Defensive metrics for catchers are more difficult to measure than they are for other positions. Yes, it’s relatively easy to grade a catcher’s ability to block wild pitches or their effectiveness in throwing out base runners, but there’s more to the defensive aspect of catching than that. One metric that analysts have only begun tracking in the last few years is a catcher’s affinity for framing pitches. Few catchers demonstrate the value of effective pitch framing like Christian Vazquez of the Boston Red Sox.
Before discussing the impact of Vazquez’s ability to frame pitches, it would help to explain what goes into effective pitch framing. There are several basic keys (and many complexities) to a good frame. The catcher must position his body in such a way that the umpire has a clear view of the catcher’s glove. The catcher must also keep his body as still and as stable (quiet) as possible so that, once the pitch is caught, the umpire is not alerted to the fact that the catcher is moving it from the location in which it was caught. For the same reason, the catcher must move his glove as quickly, as directly, and as little (as quietly) as possible, which generally means moving it to the nearest edge of the strikezone.
Those are the basic components of a good frame. Obviously, the explanation makes it sound simpler than it actually is. The result, if the frame is executed correctly, it this:
— Red Sox Strike Zone (@RedSoxUmp) April 15, 2016
That is a pitch far outside the strikezone that was called a strike thanks to Vazquez’s ability to frame it as one. And, for Vazquez, this is not an isolated incident.
It’s no coincidence that Boston’s starting rotation has performed far better since Vazquez’s return that it did in his absence. Certainly, part if it is his rapport with the starters and their trust in him. Part of it is his elite arm behind the plate, which discourages runners and leads to extra outs. But an even larger part is his almost unparalleled pitch framing ability.
Vazquez’s oStr percentage, which measures the percentage of pitches caught outside of the strikezone that were called strikes, is the second-best in the league at 12.2%, behind only that of Tony Wolters of the Colorado Rockies, who has had almost twice the opportunities. The MLB average is approximately 8.1%. Vazquez also owns the second-lowest zBall percentage in the league, behind Kevin Plawecki of the New York Mets (who has also had more opportunities), at 7.7%. That number measure the percentage of pitches caught within the strikezone that were called balls instead of strikes. Like his 0Str percentage, Vazquez’s zBall percentage is far superior to the MLB average, which sits at about 13.9%.
Put more succinctly, over 12% of caught pitches that should be called balls are instead called strikes, and just over 7% of pitches that should be called strikes are called balls. This leads to an extra 3.26 calls per game in favor of his pitcher, earning the Red Sox more than an extra strikeout per game. Only Wolters owns a better number.
For the sake of comparison, consider the Blake Swihart, Boston’s starting catcher prior to Vazquez’s return. As the regular catcher, Swihart recorded an oStr percentage of 7.2 and a zBall percentage of 14.4, resulting in -0.29 calls per game for the Red Sox, or 0.29 more calls per game that went against the Red Sox. Swihart lost more calls than he gained.
While Vazquez’s pitch framing may be worth about t a strikeout per game, in reality it does much more than that. Those three extra strike calls don’t necessarily translate directly one strikeout. However, they do create more counts that favor the pitcher, or, at the very least, more opportunities for the pitcher to work out of a count in which he has fallen behind the batter.
In turn, this gives the pitcher greater comfort on the mound and greater freedom in pitch selection. Theoretically, therefore, a catcher proficient in pitch framing should create easier outings for his starter, leading to longer outings, which ends up leaving less work for the bullpen each game.
In the eight games prior to Vazquez’s return, the Red Sox played five games in which the statring pitcher gave up four runs or more. Clay Buchholz gave up five twice, Joe Kelly gave up seven once, Rick Porcello allowed four once, and David Price allowed five once. In those games, the starting pitcher went six or more innings just three times, and not once did a starter pitch seven complete innings.
Since Vazquez’s return on April 15, the Red Sox have played six games, and have yet to see a starter allow more than three runners to cross the plate. Porcello allowed that many twice, Price and Stephen Wright allowed two once each, and Buchholz pitched a shutout through 6.2 innings in his last outing. Twice the starter lasted through seven innings, and only once did the starter fail to complete at least six (when injury forced Joe Kelly from the game after just two thirds of an inning).
Pitch framing is not as mainstream as most defensive metrics, and is not tracked as thoroughly. What makes it particularly difficult to measure is the fact that the strike zone varies depending on the umpire and the batter, though there is a general area in which one would expect a strike to be called. However, there is no doubt that a good frame increases the chances of getting a called strike, and the Red Sox have one of the very best at this in Christian Vazquez.
Pitch framing statistics via StatCorner.com