How Brewers 'frame' pitches can make all the difference
Feb 27, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Milwaukee Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy (20) slides safely into home plate after Oakland Athletics catcher Derek Norris (36) misplays a ball during the third inning at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Image by Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
At first glance, it's obvious that Jonathan Lucroy was one of the most valuable Brewers in 2013. If you glance even further, you'll "frame" even more of a reason for his value.
In 580 plate appearances, he hit .280 with a .340 OBP and slugged .455 with 18 homers and 82 RBI. His production became even more highly valued after the team was hit with injuries to key players and the loss of the 2011 Most Valuable Player, Ryan Braun.
If you take a second glance, to venture into the world of "pitch framing," you'll see that Lucroy was even better than the standard numbers indicated. By better, we're talking about top-four-catchers-in-all-of-baseball-better.
On Michael Carruth of StatCorner's pitch-framing leaderboard, Lucroy led all catchers by a wide margin in 2013 in runs saved by framing at 31.1, besting noted backstop stalwarts Russell Martin and Yadier Molina.
What exactly is pitch-framing? How a catcher turns what should be a ball into a strike and vice-versa.
Pitch-framing numbers are typically determined using Pitch F/X data to calculate it. It isn't a perfect system, especially considering the prevalence of the human element in calling balls and strikes, but it gives a good picture of who's good at it and who's not.
As the numbers show, Jonathan Lucroy is definitely good at it.
Framing a pitch requires more than a slight move of the glove toward the zone after catching the ball. Much of what factors into getting a strike call are the pitcher, pitch type, and of course, the umpire.
Lucroy himself doesn't call it framing; he calls it "receiving."
The less movement of the body, the better the results.
For Lucroy, this includes proper positioning prior to the pitch, making adjustments based on the pitch called, the pitcher's command, and umpire's strike zone. After the pitch crosses the plate, Lucroy's process of calls "stopping" the pitch and giving the umpire a chance to see it, as opposed to yanking it back into the zone, is more likely to get a called strike for a result.
It's about being smooth and fundamentally sound behind the dish. Last season, it resulted in 234 additional strikes for Brewers pitchers.
It's not sexy, but it seems to be working for Milwaukee's home-grown catching talent.
Backup Martin Maldonado, known for his quick release and strong arm to nab base runners, is also equally as effective in helping stop players from getting a chance to test his arm on the basepaths.
Carruth's metrics rank Maldonado tenth among all catchers and fourth in the National League in runs saved via framing, despite receiving over 6,000 fewer pitches than Lucroy.
Baseball Prospectus even rates Maldonado's Framing Runs per 7000 pitches at 29.5 runs, better than Lucroy and second in all of baseball, behind Jose Molina.
It almost goes unnoticed with the flashiness of Maldonado's throwing arm, which has thrown out over 31 percent of base stealing attempts dating back to 2012.
Are the Brewers better at teaching their young catchers than other teams? or if Lucroy and Maldonado are both just really good at it and, per chance, are both on the same team?
It seems to be a specialization of the system. While Brewers' home-grown pitching has not met expectations in recent years, two of the most valuable defensive catchers in baseball today are both products of the system.
Is it the Brewers' "secret weapon?"
The secret is starting to get out now, but as long as Lucroy and Maldonado continue to be among the leaders in pitch-framing, I'm sure Kyle Lohse, Yovani Gallardo, and company won't mind.