Fangraphs has an interesting article on the declining value of pitch framing for catchers. It is also a good object lesson on adaptive learning by officials.
Pitch framing for the non-statistical geeks is how a catcher receives a ball. A catcher that is deliberate, calm and stable will be able to get pitches that are objectively outside of the strike zone called strikes. A stable catcher who does not move much is a little visual cue that the ball went where it was intended which increases the probability that the pitch will be called a strike.Catchers who are herky-jerky will see a number of balls that are in the objective strike zone called as balls. This has been a hack on umpires as they are reading the pitcher, the ball and the catcher.
Good pitch framers can contribute the equivalent of an extra win or two per season. Bad pitch framing catchers cost their teams an extra win. It is a skill that can be worth $10 million dollars a year at the major league level.
Some teams have been aggressively pursuing pitch framing catchers as a market inefficiency (the Pirates are one of them) as they’ll give up offense for subtle defense.
However the umpires may be striking back:
Humans can learn; humans can be trained. One interesting observation during the PITCHf/x era is that, over time, those human umpires have collectively started to call an increasingly consistent zone. PITCHf/x provided feedback, and umpires could get better as a result. Now, I can’t help but wonder if we’re seeing the beginning of the end for pitch-framing. Catchers are always going to catch a little differently, but I wonder if there are fewer available rewards….
And the correlations used to be pretty consistent, until a step back two years ago and a bigger step back one year ago. It’s not shown here, but the top 10 framing catchers from 2014 kept just 57% of their value in 2015, which is another low for the PITCHf/x era…..
The rest is in the hands of the umpires, and at some point, umpires were going to catch wind of what was taking place. And then they could have a response, because umpires don’t want to be manipulated, not intentionally and not for a team’s direct gain…..
All sports where there is human judgement involved will have subtle areas of exploitation. In soccer, there is a cottage industry of forwards who use hand fighting to gain slight advantage for aerial challenges in the box on corner kicks. Wayne Rooney is infamous for pushing off his defender’s near side thigh as he jumps as that gives him momentum while slowing down his defender’s jump point. In American football, there are numerous little hacks to gain or minimize separation.
When a new hack is introduced, there is usually a learning curve by the officials. Some will not see the problem at all, and others will see the action but will decide not to react to the action. This is especially true if the hack is subtle, and if it is isolated to only a few players. However, once the hack has become widespread and correctable by official action, the officials are in an intense selective environment to get good at recognizing the hack and responding to it in a more uniform manner.
Other than that …. open thread