One of the latest trends in sabermetrics is the tracking and calculation of pitch framing statistics for catchers. The premise is simple: how many strikes can a catcher "add" to his team's total with superior receiving skills? There are still a lot of caveats to the general theory behind it, but even the initial attempts at quantifying this phenomenon have shed some light on another important component to a catcher's abilities.
The art of pitch framing has been around for decades, though. Catchers haven't always called it "pitch framing," but the general principles seem to be the same. Jason Kendall revealed as much in his new book -- Kwisatz Haderach's excellent FanPost sold me a copy, by the way -- in which he says "There's no such thing as pitch framing," then goes on to describe every aspect of pitch framing theory in stunning detail.
Kendall isn't the only old school catcher who has given his opinion on pitch framing, though. Rob Neyer of Fox Sports recently wrote an article titled "All hail Brad Ausmus, pitch-framing king," in which he describes how Ausmus was one of the elite pitch framing catchers of the past 25 years.
Neyer starts by posing a question that many Tigers fans have asked about another backstop in recent years.
I was doing this sort of work during nearly all of Ausmus’s career, and I’m sure that more than once I wondered aloud why teams kept giving Ausmus 400-600 plate appearances every season. Of course they told us it was because of his tremendous work behind the plate. Which I bought, but only to a point.
Then he briefly touches on how pitch framing could have contributed to Ausmus' true value.
Well, now it makes a lot more sense. And if you really buy into the methodology, you might make the case that Ausmus’s true "value" was maybe twice what the current Wins Above Replacement methods, exclusive of pitch-framing, suggest.
As fate would have it, Neyer ran into Ausmus at the Winter Meetings, and asked about pitch framing. He summed up his conversation with another brief article, centered around a short quote from the skipper.
"Some of these things," he told me, "can be taught, especially to younger, maturing catchers. It's tough for me, positionally speaking, to get overly involved in those things."
It's unfortunately that Neyer and Ausmus weren't able to expand this conversation a bit, but a busy end to the Winter Meetings shows why Ausmus might have been in a hurry. When Ausmus says "positionally speaking," he's referring to the fact that, as the Tigers' manager, he has too much responsibility to spend an abundant amount of time with the team's catchers.
However, I wonder if Ausmus' expertise might play a role in how the Tigers value Alex Avila, James McCann, and the other young catchers in the organization. With Avila set to become a free agent after the 2015 season, will the Tigers give McCann the starting job? Or would they retain Avila on a multi-year contract?
These questions will be answered in due time, but with Ausmus as the manager, it makes me wonder if the team feels more comfortable handing the reins to McCann in 2016. He may not be able to spend the entire season as McCann's personal catching coach, but having Ausmus in his ear the entire 2015 season could prove beneficial if Avila leaves via free agency.