There is so much pressure to win in today’s game of baseball that team’s look for specialists in every area.
Relief pitchers that can dispatch a left-handed hitter are prized. Relief pitchers that can induce ground ball double plays or strikeout a hitter with runners on base are prized.
Hitters that are unselfish and move a runner into scoring position are still important to the offense.
As I discussed in last week’s edition of BERNIE’S BASEBALL WORLD, a pitcher that can close out a ballgame in the 9th inning is incredibly valuable.
A less publicized specialist but one that is important in today’s game is a catcher capable of framing pitches.
Framing pitches. That’s the art or capability of a catcher to turn balls into strikes by moving his glove, his shoulder, his hands or whatever it takes on his body to take pitches from outside the strike zone to inside the strike zone. Subtly. Discreetly.
And I think pitch framing is cheating. That may not be a popular opinion, but I think pitch framing is cheating.
If the pitcher tries to deceive the runner in any way, a balk is called. Each runner advances a base.
Framing pitches is intended to deceive the umpire. That’s what it’s all about. Deception.
If it weren’t deceptive, why would a catcher be so subtle and not obvious?
The umpire squats at the inside right shoulder of a right-handed hitter. Some umpires are more upright and more to the center of the plate, but most hover over the shoulder of the hitter and catcher. The umpire similarly hovers over the left shoulder of a left-handed hitter. Those positions by the umpires make it difficult to track the outside pitch.
Most umpires get a good look at pitches inside or over the plate. It is the outside pitch, the pitch most distant from the catcher’s and the umpire’s positions that are the most difficult for the umpire to track and call. That’s where the catcher offers a bit of help. It is on those pitches that are minimally outside the strike zone that a catcher gains the accolades of his pitcher, his manager, and everyone associated with him if he can “frame” the pitch and move it to the strike zone.
Why is pitch framing cheating? That’s simple. The pitch was not a strike. The pitch was a ball or the catcher wouldn’t move his glove (with the ball inside) to a place within the strike zone.
And that really, really bothers me.
Allegedly, baseball executives want more offense. They know that fans like to see runs scored. Then why permit a catcher to voluntarily move a ball from outside the strike zone to inside the strike zone?
I think it would be very difficult to monitor and “police” pitch framing. How does an umpire prove the catcher moved his hands, his glove, his shoulders or any part of his body with the intent of moving the ball to the strike zone?
When Russell Martin left the New York Yankees in 2013 he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates for an amount of money that most in the business felt was beyond the value of the position. They felt it was beyond the value of Martin’s performance level at the time. His base salary was $6,500,000 in his first year, not including a $1MM signing bonus. The following year he increased his $7MM salary to $8,500,000 with another $1MM signing bonus. Those numbers were almost unheard of at the time.
Why did Martin make so much money from a low-income and low-spending club like the Pirates? Team scouts and those close to the organization at the time told me they wanted Martin for several defensive reasons. First and foremost, they wanted a good shepherd for their young pitching staff. Secondly, they sought a catcher adept at framing pitches. They place a high value on strikes and wanted to gain as many strikes as they could.
In 2015 Martin left Pittsburgh for Toronto as a free agent. This is where it gets even more interesting. For a catcher never considered to be in the same conversation with Buster Posey or at the time, Salvador Perez, Martin saw his personal cash register ring once again. The Blue Jays signed him to a five-year $82,000,000 guaranteed contract. This season he began making $20,000,000 a year for the next three years. He then becomes a free agent all over again.
Russell Martin is a career .254 hitter. His best season was his first for Pittsburgh when he hit .290 in 2014. The year he left the Yankees he hit .211. He hit .237 the year before.
My point? Good catching defense is valued in major-league baseball. Discussions regarding good catching defense almost always includes mention of—wait for it—pitch framing.
The Arizona Diamondbacks changed their entire catching corps this offseason. They admittedly sacrificed offense (Wellington Castillo and Tuffy Gosewisch) for the defense of Jeff Mathis and Chris Iannetta. Diamondbacks front office personnel included blocking balls in the dirt, calling games and framing pitches as qualities they sought. So far in this young season Diamondbacks pitchers have loudly sung the praises of Mathis, Iannetta and third catcher Chris Herrmann.
In this day of metrics, there are stats that track pitch framing. I believe there are complicated formulas that result in a catcher being a good or bad pitcher framer. Those metrics are beyond my pay grade. I use my eyes.
Who are the best catchers at framing pitches? Much depends upon who is making the decisions. For me, the list includes
Russell Martin, Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, Francisco Cervelli and Roberto Perez. There are plenty of others.
I can’t name the catchers that aren’t good pitch framers. I do, however, know what I’ve seen from those listed above.
Does that mean I don’t respect the catchers I listed because I believe pitch framing to be cheating? No, not at all. I consider it a part of the game. A part of the game I don’t like. But I accept it because it isn’t going away. Pitch framing is here to stay. And pitch framers will continue to be lauded and rewarded, both financially and on the best catcher lists. But I still think they are cheating.
This baseball season seems unlike most others. Fans in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Denver and Phoenix are cheering the spunk and spirit of their respective major-league clubs. Usually hovering near the bottom of the standings, these teams are showing vitality, vim and vigor with solid veterans sprinkled in among young and exciting prospects. It’s very refreshing for baseball. I hope it keeps happening.
Watching Paul Goldschmidt as often as I do is an absolute treat. He is a very, very complete hitter. The ball just jumps off his bat as it makes that “special” sound. Add his power to his ability to play Gold Glove defense and steal bases and Goldschmidt earns his way to the All-Star Game year in and year out.
What’s wrong with Jose Quintana? I’m sitting in the press box watching him get pummeled pitch after pitch. Once a very reliable starter, Quintana has slipped to becoming just another starting pitcher. His trade value has taken a hit.
Joey Votto is an amazing player. He is so good at selecting pitches and driving pitches he selects that he makes hitting look simple. Votto is underrated, even though he makes a very good living in Cincinnati.
The Diamondbacks are a hitting machine. That’s the result of being healthy. Last year the offense fell apart because players were injured and the morale was non-existent. This year, if it isn’t one guy, it’s another.
The Cubs and Indians are scuffling compared to the way they played last year. Pitching for both clubs has been mediocre and the hitting hasn’t taken off yet. Maybe warm weather changes that.
How good are the Houston Astros? My take? Very good.
I’m a bit concerned about the health of Dallas Keuchel, but the team can pitch and hit.
Here’s hoping we see a healthy James Paxton pitching again soon for Seattle. He was off to such a great start before getting hurt.
Thank you to all the wonderful men and women who have served our country in the Armed Forces to help keep each one of us safe.
Join me on my Cultural/Baseball Tour to Cuba January 19-26, 2018. For details, contact me via email at BPleskoff@aol.com.
Follow me on Twitter @BerniePleskoff