It is not uncommon for Toronto Blue Jays’ catchers to get down on one knee with runners on base to turn pitches below the strike zone into called strikes. The downside is that such a catcher’s stance may increase the number of passed balls and wild pitches, leading to more runs scored against the team. Why do teams and catchers make this strike-passed ball/wild pitch trade-off?
Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase
During many Jays’ broadcasts, Buck Martinez has criticized catchers for setting up with one knee on the ground when there are runners on base. Martinez believes that this change from a traditional stance makes it more challenging to block pitches in the dirt, leading to more wild pitches, passed balls, and ultimately runs. Joe Siddall shares Martinez’s view of the catcher-on-one-knee phenomena. Both former catchers have cited catcher framing as the reason why catchers utilize this non-traditional positioning.
In this article, I will address the following matters:
- Why is catcher framing such a focus for MLB teams?
- Has the number of wild pitches and passed balls increased during the catcher/pitch framing era?
- Are there other reasons that may account for the increase in wild pitches and passed balls?
- Do the numbers support the decision to hinder blocking pitches in favour of stealing strikes?
This article does not address the impact of catcher stances upon base stealing.
What is catcher framing?
MLB.com/Baseball Savant/Statcast has an excellent description.
Why is Catcher Framing a Thing?
Umpires are notoriously poor at calling balls and strikes correctly.
The chart below is an excerpt from Baseball Savant. It shows that the 2021 MLB average Strike Rate for all parts of the Shadow Zone is 48.5%. In other words, the average catcher converts 48.5% of pitches in the Shadow Zone into called strikes. Statcast translates called strikes into Runs Extra Strikes (“RES”), the number of runs saved from strikes gained by catcher framing. The conversion rate that Baseball Savant uses is 0.125 runs per called strike. Baseball Savant sets the MLB average RES to zero.
How significant is the Impact of Catcher Framing?
The cumulative impact of a catcher converting Shadow Zone pitches into called strikes reduces runs. In 2019, the four-best catcher framers generated RES scores above ten, which is equivalent to one win in the standings! Those players were Austin Hedges, Tyler Flowers, Roberto Perez and Yasmani Grandal. So far in 2021, the top three catchers are Sean Murphy, Jonah Heim and Omar Narvaez, with RES totals of 9, 7 and 7, respectively.
Toronto Catcher Framing
Later in the article, I will focus upon the numbers that support the tactic of having catchers position themselves on one knee with runners on base. Accordingly, the calculations to follow will refer to Zones 17, 18 and 19.
Wild Pitches and Passed Balls During the Catcher Framing ERA
Pitch/Fx began offering pitch-framing data to MLB clubs in 2007 or 2008. Thus the catcher framing metric was born.
Table 1 demonstrates the changes in wild pitches and passed balls since 2008. The highlights are as follows:
- Concerning 2008 and 2019, the most recent 162-game schedule season, the number of wild pitches per team increased from 53 in 2008 to 60 in 2019.
- The number of passed balls per team increased from 2008’s 10 to 12 in 2019.
Suppose one believes that the changes in the average number of wild pitches and passed balls occur because catchers position themselves on one knee. In that case, the data above supports that viewpoint. However, there are some other factors to note.
First, the average number of pitches in the dirt with runners on base per team was 348 in 2008 and 567 in 2019. That is a 63% increase. Second, with runners on third, the average number of pitches in the dirt per team was 137 in 2019, 44 more than 2008’s 93. Therefore, the increase in wild pitches and passed balls may partly be due to pitchers throwing more balls into the dirt.
The 2021 Blue Jays
The Blue Jays’ catchers and pitchers have performed well on a relative basis. After the August 30 games, the average number of passed balls per team in 2021 is 10. Blue Jays’ catchers have six, which is the 8th fewest in MLB. Toronto pitchers have registered 38 wild pitches, which is third-best. The MLB average is 51. Expressed as a percentage of balls in the dirt, the Blue Jays rank seventh-best in both passed balls and wild pitches.
For informational purposes, I present Table 2, which shows when wild pitches and passed balls occurred for the average MLB team in 2019.
Runner on Third
To state the obvious, it is highly likely the runner on third will score when a wild pitch or passed ball occurs.
Other Baserunners Advancing
When a wild pitch or passed ball occurs, the other baserunners will likely advance to the next base. Thankfully, the Run Expectancy Matrix exists to capture the impact of advancing baserunners.
Table 3 contains the Run Expectancy Matrix for the 2010-2015 period. The matrix reflects the average number of runs scored from every game state of every MLB game (innings one to eight). In other words, the Run Expectancy matrix presents the expected number of runs scored between a given point (location of baserunners and the number of outs) to the end of an inning. For example, it is expected that 1.437 runs will score when there are runners on first and second with zero outs. If the next batter strikes out, the number of expected runs declines from 1.437 to 0.884.
The Rarity of Wild Pitches and Passed Balls
Table 4 displays wild pitches as a percent of pitches in the dirt and also in terms of batters faced. Both metrics pertain to only when there are runners on base. I will focus on a runner on third because wild pitches and passed balls will lead directly to a run scored. These situations include when there is a runner on third, and also when there are runners on first and third, second and third and bases loaded. The highlights are as follows:
Wild Pitches as a Percentage of Pitches in the Dirt
- When there are no outs, the official scorekeeper recorded wild pitches in 0.2% of pitches in the dirt,
- With one out, wild pitches occurred in 0.4% of pitches in the dirt, and
- When there are two outs, wild pitches happened in 1.0% of pitches in the dirt.
Concerning wild pitches as a percentage of batters faced, wild pitches occurred in 0.1% of the events and only with two outs.
I have assumed that the distribution of passed balls is the same as wild pitches. Therefore, the data supported the view that wild pitches and passed balls are rare in baseball.
The 2019 average Strike Rate for Zones 17, 18 and 19 are 33.2%, 49.5% and 25.8%, respectively. The distribution of pitches thrown to Zone 17, 18 and 19 with runners on base are 17%, 58% and 25%, respectively. The weighted Strike Rate for Zones 17 to 19 is 40.8%.
The Impact upon Runs
I derived the Table 5 numbers from the data contained in Table 3. It shows the direct and expected runs that occur with a wild pitch or passed ball. Table 6, which I drew from Table 5, shows the direct and expected runs (weighted by when wild pitches and pitched balls occurred in 2019).
Based upon the Run Expectancy Matrix, the average estimated run scored per wild pitch or passed ball was 0.439. Accordingly, I estimated 29 runs scored due to wild pitches and passed balls for the average 2019 MLB team (29 = 65 x 0.439). The breakdown by the source is as follows:
- Concerning wild pitches, eight direct runs were scored; the tally for indirect runs was 16.
- Regarding passed balls, five indirect runs were scored, and zero direct runs resulted.
From this point forward, I will refer to the catcher who uses a traditional stance as Traditional Catcher; I named the catcher on one knee as New Catcher.
On April 12, 2021, Baseball America published the article Does One-Knee Catching Actually Lead To More Wild Pitches? The author noted a 2020 study that revealed that New Catcher allowed 0.466 wild pitches and passed balls per nine innings. The comparable figure for Traditional Catcher was 0.432.
Throughout a 162-game schedule, the New Catcher would have six more wild pitches and passed balls than Traditional Catcher (6 = [0.466 less 0.432) x 162). In 2019, the average number of wild pitches and passed balls was 65 (with runners on base). Therefore, assume that New Catcher is on the field when the official scorekeeper recorded 68 wild pitches and passed balls. Traditional Catcher would be present for 62 wild pitches and passed balls.
When I applied the 62 wild pitches and passed ball events to Traditional Catcher, the number of runs is 27 (27 = 62 x 0.439). New Catcher would be on the field for 30 runs (30 = 68 x 0.439). The difference is three runs.
Why catching on one knee makes sense
During the 2019 season, the average number of pitches thrown to Zones 17 to 19 with runners on base was 1,597. In the previous section, I determined that the run differential between Traditional Catcher and New Catcher was three runs. To determine how many incremental strikes New Catcher would need to secure from Zones 17 to 19, I applied the Strike Rate Equivalent of 8 strikes to one run (0.125 runs per called strike). Therefore, New Catcher would need to produce 24 more strikes (24 = 3 x 8), which means an additional 1.50% of strikes from Zones 17 to 19 (1.5% = 24 / 1,597).
As noted earlier, the average weighted Strike Rate for Zones 17 to 19 is 40.8%. The highest rate among the 54 catchers examined by Baseball America was 55.2%; the tenth best was 49.0%. Therefore, New Catcher has enough Strike Rate variance to gain and convert an additional 1.50 percentage points of called strikes regarding Zones 17 to 19.
In other words, securing a minimum of 24 extra strikes from Zones 17 to 19 is a reasonable strike gained-wild pitch/passed ball trade-off. If New Catcher gains 32 strikes from Zones 17 to 19, that will translate into a net, additional run saved for the team.
Beware of Averages
The incremental Strike Rate is 1.5% for pitches thrown to Zones 17 to 19. There are some issues to consider:
- The 1.5% figure includes wild pitches, which by definition is the responsibility of the pitcher. Therefore, allocating all six of the additional wild pitches and passed balls to New Catcher likely overstates the difference between the two catchers. Hence, the 1.5% hurdle rate is probably inflated.
- Assuming that the 1.5% figure is reasonable, teams with catchers below-average in blocking pitches in the dirt should probably encourage their catchers to use a traditional stance with runners on base.
- Similarly, suppose a team’s catcher is below-average at catcher framing for Zones 17 to 19. In that case, the team should also have their catchers use the traditional position.
I think McGuire and Jansen’s one-knee stance makes sense for the Blue Jays catchers, given the minimal Strike Rate increment required. However, due to his relatively short stature, I suggest that Kirk does not need to set up on one knee to capture pitches in Zones 17 to 19. His height already places him low to the ground.
The last word
Wild pitches and passed balls are an infrequent baseball event. The 2019 average wild pitch and passed ball rate was 0.7% of all pitches thrown with runners on base. I estimated that less than 4% of all runs scored in 2019 were attributable to wild pitches and passed balls. Accordingly, MLB teams have permitted their catchers to set up on one knee to capture more called strikes than they would otherwise achieve from a traditional catcher stance. The numbers justify the strikes gained-wild pitch/passed ball trade-off.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
HEAD ON OVER TO THE JAYS FROM THE COUCH VS ALS STORE AND GET SOME GREAT SWAG THAT YOU WILL LOOK GREAT IN AND YOU CAN FEEL GREAT ABOUT.
YOU CAN ALSO HEAD TO OUR JAYS FROM THE COUCH VS ALS FUNDRAISING PAGE TO MAKE A TAX DEDUCTIBLE DONATION DIRECTLY TO ALS CANADA.
THANK YOU FOR VISITING JAYS FROM THE COUCH! CHECK US OUT ON TWITTER @JAYSFROMCOUCH AND LIKE US FACEBOOK. BE SURE TO CATCH THE LATEST FROM JAYS FROM THE COUCH RADIO
Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.