If I told you that Austin Hedges has allowed just two passed balls this year, you probably wouldn’t be surprised. Hedges has long been touted as a defensive prodigy at backstop, with good athleticism, good footwork, good hands, good just about anything you’d associate with defense at catcher; passed balls, on the other hand, are for slow, stone-handed handed catchers, save for the occasional cross-up or knuckleball. You probably also wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Hedges has allowed the second-fewest amount of passed balls in baseball among regular catchers this season, just one ahead of Buster Posey and nine behind the league leaders, Yasmani Grandal and Gary Sanchez.
At this point, you might think, okay, big deal.
Dear smart baseball people…how is Yasmani Grandal both an elite pitch framer AND the MLB leader in passed balls the last two years?
— Jon Sciambi (@BoogSciambi) July 29, 2017
Sciambi’s tweet got me thinking, though: what if more passed balls is actually a good thing?
The idea here is that good framing catchers are worried more about presenting the pitch correctly over securing the ball 100 percent of the time. And that the actions associated with good framing—staying quiet, sneakily moving the glove back toward the strike zone on the catch, occasionally catching the ball outside the pocket of the catcher’s mitt, etc.—are the kind of skills that might also lead to more passed balls. A passed ball, in isolation, is never a good thing. But if five extra passed balls a year lead to five extra runs in pitch framing, you’ll take it in a heartbeat.
As Sciambi notes, Yasmani Grandal, the long-reigning king of pitch framing, also gives up a ton of passed balls. Since the start of 2016, Grandal leads all of baseball with both 21 passed balls and 40 framing runs. Is it just a one-off thing with Grandal, however, or do more good framers also frequently allow catchable pitches to occasionally clank off their gloves? Well, as you might suspect, it’s something of a mixed bag.
Grandal and Tyler Flowers (7), the two best framers, both allow a bunch of passed balls. So does Christian Vazquez (8), a Hedges-like defensive fiend who’s matched the Padres catcher in CSAA. Then again, Hedges, Caleb Joseph (2), Roberto Perez (2), and Martin Maldonado (4) haven’t struggled with passed balls, and they all have good framing numbers. Rather than run through everyone individually, I took every catcher with at least 1,000 innings caught between 2016 and 2017 and compared their total passed balls with their CSAA this year. There’s a reason I did this, but no, don’t try this at home (i.e., this is, by no means, a solid, well-thought-out study of any sort).
So, is there a correlation between more passed balls and better pitch framing numbers? (Prepare to have your socks knocked off.)
Yes, there is, but it’s a small one. The correlation coefficient is .245. That’s not a strong correlation—and I don’t want to dig into the math here because, at this point, I’m already well over my head—but it’s something. Among the 29 catchers in this group, there’s a weak but present correlation between passed balls per inning (2016 and 2017) and BP’s CSAA (2017). I don’t want to overstate this—it’s still just a working theory, and the information I’ve presented here hardly proves a thing. It’s still kind of interesting, though, and the data at least plays along with the thesis of this article.
Alright, back to Hedges. He’s already a really good framer. After something of a rocky beginning this year, by the numbers, he’s up to a .017 CSAA currently, and that’s sixth in the majors among catchers with at least 1,000 opportunities. By Framing Runs, Hedges is fourth, at 9.9 runs, adding almost a full win to his generally below average, but okay, offensive production. By BP’s WARP, the only win estimator that includes framing, he’s been worth 1.8 wins this year, 10th in the league among all catchers.
While those framing numbers are great, there’s still another level for Hedges to reach. Flowers has nearly doubled Hedges in Framing Runs this season in a similar amount of playing time, and Grandal consistently puts up seasonal runs saved totals in the mid-20s. I propose, then, from somewhere in our theoretical mother’s basement, that Hedges surrender more passed balls to help kick his pitch framing ability up a notch. The idea, of course, is not that Hedges will purposely allow more passed balls; it’s just that he’ll be more risky with pitches around the edges of the zone, more willing to have a pitch or two get by him with runners on base to try to consistently coax more strike calls.
There’s nothing holding Hedges back from being the league’s best pitch framer, at least nothing that’s revealed itself from my view. Perhaps the only thing preventing him from reaching the heights of Flowers, Grandal, or peak Buster Posey is his own insistence on being perfect, on catching everything. Even if this is a crazy idea, the season’s final two months are as good a time as any for experimentation. Just ask Yangervis Solarte.