Does it outweigh the clear deficiencies outlined above, at least in regards to his defensive contributions? For all we know, a lot of pitchers don’t like working with a known steroid cheat in Grandal or a career minor leaguer like Rivera – comfort doesn’t necessarily translate to results on the field.

      While there’s likely some value in pitcher comfort, I’m not sure this is an example of the Padres’ staff valuing Hundley’s defensive contributions or even overall value above all others. And while the club assured us otherwise, Rivera certainly looked like Cashner’s personal catcher down the stretch. Coincidence or not, the end-of-season results were staggering.

  • Eric Addis

    Considering how much the padres have invested (emotionally and competitively) in their pitching staff, there should be a strong argument to move forward without Hundley if Grandal is ready to go.