According to the catcher framing stat found at StatCorner.com, Pinto finished the 2015 season as a bottom-10 receiver. He was deficient at both getting out-of-zone pitches to be called strikes as well as from keeping in-zone pitches from being called balls. This fact did not go unnoticed by his pitching staff.
Is Pinto really that bad at framing as well?
“Everybody says, ‘Oh, he’s a good framer, he’s a bad framer,’ and that’s just an entertainment word. It’s just, he caught the ball correctly,” McKean said. “As long as the ball is received steadily with a strong hand, then it’s a lot easier to see the pitches. And every time they do that and they go ‘Oh, he’s a good framer,’ well, no, he’s just catching the pitch correctly. That’s just my interpretation. And I was in the big league for about 30 years, so I’ve seen all sorts of catching, and good catching will make it easier for umpires to call more strikes.”
From an umpire’s perspective that makes total sense. Little noise, little movement.
When Glen Perkins told 1500ESPN listeners that Pinto struggled with pitcher below or at the bottom of the zone, his observations were correct. The rookie catcher finished 78 out of 79 catchers in getting low pitches called strikes and the two examples below show why some of it is on him and some is on his pitcher.
In this example, Pinto calls for a 3-2 fastball on the outer-half from reliever Casey Fien. Fien obliges and throws heat that clips a hair of the corner:
Though by definition a strike, the umpire says it is a ball.
Part of it might be on where he caught it (see below) as well as the positioning of the umpire. In the interview with Baseball Prospectus, McKean said that the umpire’s positioning can put some areas of the strike zone in a blind spot. Like in the instance below, if he’s lined up on the inside of a hitter, the outer portion of the zone might be harder to track. In that situation, a catcher’s ability to receive the pitch correctly can mean the difference between a ball and a strike.
There are various reasons why a pitch’s outcome is considered a ball when it was actually in the zone. Believe it or not, some of it actually has to do with the pitcher as well. For example, while catching a Ricky Nolasco start against the Angels in early September, Pinto sets up on the outer-half calling for a slider. Nolasco misses his spot but manages to throw a decent slider that nicks the inside edge of the plate.
Data shows that the pitch crossed a portion of the plate -- albeit not by much. Still, Pinto is forced to shift back towards the inside and his reception of the ball does not do Nolasco any favors.
“[T]he problem you run into is, when a catcher moves out there, you move out there a little bit with him,” said McKean. “Then they throw the ball inside, and it’s in the strike zone, and it looks like he’s diving to catch it. And that’s very difficult to call a strike on. You can do it, and most of the time the hitter’s going to look at you and say, ‘Jimmy, how can that be a strike? He’s diving back to catch it.’”
While the umpire in this situation did not shift to the outside with Pinto, everything else mirrored what McKean described. Given the scenario it is hard to assign total blame on the catcher, yet the framing statistic would demerit Pinto in this instance.
One takeaway about this pitch is that Pinto does not receive it that poorly. Yes, he tries to pull his glove up after catching the pitch but as McKean told Baseball Prospectus, catchers who fail to catch low pitches palm up (as seen in the image above) often will have that particular pitch called against them. In that regard, Pinto is probably not as technically bad as the Marlins’ Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The 29-year-old backstop earned the dubious honors of being the worst receiving catcher in 2014 based on theStatCorner.com’s pitch framing statistic (24.4 runs below average).
Here is an example as to why he brings up the rear of the list. On a 3-2 count, his pitcher brings a knee-high strike which should end the at-bat in the Marlins’ favor. It is called a ball.
Admittedly, the 95-mile per hour fastball has some sink to it, running the pitch back towards the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig but rather than grabbing it palm up, Saltalamacchia catches it, well, like this:
In this case, it is hard not to wonder if a different catcher had caught this middle-zone/knee-high pitch with minimal movement if it would have been called a strike.
Let’s review another scenario. The New York Mets’ Travis d’Arnaud was considered one of game’s better receivers and well liked by his staff. "When the balls are down, he does something that makes them look like they're strikes," said the Mets’ Zack Wheeler in 2013. "It's ridiculous. I had a couple that I threw and I knew they were balls, but they looked like strikes after he framed them up."
How ridiculous can he be? Take a look at the location of this pitch.
There are several reasons that could explain why the umpire chose to expand his zone regardless of d’Anuard’s efforts. For starters, the Mets had just walked two batters in a row with the bases loaded. While umpires try to stay in the confines of the strike zone, they too are human and want to have the game end in under 17 hours.
D'Anuard also caught the ball with minimal movement but his pitcher also hit his target making the reception less of a challenge than what Pinto and Saltalamacchia faced.
According to StatCorner.com, Twins’ Kurt Suzuki remains one of the game’s worst framers as well. For whatever reason, Suzuki is unable to convince umpires that borderline pitches are strikes. That is, until two-strike situations. Whereas the average catcher was able to get a called strike on 3.7% of all out-of-zone takes with two-strikes, Suzuki coaxed strike three looking at a 5% clip -- only behind Boston’s David Ross and the Dodgers’ A.J. Ellis in that situation.
Seems like that should count for a little bit more than a first-pitch strike. That said, Suzuki’s magic may simply be the skill of pitcher Phil Hughes. Hughes had a whopping 12% called strike rate on pitches out of the strike zone when there were two-strikes. His cutter became an outstanding weapon that he deployed on left-handed hitters as such:
Despite going around the plate, Hughes hit his target. Suzuki will receive positive points for framing even though the bulk of the work is done by Hughes’ pitching.
“What a pitcher does has a lot to do with it,” Suzuki told me last spring training. “If he’s all over the place, he’s obviously not going to get those borderline calls, not matter how good you make it look. If you are around the plate consistently, you are going to get those calls. There’s definitely an art to it, you look at the Molinas, they are pretty good at what they do.”
As McKean noted, the art of framing is actually the art of catching properly. In this context, Pinto has some work to do to become a better all-around defensive catcher. Umpires cannot be robots. The current catcher framing measurement system has plenty of flaws that give credit and punish receivers for mistakes of their pitchers. They are influenced by reactions around them, positioning and because ofbiases. In a 3-0 count, a pitch out of the strike zone is likely to be called a strike 17% while a 0-2 pitch is likely to be called a ball 39% of the time. Until statisticians can factor in targeting and weigh the counts properly, catcher framing stats will remain imperfect.