Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Passed balls, wild pitches and pitch framing

If you don't have a catcher, you have a lot of passed balls.
Casey Stengel

The one position at which the 2017 Twins are truly different than in 2016 is catcher. The new front office got rid of all three of 2016's backstops. And with the Twins on the verge of becoming the first team to go from 100-plus losses to the playoffs, I thought it worth looking at the difference.

Last year's backstops were Kurt SuzukiJuan Centeno and John Ryan Murphy. They caught every inning in 2016.

Jason Castro and Chris Gimenez have done the bulk of the 2017 catching, with Mitch Garver getting a handful of starts behind the plate so far and Eduardo Escobar picking up one inning.

The new front office was explict about seeking to improve "pitch framing" in particular and, presumably, defense in general and was willing to sacrifice some hitting to accomplish that.

Last year I commented, either here or in the Monday print column, with some frequency on the number of passed balls and wild pitches the Twins were giving up. The 2016 Twins allowed 83 wild pitches and nine passed balls: 92 in 1,443 innings, or 0.57 per nine innings. In essence, the Twins last year gave up one (or more) bases every other game.

This year, Gimenez alone has been charged with 10 passed balls. But the wild pitchers have dropped from 83 to 51. and the total (WP plus PB) is down to 66, a rate of 0.42 per nine innings.

What to make of this?

The difference between a passed ball and a wild pitch is artificial, a binary parsing of blame between pitcher and catcher. A pitch is uncaught, a runner (or runners) advance(s), and one individual is blamed by the official scorer for the event. Some wild pitches are truly the pitcher's fault; some come because the catcher failed to block a pitch that was exactly what the pitcher intended to throw (a slider in the dirt with two strikes, for example). Meanwhile, the catcher who leads the league in passed balls is almost always the guy who catches the most knuckleballs. (That's not the case this year.)

This is why I tend to combine WP and BP. I'm interested in the result less than the blame.

That said, the artifical difference in this case may be illuminating. Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press noted when the Twins signed Castro that, while his pitch framing stats were very impressive, his passed balls were relatively high.

What may be going on, particularly for Gimenez: The perfect can become the enemy of the good. In attempting to perfectly receive a marginal pitch -- that is, catching it with a still glove at the edge of the strike zone -- the catcher miscalcuates and misses the pitch entirely. It's a trade off, and presumably the Twins are willing to accept a few more passed balls for more called strikes.

Castro and Gimenez have hit about as well (or poorly) as we should have expected. They have also been what was expected behind the plate as well -- a defensive upgrade from Suzuki and Centero.

Suzuki, who was the Twins' regular catcher for three seasons, re-signed with the Atlanta Braves for 2018 last week. He's had a rather impressive season as a half-time catcher in Atlanta, popping 18 homers in less than 300 plate appearances (he tallied 16 total with the Twins).

And good for him. I doubt the Twins regret the change on their end.

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