The Indians and Sabermetrics Most Recent Frontier: Pitch Framing

One of the truths that all Cleveland Indians fans accept is this: Yan Gomes is one of the most underrated players in Major League Baseball.

This is derived from  a few different aspects of his game. First, Yan can hit the ball a long way:

Courtesy of WFNY
Courtesy of WFNY

Or because Gomes simply has an absolute hose as Yeonis Cespedes discovered quickly.

However, one of the many beautiful assets of Yan Gomes that is not as easily seen as his beautiful mug:

Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker"
Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker”

The asset is pitch framing. Pitch framing is an incredibly old baseball concept; one which has been discussed since the time of Old Hoss Radbourn.

However, the quantification and analysis of pitch framing has become an en vogue field of late, with a continuing effort to properly value the skill. It is clear that it is an essential part of defensive valuation, however, the early projections for runs saved above average have been somewhat variant.

Quickly, it is important to discuss how much of an effect a called strike can have over a called ball. For instance : In 2014, major-league hitters posted just .221 with a .592 OPS in 0-1 counts, as opposed to .268 with a .796 OPS in 1-0 counts.  This is meant to serve not as a comprehensive  valuation of pitch framing but merely serve as an example through which an effective pitch framer can shift the makeup of at bat and — in some tangible way — an inning.

Indeed, it is not challenging to construct various circumstances both historic and yet to occur through which pitch framing in an individual instance affected an overarching outcome.

Lets return to Yan Gomes. According to Fangraphs’ WAR, Gomes was the third-best catcher in baseball in 2014 between MVP candidate Buster Posey and budding Royals backstop, Salvador Perez. This includes the tabulation of a defensive value metric which Salvador Perez leads. However, defensive metrics at catcher do not currently include catcher framing value.

Baseball Prospectus has created a statistic for pitch framing called “Framing runs added by count”. This statistic uses pitch data to calculate the number of strikes called above what is expected.

One would expect that this will enter the defensive rating for catchers in the next fews years. Here is how Yan Gomes fared:

Courtesy of Baseball Prospectus
Courtesy of Baseball Prospectus

Gomes placed near the top, offering significant value. Sal Perez, his AL competitor for top all around catcher, placed 100th on the list.

What we know is that Yan Gomes is really good at baseball. More specifically, he is particularly good at framing pitches as well as many other defensive skills such as pitch sequencing, catch and throw as well as blocking. When including pitch framing, it is clear that Gomes is substantially more valuable than Sal Perez.

This brings up a few questions about the Indians’ philosophy and catcher framing, some of which can be answered and a few others cannot.

The first is whether the Indians target pitch-framing. This is a question that we can answer to some extent.

When it comes to Major League Baseball, as in any competitive environment, information asymmetry is valued. That is, decision making with superior information is valued, therefore effective management teams which invest in statistical research protect their research as if it is an international secret.

Despite the public perception, the Indians have a very efficiently run front office and a highly professional environment. Therefore, public indicators surrounding player value emphasis and the isolating of a market inefficiency will remain protected.

Therefore, our job as fans and analysts is attempt to make assumptions based upon the information available as to the organizational strategy of the Cleveland Indians.

Lets talk about the indicators. First, the Gomes acquisition. One of the advising parties was Kevin Cash, a former catcher, and current Rays manager. As a manager hired by the Rays, it is clear that he is open to advanced statistics and in the past discussed Yan Gomes’ ability to frame in a piece by Paul Hoynes: “I’d stack both our guys (Gomes and Roberto Perez) against anybody in the league at framing pitches.”

Cash, a man prone to monitoring such skills, obviously noted this to the Indians front office before the acquisition of Gomes in the deal for Esmil Rogers.

Lets talk about another possible indicator. While Gomes is an elite defender and had an impressive half-season in 2013, it was surprising how quickly the Indians were willing to move Santana off the plate. Focusing his practice reps at third base, denoted both a need at the position and the belief that he had to be moved off catcher.

Moving Santana of catcher was bold not because of his defense but because of how valuable his bat was from behind the plate. However, the Indians once again quietly moved from an absolutely abysmal framer in Santana to an above-average framer in Gomes. I do not wish to insinuate this was the sole reason, merely that it seems to have been at least a factor.

Another sign regards the development of pitch framers. According to research on “CSAA” —”Called Strikes Above Average.” by Jonathan Judge, Harry Pavlidis and Dan Brooks, Roberto Perez was the second-best pitch framer in AAA in 2014 and Tony Wolters the second-best in AA in 2014. This raises an interesting organizational question: Are the Indians effective at targeting good pitch framers, teaching pitch framing or is it just a coincidence?

Gomes was an acquisition, but the staff worked with him on his receiving skills. Perez was drafted and developed as a catcher by the Tribe, and Wolters was drafted by the Indians, recently transitioned to backstop. One would surmise that a portion of this skill is likely innate. However, Wolters’ quick transition to catcher and ability to frame at an elite rate, intimates that framing may be a player development priority, which speaks to organizational emphasis and strategy.

Lastly, Max Marchi. Unless you are a Baseball Prospectus reader or a baseball analytics type, you may not know who he is. The Indians hired Max Marchi away from Baseball Prospectus in February of last year. The research which Marchi is most noted for involves evaluating catcher framing before PITCHf/x data and pitcher framing amongst minor league catchers. It is not hard to draw the link in this case.

Catcher framing, if not the new frontier, is the most recent public frontier of sabermetrics and the impacts on the game of baseballs, teams themselves are tangible. Be it Yan Gomes’ ability, a developmental emphasis or organizational hirings, it appears the Indians are attempting to be early movers on this market.

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