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Must-click link: catchers framing pitches have a huge impact on ball/strike calls

Sep 21, 2011, 11:00 AM EDT

Jose Molina

This is something that we’ve always suspected intuitively, but Mike Fast has a major piece up over at Baseball Prospectus today exploring (a) how much of an influence a catcher has on ball/strike calls for borderline pitches; (b) the techniques they use to do this; and (c) who, among active catchers is the best at it.  The upshot: the effect is way greater than you’d think for such a seemingly minor thing.

There’s pitch plot evidence to show who gets the calls and where and animated gifs showing the differences between the good catchers and the bad catchers in terms of how glove movement and head movement can impact whether a pitch is a ball or a stike. There is also, it should be noted, an unquantifiable piece to all of this which may depend on a catcher’s reputation, relationships with the umpires and that sort of thing.  But there are clear trends in the data.  And Jose Molina as a friggin’ boss.

Keith Law just read it and tweeted the same first observation I had: “The biggest impact of that … piece should be on umpires. It’s hard proof they are bad at calling borderline balls/strikes.”  Yes, the human element, for lack of a better term, is going to be present when men call balls and strikes. But the borderline calls are bad and no catcher should have this much of an ability to impact the calls. Robots anyone?  Or, short of that, maybe your team’s GM should give Jose Molina’s agent a call.

This is a major study that people who care about such things should bookmark.

  1. halladaysbiceps - Sep 21, 2011 at 11:15 AM

    Catchers framing pitches definitely has an impact on the game. A catcher that can do it really well can aid his pitcher. The best catcher I saw that was very good at this, believe it or not, was Darren Daulton. He had a knack for doing it very well. It was almost slight of hand stuff.

    Daulton might have had some help from his alien buddies to achieve this skill. Or perhaps it was the Reptilian aliens.

  2. The Baseball Idiot - Sep 21, 2011 at 11:22 AM

    This is all bullshit. The strike/ball call is made from where the ball crosses the plate.

    The catcher receives the ball at least, and sometimes more than, a foot behind the plate.

    I’ve umpired for over 30 years and I’ve never once watched the catcher actually catch the ball unless it was headed towards the dirt, and a catch/no-catch had to be determined. In that situation, framing isn’t even an option.

    Any study can make any set of numbers mean anything, if you want it to.

    The catchers and managers can pretend all they want that this makes a difference, but any umpire allowing a catcher to influence his call by ‘framing’ isn’t going to make it out Little League.

    • halladaysbiceps - Sep 21, 2011 at 11:27 AM

      I disagree. I have seen it in my 30 years of watching baseball. Framing a 95 mile per hour pitch is a skill. The reason you have never bought into it as an umpire is because you have never seen a 95 mph fastball being framed and had to make a split second decision as to whether the pitch is a ball or a strike. Little League/MLB comparison is a little absurd, don’t you think?

      • The Baseball Idiot - Sep 21, 2011 at 11:32 AM

        You’re right. The fastest pitch I’ve ever seen was only 93, from a minor league pitcher. You got me on that.

        Beyond that, what was your point? Watching games in the stands or on television is not the same as doing it from behind the plate.

        Just to clarify things for you also, every pitch is a split-second decision. As far as my comparison about a skill set needed to move up the pecking order for umpires is obviously beyond your level of comprehension. I wrote it as simply as a I could, and I can’t dumb it down any further. Sorry.

      • halladaysbiceps - Sep 21, 2011 at 11:37 AM

        Baseball Idiot,

        All I can say is that I have watched catchers bring balls back into the strike zone and had strikes called that should have been balls. Unless my eyes are lying to my brain, I have seen it. Players that have played in MLB have seen it. Managers have seen it. I’m not really sure that it’s debatable.

        You must be some kind of “Super Umpire” in the minors. Why aren’t you in the majors umping games? Surely, you could do a better job than Cowboy Joe West or Angel Hernandez?

      • Panda Claus - Sep 21, 2011 at 12:11 PM

        If anyone saw the strike zone that the ump had in the O’s-Red Sox game last night, you could easily wonder how this guy ever got past Little League. If the ball cast a shadow on the plate it was called a strike.

        In this case, having the catchers frame the pitches would’ve been overkill.

    • hasbeen5 - Sep 21, 2011 at 11:30 AM

      That’s a good point. I umpired at the Little League level for a few years and it was the same thing. You’re really not looking at the catcher’s glove. Maybe there are times when his movement could block your view or something like that, but not often.

      I’ve always thought that “if the catcher didn’t catch it it can’t be a strike” thing was BS. An umpire that would call that way needs a new job.

    • paperlions - Sep 21, 2011 at 11:34 AM

      Yeah, because people are always aware of what influences their decisions….always.

      ….and, no you can not make any analysis say anything you want, the data are real, they are a record of what happened, and the associated sample sizes and consistent variation among catchers and the consistent variation in catcher tendencies associated with that variation suggest very real effects….but hey, way to support the stereotype of umpires refusing to consider the fact that they are can be wrong or may be able to improve at their craft.

      • The Baseball Idiot - Sep 21, 2011 at 11:37 AM

        If this study actually proved anything, I would support the use of it to help umpires better their game calling.

        Since it doesn’t prove squat, there really isn’t any reason to pay attention to it.

        And if you really don’t believe that studies can be manipulated to prove the point that is wanted, you are the kind of person who has a lot of trust in the government. And pharmaceutical companies. And insurance companies. And lending institutions……….

      • The Baseball Idiot - Sep 21, 2011 at 11:38 AM

        Just because you want something to be true, doesn’t mean it is. I hate to break it to you, but Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny aren’t real.

      • skipperxc - Sep 21, 2011 at 11:41 AM

        The same holds for you too — just because you want to believe you aren’t influenced by catchers doesn’t make it necessarily true or false. The distinction is, this guy’s actually done research and you haven’t.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Sep 21, 2011 at 11:42 AM

        Just because you want something to be true, doesn’t mean it is. I hate to break it to you, but Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny aren’t real.

        Pot meet kettle? Every argument you’ve shown in this thread is an appeal to authority. If you disagree with Mike’s findings, show why. Explain the huge discrepancy in the two plot graph comparison’s he made. Could it be mere coincidence with that many pitches?

        Also, not sure about the rest of you, but this definitely passes the smell and eye test. Watching Posada behind the plate butcher catching has cost the Yanks tons of borderline pitches. Seeing Martin back there has been a revelation. And the small amount of times I’ve been able to watch the Molina brothers has been amazing as well.

      • Chris Fiorentino - Sep 21, 2011 at 12:09 PM

        Hold on a second…The Baseball Idiot is defending umpires? Say it ain’t so Joe…say it ain’t so!!! Geeze…next thing you know, the sun will set in the west tonight.

      • Panda Claus - Sep 21, 2011 at 12:14 PM

        Hey TBI, Santa is my great, great uncle. Please watch what you say.

        I can’t vouch for the Bunny family though.

      • Ari Collins - Sep 21, 2011 at 1:23 PM

        Personal experience can give you plenty of information that taking a step back and analyzing things cannot, Idiot, but the reverse is true as well. There are countless major league ballplayers who are convinced that diving into first base makes sense because “it feels faster.”

        The fact that you have umpired little league probably makes for some fascinating insight. It’s too bad you’re simply appealing to authority and using straw men instead.

    • normb11 - Sep 21, 2011 at 12:10 PM

      Baseball Idiot: I’m convinced your act here is all schtick. Well done.

    • sneschalmers - Sep 21, 2011 at 12:35 PM

      Well, if we’re going to cite personal experience and ignore the stats provided in the article, I’ve pitched and played 3B for 18 years, from little league to babe ruth to elite AAU teams to college to the semi-professional level, I can tell you that framing makes a HUGE difference.

      A good catcher who knows how to position themselves behind the plate and frame the ball will get you as much as 6 inches off each corner, while a bad catcher can basically shrink the strike zone to only pitches thrown right down the cock.

      You’re right that a good umpire SHOULDN’T be influenced by where a ball is caught, but rather where it crosses the plate, but how often does that happen? For example, how many times have you seen an umpire call a pitch that was clearly a strike a ball because the catcher dropped it? The call should have no bearing on whether the catcher caught the ball or did not, but it happens because, at least in my experience, good umpires are few and far between.

      Lastly, you’re equating Baseball Prospectus with the government, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, etc… but what benefit do they gain from this study? They’re not pushing an agenda of any kind in the article and stand to make little money off of this article other than page views. And the idea that “any study can make any set of numbers mean anything, if you want it to” is pretty off base, pun sort of intended. That’s really not how studies work.

    • davidpom50 - Sep 21, 2011 at 12:35 PM

      I get it. You’re trolling. “Data from hundreds of thousands of pitches? BULLSHIT! I called some minor league games, I am impervious to subtle influences, and therefore all umpires are impervious to subtle influences. Also, I have no peripheral vision, so I can only see an area about 3 square feet directly in front of me, and that makes me the WORLD’S GREATEST UMPIRE!!”

    • Mike Fast - Sep 21, 2011 at 4:54 PM

      Baseball Idiot,

      I’d be more than happy to hear what you think could be driving the difference in strike calls in my study if it’s not the catcher. I did have some amateur catcher input that corroborated what I saw, but I’d love to have umpire input, too. That’s something that is difficult for me to get.

      I actually think umpires do a fabulous job at what is a very difficult task, what with the strike zone being invisible and all. I’d love to know more about what references, internal or external, that umpires use to know where the outside or bottom edge of the zone is. That can’t be an easy task.

      • sneschalmers - Sep 21, 2011 at 5:14 PM

        Oh snap, the author himself.

      • Ari Collins - Sep 21, 2011 at 6:23 PM

        No he di int.

  3. cur68 - Sep 21, 2011 at 11:51 AM

    There will be ‘personal experience’ anecdotal debunking of this for the next few months, I bet. That’s why we have statistics. The stats don’t lie; Jose Molina does get a lot of calls. Know what he does? Just as the pitcher releases, Jose calls the pitch if he thinks its going to be a strike or close. It’s real subtle and hard to pick up. I think he grunts or says something in spanish, but he only does it for the close ones or the strikes. I bet Jose doesn’t even know how he knows the pitch is going to be good or close to good. After all those years it’s just a reflex by now. But the subtle indication that the pitch is good sways the umpire a bit. Not a lot, not every time. But often enough that Jose gets more calls than everyone else. The association he generates by ‘calling’ the pitch and having it be close or a strike builds up ‘equity’ with the umpire over the course of the inning and the game. The ump comes to trust him.

    Don’t believe me? Watch Jose. He does it all the time. Don’t believe a guy can predict something like that? Check out Vic Braden, the tennis coach. He can predict a double fault before the racquet hits the ball. In fact, lots of experts can do this stuff. In an unwell infant, even without looking at the vital signs, or knowing the history, you can, at a glance, tell how unwell they are if you’ve seen enough sick kids (as in “he’ll live, he’s kinda sick, get him in here now & call for help now!!“). Don’t believe you can subtly influence a person by being right or close to right a lot? Get out of your mom’s basement, go outside and meet some people.

    • cur68 - Sep 21, 2011 at 12:56 PM

      Know what’s funny? I wrote that ^^^ before reading the linked article. Then I read this in the article; “It may even be that some catchers exert a verbal influence over umpires or develop friendships that sway calls in their favor.” IS there a friendlier looking guy that Jose Molina? Just a big ole Teddy Bear. Or, as Jose would say it, “oso de peluche”. It also explains why some guys may be way down the list; not particularly friendly…(lookin’ at youAnthony John Pierzynski).

  4. APBA Guy - Sep 21, 2011 at 12:03 PM

    This makes the Yanks signing of Martin look even better, doesn’t it?

    • davidpom50 - Sep 21, 2011 at 12:31 PM

      This makes the Dodgers replacing Martin with Barajas and Navarro look even worse, doesn’t it?

      • jya87 - Sep 21, 2011 at 3:48 PM

        This makes Kershaw’s year look even better, doesn’t it?

        *cough* Cy Young *cough*

  5. paperlions - Sep 21, 2011 at 12:16 PM

    Also….typical umpire (or really just about any subjective authority) response to something that questions how well they do their job. No one is anti-umpire, or at least, most are not, what people are is anti-I-refuse-to-consider-the-quality-of-my-performance-in-anattempt-to-improve-at-mycraft. If you refuse to honestly and objectively evaluate your own performance and consider mistakes you may be making, it is impossible to get better….in fact, the “I am always right” attitude tends to erode performance.

    A responsible professional would look at this study and consider how changes could be made to more accurately call borderline pitches. Sadly, MBL umpires will respond like TBI did.

    • The Baseball Idiot - Sep 21, 2011 at 3:33 PM

      No, paperlions, you’re incorrect. You, and the majority of the commenters here, are anti-umpire.

      Saying you aren’t doesn’t mean it’s not true.

      If you wan’t to prove you aren’t, then tomorrow make there positive comments about umpires without saying anything negative. I’ll bet you can’t do it.

      • paperlions - Sep 21, 2011 at 4:14 PM

        You are right, I don’t have anything positive to say about you. I can’t recall a single constructive or insightful comment you have made.

        ….and, this attitude is why so many umpires are so hated by so many. Your job is to be arbiters. It is NOT to seek out conflict. Your primary concern should be getting the calls right NOT with imposing your authority. Until ML umpires act like their primary concern is to get calls right and to be as good at their job as they can be (they actually act in the polar opposition to this goal by railing against every attempt to evaluate performance and to improve the accuracy of calls….as a group, they will not be well respected….because they will not have earned it.

  6. aaronmoreno - Sep 21, 2011 at 1:10 PM

    Funny, BP had a similar article not too long ago. If anything, it confirms the anecdotal evidence on framing pitches. While The Baseball Idiot will disagree, catchers certainly think there’s big value in framing pitches, and the catchers widely regarded as the best defensively are good at framing.

  7. schlom - Sep 21, 2011 at 3:12 PM

    I have a hard time believing this because I wouldn’t think that the umpire can see exactly where the catcher catches the ball. You wouldn’t think that the umpire can watch both where the ball crosses the plate and where the ball is caught. If this is true, then maybe the umpires aren’t watching the ball cross the plate but where the ball is caught?

    • The Dangerous Mabry - Sep 21, 2011 at 4:15 PM

      It’s not where the ball is caught, according to the article, but how the ball is caught. Catching the ball with a lot of glove movement, and apparently head movement, seems to have a negative impact on a pitch being called a strike. Whether it’s distracting to umpires, an unconscious phenomenon, or an extraordinary coincidence is up to the reader. But nobody is suggesting (I don’t think) that the umpires are looking at the location where the ball is caught. The suggestion is that the movements of the catcher are relevant, not their position.

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