Catcher framing is extremely popular in baseball research circles right now. Go over to Fangraphs.com or BaseballProspectus.com and you will find several studies and articles on the subject. It’s Hansel hot right now.
While we can determine which catchers are better at getting more out-of-zone pitches called strikes than others, we still do not have a full grasp on what it means to a team’s bottom line. In some ways, it feels like a butterfly effect. If a catcher is unable to get a borderline pitch for a punchout strike, it could mean an additional pitch for the pitcher, which could mean a base hit, which means another at bat, which means an additional four or five pitches, which runs up the pitch count and could mean going to the bullpen in the fifth rather than the sixth or seventh.
One of the more recent studies on Baseball Prospectus found that Joe Mauer has a relative inability to coax the low strike. As Ben Lindbergh’s data shows, Mauer’s 19.5% strike rate low in the zone is well-below the average for catchers –in fact, 41.3% below average. By comparison, Milwaukee’s Jonathon Lucroy has excelled at getting this pitche called. His strike rate in the low portion is 77.1% (or 66.1% above average).
On the other hand, because of his tall stature, Mauer has been much better at getting high strikes versus the smaller framed Lucroy. Much, MUCH better. According to Lindbergh’s figures, Mauer is 86.3% better than the average at coercing the high strike.
Lindbergh provides a .gif that visually shows the difference between the two catchers’ called strike zones, note the bottom dark dots on Mauer’s chart that represent called balls:
As a real-life example, in Tuesday night’s game against the Angels, Anthony Swarzak was cruising through his first inning of work, retiring Howie Kendrick and Chris Iannetta on seven pitches. He was in the middle of doing the same to Angels’ third baseman, Luis Jimenez, up 0-2, and twirled off this exquisite curveball:
Everybody in the ballpark had thought Jimenez would be rung up. Swarzak, Mauer, the fan sitting behind the foul pole in right field, Jimenez, heck, even Jimenez’s mom probably thought he needed to grab some pine. Home plate umpire Paul Nauert, the most important person in that decision-making process, did not believe it was a strike.
Here’s the location via MLB’s Gameday:
That pitch -- pitch number 4 -- certainly falls within that area where Mauer has not had those pitches called strikes.
In the grand scheme of things, this was a non-event. Swarzak would retire him on the next pitch – a curve in the dirt – and no damage would be done beyond the extra pitch. However, as I revisited the location of the pitch, I couldn’t help but think of Lindbergh’s study and how we have another incident to add to the collection of Mauer not getting the low strike call.
Admittedly, this may have had nothing to do with Mauer’s framing or stature. After all, Nauert was having somewhat of a rough game – as evidenced by Chris Parmelee’s called third strike in the bottom of that inning:
Here’s a thought: How does Mauer’s inability to get low strikes affect what is predominately a sinker ball rotation? In years past, Mauer’s height and tendency to get high strikes called would have played well for pitchers like Scott Baker who work mainly up in the zone with their fastballs. But with Vance Worley and Mike Pelfrey toeing the rubber, their arsenal is more reliant on getting low borderline pitches called strikes in order to get strike three. So far, both pitchers are well-below their career strikeout norms. Obviously, plenty of blame needs to be assigned to the pitcher, but how much influence does Mauer’s handling have?