In the beginning, there was Jose Molina. For real though, he’s really old. Molina hung around, and then baseball was invented, and then people figured out how to measure catcher pitch-framing, and then, initially, Molina really shined. Molina’s numbers blew everyone else’s out of the water, and so Molina became something of a cult favorite, and so on and so forth. You know how this story has gone. You know how Molina has become sort of popular, and you know how Molina is playing a lot for a contending team. Molina’s still really great at framing. It’s probably what he’s most great at.
Over time, I myself started to champion Jonathan Lucroy. Not because I thought Lucroy was better than Molina, but because I thought the two were roughly equivalent, and Lucroy didn’t get enough attention or respect. It seems to me Lucroy is one of baseball’s more underrated all-around players, and even still this year, Lucroy has been helping the Brewers’ pitching staff suck just a little less than it might otherwise. Lucroy’s still good, of course. Molina’s still good, of course. One doesn’t simply forget how to frame. But I was surprised when I took a peek at the 2013 pitch-framing leaderboards.
Readers of Ben Lindbergh at Baseball Prospectus might come away less surprised by what’s to follow. Lindbergh has been documenting framing exploits all season long, in tremendous detail, and the numbers I have match up well with the numbers he has. But if you haven’t been reading Lindbergh’s stuff, then prepare for a surprise. Can you prepare to be surprised? By definition, doesn’t that not make sense? Whatever, prepare for something, or don’t and just read.
All data was provided for me by Matthew Carruth. Carruth has set up his own system, using a strike zone that umpires actually call, yielding lots of framing data. I looked at all catchers who have caught at least 1,000 called pitches so far in 2013. That’s an arbitrary cutoff, but a satisfying one. Carruth calculates strikes above or below average on a per-game basis, and here’s this year’s top five, through August 6:
Yasmani Grandal, +3.0 strikes/game
Hank Conger, +2.9
David Ross, +2.3
Jonathan Lucroy, +2.2
Francisco Cervelli, +1.8
We see Lucroy in fourth. Molina’s right there in sixth, at +1.7. We’d expect to see those guys near the top. Grandal and Conger, though — not only are they out in front, but they’re out in front by a considerable margin. And those aren’t guys who exactly have the most positive defensive reputations. Grandal was once thought of as an offense-first catching prospect who’d need work on the other part of his game. Conger has hardly been a favorite of Mike Scioscia, who prioritizes defense from catchers over all else.
It’s true that neither Grandal nor Conger has a big giant 2013 sample size, but they each clear 2,000 called pitches. Here are the top single-season framing numbers since 2007, when we first got (limited) PITCHf/x:
2008 Jose Molina, +4.1 strikes/game
2009 David Ross, +3.7
2009 Jose Molina, +3.6
2013 Yasmani Grandal, +3.0
2013 Hank Conger, +2.9
Helpfully, Carruth provides other data — rate of balls called on pitches in the strike zone, and rate of strikes called on pitches out of the strike zone. This information can give a better idea of how a certain catcher excels, and here’s a plot of all those 2013 catchers who’ve caught at least 1,000 called pitches:
Conger has maximized strikes on pitches in the zone. So you could say he’s not so much stealing strikes as preserving them. Grandal has stolen strikes. They both clearly stand out on this chart, in different ways that paint a similar overall picture.
Since 2007, this year’s Conger has the best rate of balls on pitches in the zone, and that’s by more than a full percentage point. This year’s Grandal has the seventh-best rate of strikes on pitches out of the zone, just behind 2009 David Ross. For the Angels this year, Conger has been far better than Chris Iannetta in this particular department, and for the Padres, Grandal has been better than John Baker, who’s been better than Nick Hundley.
You’ve waited this long; we might as well see some visual examples of these guys catching. Here, take a look at Conger and Grandal:
I probably don’t need to say anything, because you understand it all, now. You understand what it takes to be a good framer instead of a bad one or a mediocre one. Both Conger and Grandal remain quiet of body. Their lower halves stay locked, and their upper halves move only as much as they need to. This is how you receive, and if their bodies moved around a lot, they wouldn’t get nearly so many calls, one assumes.
Conger debuted in 2010, and his small-sample framing numbers were a little below average. His numbers in 2011 and 2012 were a little above average. This year, as noted, they’re extraordinary. One figures Conger probably worked hard on developing his defense, since he’d need that to stick on the roster, and let’s see what some screenshots show us, shall we?
Conger, RHB, 2012
Conger, RHB, 2013
Pretty much no difference here, not, at least, in the way Conger is set up.
Conger, LHB, 2012
Conger, LHB, 2013
Now there’s a difference. Look at Conger’s shoulders, and look at his right leg. In 2013, he’s giving the umpire a lot more of the plate, and while we can’t prove this is making any meaningful difference, at least we’ve spotted a visual difference to go along with the performance improvement. Down below, with a lefty at the plate, Conger looks an awful lot like Molina usually does.
And then there’s the matter of Grandal. Plenty has been written about Grandal putting more emphasis on his defensive work. He didn’t want to be thought of as just an offensive catcher anymore, so he busted his ass on the other stuff, working hard over the offseason. But, interestingly, Grandal was already a terrific pitch-framer a year ago. Last year, he was sixth in baseball in extra strikes per game, less than 0.2 behind Lucroy. This year, he’s improved, but it’s not like he’s gone from zero to hero. Grandal came up as a more-than-capable receiver.
Of note: in terms of strikes above or below average per game, the correlation between 2012 data and 2013 data is about 0.8. So, this stuff is pretty stable. Grandal, though, is up 1.1. Hundley is up 1.0. John Baker is up 1.5. All these guys were Padres in each of the last two years, and they’re showing across-the-board improvement. Knowing what we know about the Padres’ pitching staff, it can’t be because the pitchers just have extraordinary collective command. Maybe there’s something going on, here. Or maybe the Padres just started to teach the art of pitch-receiving a little more than they used to. Maybe they made this a priority. It definitely seems like something that’s pretty coachable, and it’s not like the front office doesn’t know about the data.
So that’s where we are. Grandal’s out for the year, so his numbers won’t budge. Conger’s still got some playing time ahead of him, so he could see changes. Both of their samples are somewhat limited, which could be a factor. But to this point, Yasmani Grandal and Hank Conger have been baseball’s two most effective pitch-receivers. And the gap between them and the rest of the pack is pretty big, as these things go. Framing, still, is only somewhat understood. And there’s a lot more than framing that goes into being considered a quality defensive backstop. But at one thing, these two guys are incredible. In the beginning, there was Jose Molina. It’s not the beginning anymore.