Catching, specifically pitch framing, has been a hot topic as of late. Baseball Prospectus is leading the charge, with Ben Lindbergh and Max Marchi dishing out study after study, backed with graphs, charts and industry testimonial, all heralding the importance of pitch receiving skill for catchers. Before them, Mike Fast laid the groundwork at BP on the subject, then he was hired by Jeff Lunhow as a private dancer for the Houston Astros in late 2012. To sum up their research in a sentence is a white glove slap in the face, but I’m going to do it anyway: a slick catcher can, with his pitch receiving skills, save a team many runs over the course of a season by converting borderline pitches from balls to strikes. According to the research, at the uppermost reach of the spectrum, a catcher can save as many as 50 runs per season.
To convert runs into something tangible, like wins, the current Sabermetric rate is roughly 1 win for every 10 runs created or saved. To simplify, say a catcher is precisely neutral at everything he does outside of pitch framing. Assume the player creates no wins with his bat and none from the other observable aspects of catcher defense, like blocking balls in the dirt or throwing out runners on the base paths. At zero wins, you have a perfectly replaceable player — he adds no value to your team, so therefore you can replace him with just about anyone in your organization. In actuality a 0 win player hurts the team because there’s likely a player in your minor league system that could be called up in his place to add positive value in some manner. But say the zero win catcher is a master pitch framer. Let’s set him on the top perch and say he saves 50 runs a year through pitch framing. You’ve just added 5 wins to a 0 win player. In monetary terms, you’ve turned a player unworthy of a major league baseball contract into one that should command $25 million a year or more on the free agent market. You’ve turned a scrub into an All-Star.
This is drastic. And while I don’t fully believe pitch framing can have this dramatic of affect on the game, I also don’t fully believe it can’t. I don’t know. It’s clear that pitch framing is valuable, but the extent to which is up for debate. But the topic got me thinking about Yadier and how desperately I want his genius to be recognized. Even with the national praise that’s swelled with his slugging percentage and even when he hits the highlight reels when catching an off-speed pitch backhanded and tossing out speedster like Dee Gordon with the flick of a wrist, it seems like we still don’t fully comprehend Yadier. If pitch framing can add that much value, and Yadier is an above average pitch framer according to data, what about game calling? What about being the General Patton of plate squatters who leads a score of rookie troops into battle and who admit they were better for the experience? We’ve all heard a green Cardinal pitcher praise Yadier this year and wax poetic on the privilege of throwing to him.
And like these polite rookie pitchers, the passionate Cardinal fan inside of us wants to believe it’s all Yadier. Yet we step back into reality and understand that pitching is a relationship between pitcher and catcher and manager and pitching coach and batter and weather and time of day and scouting reports and hours of studying an opposing batter on film. It’s the convergence of many streams at a simplistic delta of pitcher throws ball, catcher catches ball. And it’s natural to assign too much value to one of the two starring roles, so we shouldn’t feel bad. We should just take comfort that research is being conducted on the topic. We can sleep easy knowing that we are right – catchers like Yadier are most certainly undervalued. But let’s be conservative until we know the true extent of the gap.