Crash Bag Vol. 41: Pitch Framing and Managing

I didn’t get many questions this week (I guess people are more interested in the World Series in the Phillies managerial search. Go figure), so I’ll just do something of a deep dive on the topics I was asked about.

@robertdalton52: How much of a difference does pitch framing make? Do the umps call strikes and balls based upon pitcher/catcher, and batter reputations?

The first part of this question is somewhat well-tread ground in sabermetrics. Pitch framing was always thought to be somewhat valuable, like blocking pitches, but research indicated that the overall spread in pitch framing value added was actually more on the order of wins than runs. According to Baseball Prospectus, the top pitch framer last year was Tyler Flowers, who produced 25.1 runs, or roughly two and a half wins, above average, while the worst surprisingly was former framing superstar Jonathan Lucroy at -17.7 runs. So the spread there was more than four wins.

And this year wasn’t atypical. In 2016, Dioner Navarro cost his team 18.8 runs, while Buster Posey saved 26.5 for his. That’s a four and a half win split. In 2015, Yasmani Grandal led the league with 23.3 framing runs, while our beloved Chooch cost the Phillies 17.1 runs. That’s again, a spread of over four wins.

Meanwhile, the spread for pitch blocking in 2017 was just 6.7 runs. The spread for throwing runs was only 8.4 runs. Clearly framing is an important skill, and there’s evidence it’s improvable for players. Jason Castro was horrendous in his first three years, costing the Astros almost 30 runs over those three years, the first two as a part time player. Over the last four years, though, Castro has earned over a win per season in extra strikes.

This should provide hope for Phillies fans, as Jorge Alfaro is considered well below average in pitch framing. He cost the Phillies 5 framing runs over just 35 games thus far in his career. However, as Castro has shown, there’s room for improvement.

As for reputation, that’s a little bit harder to pin down, but a study published in 2014 cited an up to 17% difference in terms of favorable calls depending on whether or not the pitcher has been an All-Star. From the article I linked above:

For each additional appearance in an All-Star Game there was a 4.8 percent increase in the probability that an actual ball would be called a strike. A player with five All-Star appearances had a 14.9 percent chance of a true ball being called a strike, which is a 16.7 percent increase over the chance a journeyman will benefit from the same mistake.New York Times

And there’s a similar effect the opposite way, with journeymen’s strikes being called balls more often than All Stars. The study was based on data from 2008 and 2009, and the early returns on more recent data show that the effect has diminished, but it’s still around.

@scottbails13: Joe Girardi vs. Dusty Wathan – who ya got?

After this tweet, Scott and a non-me Mike were discussing the roles here. They brought up bringing them both in, but I consider this unlikely. Joe Girardi is not going to be anyone’s bench coach at this point, especially not a rebuilding team. And if he is hired as manager, he’s going to want to pick his own bench coach. Perhaps there would be a place for Dusty, but I’m not sure they have any prior work together. He probably wouldn’t bring in an unknown for his number 2.

So on to the question. I’ll start with Dusty. I love that he has spent so much time with the Phillies’ young players already. He presided over their breakouts and deserves some credit for the way J.P. Crawford and Rhys Hoskins performed in the Majors last year. Hoskins, Crawford, and Altherr have all shown some amount of affection for their minor league manager, and that’s important.

But what I’m not sure about is his in-game tactical management. I don’t watch much minor league ball, and even if I did, the stakes are completely different than in the Majors. He’d be a first-time manager in the Majors, and he never really played in the MLB either, recording only 6 PAs (but a 274 OPS+ as a catcher!). However, he led the Double-A Reading Fightin Phils to first place in the Eastern League in 2015 and 2016, then led the Triple-A Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs to a second-place finish behind the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.

Maybe he won’t be the most tactically sound manager out there, but after years of railing on managers, I’ve come to think that the in-game management is not as important as the clubhouse stuff. We statheads just critique the on-field stuff so harshly because we don’t see what happens behind closed doors, and even if we could, the benefits would be unmeasurable.

Joe Girardi is somewhat the opposite of Dusty. He’s a proven MLB manager with probably little-to-no familiarity with the current Phillies’ roster. I can’t for the life of me figure out why he got fired. I guess ten years is a long time, especially when you consider that Charlie Manuel was only the manager of the Phillies for 8 ½ seasons, but the Yankees were over .500 every year, and the team significantly over-achieved this year, coming within one game of the World Series.

And his reputation and a sound tactical manager is well-earned. In a FiveThirtyEight study performed last year,  a statistic was introduced called wRM+ or weighted reliever management plus. We know how these “plus” stats work, where the average is 100, and 110 is considered 10% above average. Well since 2000, Joe Girardi was tied for second with a 111 wRM+, behind only Joe Torre.

Additionally, Baseball Info Solutions likes him, as he was first in the 2016 season in percentage of plate appearances with the platoon advantage and next to last in intentional walks. But you have to wonder how well he would do in the National League, where managers have more finagling to do due to the lack of a DH. He was last in the MLB in number of relief appearances, and with baseball trending towards earlier hooks for starters and more relief pitchers, that is just a little bit concerning.

All in all, I think both would be fine options. Girardi obviously has the track record of success, a World Series ring as a manager (and three as a player), and a Manager of the Year award from 2006. But Dusty already has the players’ admiration and respect and has never played or managed for the Yankees. I already said I think the in-game tactical management is secondary to the off-the-field stuff. I think that means it’s about to get Dusty in here.

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7 comments

  1. Romus

    October 27, 2017 01:40 PM

    Grading catchers base upon runs saved thru pitch framing…..isn’t that more subject to the particular umpire that game behind the plate.
    Personally the emphasis on this aspect of the catcher’s skills by management , makes me suspicious of an ulterior motive…..the introduction and testing of the plate electronic eye.
    And when the players and MLBPA start to come on board, then the umpire’s union will need to throw up their defense.
    m.mlb.com/news/article/158512610/electronic-strike-zone-would-be-a-game-changer/

    bleacherreport.com/articles/2727195-ben-zobrist-says-mlb-needs-electronic-strike-zone-after-game-ending-call

    • Mike Fassano

      October 27, 2017 05:05 PM

      As a former catcher, you might get to steal a half dozen strikes per game from a good umpire. If you’re lucky, one of them ends up being a called strike three. Literally, and figuratively, my manager drummed into my head the importance of never letting a pitch get by me. This is one thing that we didn’t need analytics to tell us that Phillies catchers were awful at. As long as were hiring coaches, hire a bullpen coach that will teach these guys to block the ball with their body, instead of trying to backhand it.

  2. larry

    October 28, 2017 06:37 AM

    my guess is that in a few years there will be more studies and the pitch framing value to catchers will be down

    just a guess, no real facts to back it up

  3. Mike Fassano

    October 28, 2017 07:30 AM

    Girardi vs Wathan. I keep reading about how Wathan’s lack of professional experience should hold him back. At one point, every manager in baseball lacked professional experience. The Phillies are a young team that needs to grow together, and that includes the manager. Baseball is not rocket science. I’m positive that Dusty knows the x’s and o’s of the game as well as Joe does. Today’s game is about building relationships with players, the media, and the fans.
    Klentak should remember that somebody once gave him his first chance.
    More importantly is who gets the job of pitching and hitting coach. We lost a valuable coach in Stairs, and now need people who can develop young pitchers and hitters. Think outside the box, and hire people who are also first timers, instead of a couple of retreads.

  4. Mike Fassano

    October 29, 2017 09:39 AM

    I don’t know if this question is within your realm, but maybe one of the readers knows. You may have seen on the news recently that 2 women were rescued in the Pacific ocean after being adrift for 5 months. One of the women was Jennifer Appel from Houston, Texas. Any connection to Mark.

    • Michael Schickling

      October 30, 2017 08:53 AM

      I have no idea if there’s a relation, but being stranded out on the ocean for five months is a pretty good metaphor for Appel’s career thus far.

  5. JimmyThunder

    October 30, 2017 02:24 PM

    I was a little confused about Girardi at first but it sounds like:

    1) Cashman couldn’t stand him
    2) He was wound tighter than a World Series baseball and super intense. So much so that he got himself pink slipped despite his success on the field.

    I think the parting was likely mutual and Joe probably needs a little time away from the game to just chill a bit. Do the proverbial “spend time with the family” before jumping back in to a managing job.

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