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Entries in pitch framing (3)

Wednesday
Dec182013

Believing in Edinson Volquez

Poorly as Edinson Volquez pitches, teams just keep coming back for more. It has been half a decade since Volquez vanquished hitters with premium heat and a tumbling changeup, making the All-Star team and finishing fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting with the Reds in 2008. Since then, he has arguably been the lousiest pitcher in baseball not booted out of the rotation. Once you account for park factors and league run-scoring levels, Volquez had the worst ERA (25 percent below average) among starters tossing at least 500 innings from 2009-13.

Despite all of that aggravation -- Tommy John surgery, LaLoosh-like control, quick hooks aplenty -- Volquez continues to get opportunities. The Pirates are the latest club hoping to channel Volquez's '08 form, signing him to a one-year, $5 million free agent deal for rotation depth in case A.J. Burnett retires or refuses to take a below-market deal to remain in Pittsburgh. Let's be honest: Expecting Burnett and ending up with Volquez is kind of like asking Santa for an XBox One and instead unwrapping a Cosby sweater on Christmas morning.

Those who still believe in Volquez point out that he bears some resemblance to the Bucs' 2012 reclamation project, Francisco Liriano -- lots of strikeouts, ground ball tendencies and a fielding-independent ERA (4.24) far lower than his actual ERA (5.71), suggesting better days are ahead. Of course, Volquez could just climb the ranks of starters who continue to get the ball despite getting their heads handed to them on a regular basis (during the Expansion Era, only Jimmy Haynes and Randy Lerch have made more starts while posting a worse adjusted ERA).

If Volquez is ever going to succeed again in the majors, Pittsburgh may be the place. Pitching coach Ray Searage has helped resuscitate the careers of Liriano, Burnett and Charlie Morton. The 30-year-old righty will also benefit from working with two of the best pitch-framing catchers in the business, and a collection of rangy fielders who gobble up grounders and fly balls.

Martin, Stewart steal strikes

Volquez deserves plenty of blame for issuing 4.8 free passes per nine frames during his career, ninth-highest among Expansion Era starters throwing at least 850 innings. But it doesn't help that he also gets squeezed by umps on pitches located on the edges of the zone, and he rarely gets calls on pitches thrown a bit off the plate. Over the past three years, Volquez has a slightly lower called strike rate on pitches thrown within the strike zone (80 percent) than the MLB average (81 percent). On pitches thrown outside of the zone, Volquez has gotten called strikes just 7.7 percent of the time, well below the 9.7 percent average.

Luckily for Volquez, his new battery mates excel at getting strikes on close calls. Russell Martin has an 82.5 percent called strike rate on in-zone pitches since 2011, while backup Chris Stewart (84.3 percent) has fared even better. Both steal strikes on out-of-zone pitches, too (10.9 percent called strike rate for Martin, and 11.1 percent for Stewart). Searage and Volquez have countless video screenings and bullpen sessions ahead of them to address the pitcher's control woes, but the Bucs' catchers give them a head start.

The power of quality D

Part of the reason why Volquez underachieved last year was his .330 batting average on balls in play, fourth-highest among qualified starters and 24 points above his career average. In particular, his BABIP on fly balls (.231) was dead last among starters and over 100 points above the MLB average (.128). With Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen chasing down fly balls in Pittsburgh (and graceful right field prospect Gregory Polanco not far away), Volquez should see fewer pitches reaching the gaps in 2015.

Collectively, Bucs pitchers had a .121 BABIP on fly balls last season. Overall, Pittsburgh converted balls put in play into outs at the fifth-best clip in the majors. By comparison, the Padres and Dodgers (Volquez's 2013 teams) ranked near the middle of the pack. Better luck and better defense should help Volquez get his ERA out of the high fives.

Volquez has some built-in advantages in Pittsburgh, though the same was said in San Diego, where he pitched in spacious Petco Park under the tutelage of Bud Black. His top-tier stuff could be waning, given that he lost a tick on his fastball (from 93.4 MPH in 2012 to 92.4 MPH in 2013) and struck out a career-low 7.5 batters per nine innings last year.

Maybe he is the second coming of Liriano, erasing years of disappointment with a dominant season. But for every Liriano, there are a dozen Kyle Davies who just never figure it out. Volquez keeps getting chances, with pitching coaches thinking he's a few mechanical tweaks away from turning back the clock to 2008. Past promise counts for less with each passing day, though. If Volquez can't make it with the Pirates, he might not get another chance.

Wednesday
Oct022013

Bucs, Cards Thrive Low in the Zone

The Pirates and Cardinals will square off in the National League Division Series, thanks in large part to pitching staffs boasting top-five ERAs during the regular season. Pittsburgh and St. Louis are mirror images on the mound, and that comparison extends beyond possessing a vets with wicked curveballs (Game 1 starters A.J. Burnett and Adam Wainwright), hot-shot rookies (Gerrit Cole, Shelby Miller, and Michael Wacha, among others) and where-did-he-come-from closers once again facing doubters (Jason Grilli and Edward Mujica). These clubs are equipped for deep October runs because their pitchers pound hitters at the knees, generate grounders and keep the ball in the park at historic levels. It doesn't hurt that their backstops skillfully steal strikes on borderline pitches, either.

Waging a Ground War

Collectively, the Pirates have thrown an MLB-high 47.6 percent of their pitches to the lower third of the strike zone. The Cardinals also live low in the zone, locating there at the eighth-highest clip (43.3 percent) in the majors. Pittsburgh and St. Louis' "keep it low" philosophy has produced ground balls by the bushel -- the Pirates have the highest single-season team ground ball rate (52.5 percent) in the majors over the past decade, while the Cardinals (48.5 percent) come in eighth.

Charlie Morton (64.6 percent) is the game's top worm-burner among starting pitchers, with Burnett (58.2 percent)  also ranking in the top 10. Francisco Liriano (52.4 percent), Joe Kelly (51.5 percent), Cole (51 percent) and Wainwright (50.1 percent) are among the grounder-centric starters who figure to make a difference in this series (sorry, Jeff Locke and Jake Westbrook).

Seth Maness (70.7 percent) is the most difficult reliever to loft this side of Brad Ziegler, and lefty hit man Randy Choate (68.4 percent) isn't far behind. Mark Melancon (62.2 percent), Carlos Martinez (56.5 percent) and Justin Wilson (53.5 percent) could also alter a game with a late-inning double play.

The Pirates complement their scorched-earth policy by frequently shifting their infielders, a strategy that has paid off in the form of the fifth-lowest opponent average on ground balls hit (.230) in 2013. The Cardinals (.248) are right around the MLB average (.248). 

Historic Homer Prevention

By waging a ground war, the Pirates (0.62 home runs allowed per nine innings) and Cardinals (0.69 HR/9) have surrendered the fewest homers among all MLB clubs. Once you adjust for year-to-year variations in league wide home run levels, the '13 Bucs and Cards are both enjoying one of the ten best homer prevention seasons in club history during the Live Ball Era (1920-present).

This year's Bucs team ranks fourth in franchise history during the Live Ball Era in HR+, or a team's home run rate as a percentage of the National League average during that season. They have surrendered 30 percent fewer homers than the NL average.

Lowest HR+ for Bucs during Live-Ball Era

St. Louis, meanwhile, has given up 22 percent fewer big flies than the NL average this year. That's tied for ninth-best in franchise history during the Live Ball Era.

Lowest HR+ for Cardinals during Live-Ball Era

Stealing Strikes

Aside from inducing ground balls and preventing home runs, there's another added benefit for Pirates and Cardinals pitchers who keep the ball down -- their catchers do a great job of framing low pitches. Yadier Molina and Russell Martin both get more called strikes on low pitches thrown in the strike zone (In-Zone ClStr%) than most catchers, with Molina ranking third among all backstops receiving at least 2,000 pitches and Martin ranking sixth. Molina also gets an above-average number of calls on low pitches that are located off the plate (Out-Zone ClStr%), placing sixth in the majors. Martin is around league average in that regard.

Molina and Martin's called strike rates on low pitches, 2013

With their pitchers getting so many grounders and Martin influencing calls on stuff located at the knees, the Pirates have limited batters to an MLB-low .248 slugging percentage on low pitches this season. The Cardinals' combo of ground ball pitchers and a strike-stealing catcher in Molina has yielded a .308 opponent slugging percentage on low stuff, tied for eighth-lowest in the game. Every pitching coach stresses the need to pound hitters are the knees. But the Bucs or Cards could just ride that platitude to postseason glory.

Saturday
Mar092013

Jose Molina, Ryan Doumit and Snatching Strikes

Up until a few years ago, sabermatricians were calling for players like Jose Molina to be sent to the glue factory. Molina is old (37), can't hit even by catcher standards (his career OPS+ is 68) and runs as if he's giving both Bengie and Yadier a piggyback ride at all times. However, recent work by brilliant researchers like Mike Fast has validated Jose's reputation as a master pitch-framer. There's a reason the Rays play Molina: he snatches enough extra strikes to make up for his slack bat.

Players like Ryan Doumit, on the other hand, have been hurt by the progress made in quantifying catcher defense. Doumit has always carried a poor defensive reputation -- they didn't call him "No Mitt" in Pittsburgh for nothing -- but we now have a better idea of just how much his glove nullifies his offensive advantage (108 career OPS+) over other backstops.

Now, Baseball Analytics has new catcher heat maps that help us visualize the difference in getting called strikes between the Molinas and Doumits of the word. Where does Molina get those extra strikes? Where does Doumit fall short? Here are their called strike rate heat maps since 2008:

Jose Molina

 

Ryan Doumit

Molina is especially adept at extending the strike zone vertically. With Doumit behind the dish, pitchers practically have to locate belt-high to get a guaranteed call (if the pitch isn't knocked into orbit, that is). Overall, 10.2% of pitches taken by hitters outside of the strike zone were called strikes over the past five seasons. Molina had the highest called strike rate on should-be balls (13.7%) over that time frame (minimum 10,000 pitches caught), while Doumit finished second-to-last (8%). The MLB average called strike rate on pitches thrown inside the strike zone was 77.8%. Molina had the sixth-highest rate among backstops (82.5%). Doumit? Dead last, at 70.4%.

Granted, catchers are not soley responsible for a pitch being called a ball or a strike. The type of pitch thrown, handedness of the pitcher and hitter, and the zone of the ump behind the plate that night are some of the other factors that influence balls and strikes. But over the course of many seasons and thousands of pitches, stark differences emerge among the best and worst catchers when it comes to stealing strikes on pitches thrown off the plate and getting strikes on pitches thrown over the plate. Here are the leaders and laggards in called strike rates among catchers over the past five years:

Highest called strike rate on pitches located outside of the strike zone, 2008-12 (minimum 10,000 P caught) 

 

Highest called strike rate on pitches located inside of the strike zone, 2008-12 (minimum 10,000 P caught)