Second Thoughts Game #139: White Sox 1, Indians 2
Pitch Framing: Macroscope and Microscope
It was in response to a 2013 breakout season that Cleveland pressed to extend Yan Gomes to a long-term contract. After a largely-unheralded career through 2012, Gomes shattered all expectations, with a .294/.345/.481 triple slash line and near-elite catcher arm and plate-blocking ability.
A less-discussed breakout, however, was Gomes's formidable pitch-framing. An aspect of catcher defense that had not been publicly quantified with widely-discussed rigor before 2013, pitch framing is simply strike zone manipulation. Briefly, pitch framing measures how many extra strikes a catcher can 'steal' from out of the zone and how few in-zone balls that catcher allows. In 2013, Gomes was one of the very best; as a catcher for only one half of the season, Gomes's overall pitch framing runs saved was eighth best among all major league catchers, indicating that his already excellent defense may have been even better than it appeared.
In most senses, Gomes has absolutely replicated his torrid 2013, with his game-changing triple in the 10th inning being just the latest example of his brekaout offense; his pitch framing, however, has fallen off its 2013 pace. While Gomes saved 11.9 framing runs above average in 2013 over his 6,157 pitches caught, Gomes has saved only 2.6 runs above average in 2014 over 8,469 pitches. Gomes remains a better pitch-framer than the MLB average, but his 2014 pace has declined from elite and frightening to simply good, a figurative cherry on top of a very literal 4 WAR player.
Also curious are the performances by Cleveland's catchers on the whole. What follows is a list of Cleveland catchers by their framing runs saved rank, their runs saved and pitches received. For context, this list includes all 94 catchers who have caught pitches in 2014.
28) Yan Gomes: 2.6 F.R.S., 8469 total pitches
30) Roberto Perez: 2.2 F.R.S., 1240 total pitches
55) George Kottaras: -0.5 F.R.S., 526 total pitches
77) Carlos Santana: -4.2 F.R.S., 850 total pitches
Carlos Santana's bat and plate discipline are wonders, but his catcher defense has never been elite. In defensive abilities that were widely measured, Santana struggled. In defensive abilities that were not widely measured, such as pitch framing, Santana also struggled. Santana is at first base now; this is probably for the best.
George Kottaras, in fairness, has received 11.0 innings in St. Louis to 59.0 in Cleveland. He was almost an average framer who started six games, and he is no longer with Cleveland. In terms of actual consequence on the 2014 season, Kottaras is not at the center of the story, though his two-bomb debut makes him certainly a most compelling footnote.
On the season, Roberto Perez has been quite good, both in terms of pitch framing and general defensive metrics; Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) has Perez at five runs above average in 169.0 innings in the field, a confoundingly large number in so short a time. More immediately for those still imbibing the walk-off ethos, Perez was the receiver of Friday's game against Chicago. The pitch charts for the games (vRHH and vLHH respectively) is attached below; the solid lines indicate the de jure strike zone, and the dashed lines indicate the de facto strike zone. (Credit: BrooksBaseball)
In the vRHH chart, Perez's pitch framing becomes obvious. The red squares below and to the right of the zone show pitches that should have been called balls but that Perez brought back for called strikes. In the vLHH chart, the picture is more ambiguous largely because fewer pitches were thrown; on one hand, the low pitch that Perez got called a strike was quite admirable; on the other hand
While single-game splits are not the summa auctoritas of framing conclusions, akin in many ways to overanalyzing a single pitcher start, which this author has certainly - certainly! - never even once done, the above charts do chronicle what occurred and are, coincidentally, a useful representation of the value that Roberto Perez quietly provides from behind the plate.
Get Alexei Ramirez Out of This Division
Alexei Ramirez is not an MVP candidate. His defense has always been excellent, but his offense has never kept pace; Ramirez's 104 wRC+ in 2014 indicates his first above-average season at the plate since 2008. He's an extremely valuable player, but within well-defined limits. Ramirez is not an offensive juggernaut. Indeed, his .703 OPS against Cleveland is worse than his overall career OPS. But, speaking merely from the author's own irrational perspective, perhaps sprung from Ramirez's long tenure with Chicago, he seems like an enormous, continued pain to Cleveland.
In a similar vein, T.J. House has been an interesting player for Cleveland for rather different reasons. His groundball rate, at 61.3% of all batted balls, is second-best among all pitchers with 80+ IP behind only Dallas Keuchel. It would normally follows that, because House doesn't allow the ball in the air frequently, he in turn allows few home runs. This is a relationship that holds for most pitchers in the majors. Alas, T.J. House's HR/FB ratio of 18.0% is alsosecond-highest among all pitchers with 80+ IP.
This ratio is anomalous. Certainly, there is likely a skill component to being one of the chief outliers, but for a dissonance that large between his sterling 3.25 xFIP and his solid-average FIP of 3.89, there must be some component of luck.
The two - Ramirez as an (apparently) outsized harbinger of evil to Cleveland and House as an outlier - came together on Friday, as Ramirez's home run of House in the third provided Chicago's only run. Frequently, home runs have distinct and obvious causes, such as a slider left belt-high. The following illustrates the location of House's slider to Alexei Ramirez. (Credit: BrooksBaseball)
The Home Run might be hard to see, given that the solid line indicating the bottom of the strike zone is obscuring it. It was a pitch as low in the zone as could possibly be expected. It was on the outer half of the plate. Surrounding the home run are three groundouts, a few singles, and a fielder's choice. Chicago's right-handed hitters experienced little success slugging against that particular area of the strike zone on the whole, so it stands to reason that Alexei Ramirez would pull that ball over the left-field fence for a home run. 'Keep the ball low and away,' a baseball coach somewhere advises, 'unless you're pitching to Alexei Ramirez, who will hit a dinger there.'
On one hand, one worries that T.J. House's xFIP, which at 3.25 is typical of solid #2 pitchers, oversells House. One worries that, because he's a young pitcher with an altogether extreme groundball profile, that xFIP might fail to take into account some nuances of the rawness of his game. Skepticism of xFIP as a proxy for 2014 performance is absolutely merited, because what the model suggests should have happened in 2014 wasn't actually what happened in 2014.
However, xFIP is a reminder of regression, that what has occurred in the past should be taken with caution as one moves forward. House threw a decent pitch, and Ramirez took it for a ride. It was a negative outcome and it was a defense-independent outcome, but it was no less a rare outcome. In this sense, then, that home run served as something as a microcosm for House's season to date - his process stats (xFIP) have been solid, but his ERA and FIP have not kept pace. One way or another, that dissonance is likely to disappear.
In turn, one hopes that Alexei Ramirez, a free agent at the end of 2014, likewise disappears from the AL Central.
John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimm. He can also be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.