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Pitch framing isn't a myth, as far as you know

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The data proves that pitch framing is a real thing, but at the same time, that data is very muddy. Let's see if we can clean some of it up and somehow make it even less believable in the process.

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Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Some people swear by the idea that pitch framing is a real, measurable skill that can be worth a large amount of extra called strikes (which means extra outs, extra runs prevented, and extra wins). Other people are really reluctant to accept that the way in which a catcher receives a pitch can actually influence whether the umpire calls it a ball or a strike.

That all by itself makes me giggle, because we Tigers fans all know full well that umpires aren't perfect.

perfect game

Oh boy, do we know.

I apologize for that. It's awfully early in this post to be casually dropping visual bombs that hurt your soul. I was just trying to prove a point: umpires make mistakes on even the most obvious of calls, so let's agree not to live in a fantasy world where they're not susceptible to being influenced by ultra-smooth catching skills. If we can't agree on that, I'm going to post that image again, and I really don't want to have to do that.

However, we also have to accept that umpires are influenced by a number of other factors when calling balls and strikes, so perhaps this whole pitch framing thing is being blown a bit out of proportion. Let's start with what we know for sure.

Pitch framing is undeniable

Ben Lindbergh wrote a fascinating piece for Grantland in 2013 called "The Art of Pitch Framing," and if you haven't read it, then we're done being friends for a while. Even if you don't read the whole thing, at least look at the animated GIFs and be amazed at the visual evidence. Pitches thrown in the same location, with the same speed and movement, called by the same umpire, are judged to be balls in some cases and strikes in others, all because the catchers in question had different levels of pitch framing ability.

Jose Molina is identified in the post as being the best practitioner of the art, and the numbers certainly support that. It's awfully hard to see all this as a coincidence.

And if that doesn't grease your leather, then look at an opposite example provided by Jeff Sullivan in 2015 in a post called "The Worst Called Ball of the Season." It's as bizarre as it is hilarious: a pitch right down the middle, fielded way out of position, and called a ball in the end.

Umpires prefer the background

In the book Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won (by L Jon Wertheim and Tobias Moskowitz), the authors look at other factors that can tilt an umpire's judgment in calling balls and strikes.

Game officials -- generally speaking, and with Joe West being the most obnoxiously obvious exception -- try to steer clear of letting their calls affect the outcome of the game, preferring to let the players decide how a game turns out.

Based on the PITCHf/x data, umpires correctly call strikes about 86 percent of the time, and correctly call balls around 88 percent of the time. But those numbers change quite a bit once the batter gets into a two-strike count, or a three-ball count.

On two-strike counts, the strike zone shrinks drastically, and according to the authors, "umpires make the correct call only 61 percent of the time." That's a 25 percent drop in accuracy, but apparently an umpire would rather be wrong than take the bat out of the hitter's hands.

Conversely, "when there are three balls on the batter (excluding full counts), the umpire will erroneously call strikes on the same pitches 20 percent of the time" -- good for 80 percent accuracy and a drop of eight percent.

In situations where the hitter or the pitcher is considered a "star player" ("any player in the top ten for receiving votes for MVP in any year"), hitters like Miguel Cabrera, for instance, "are much less likely to get a called third strike than are nonstar hitters," and "are less likely to get a called ball" that would lead to a walk. Umpires aren't favoring the stars, they're favoring staying the hell out of the way.

Similarly, "Aces are given slightly bigger strike zones, particularly on three-ball counts, consistent with a reluctance to influence the game by prolonging an outing."

Home field advantage means more strikes

In the world of baseball, home field advantage apparently has little to do with visiting teams being intimidated by hostile crowds, or with travel fatigue. According to the authors, the advantage exists primarily in the fact that umpires are influenced by the home crowd: "The most significant difference between home and away teams is that home teams strike out less and walk more -- a lot more -- per plate appearance than do away teams," because "home batters receive far fewer called strikes per pitch than away batters do."

This is even more true in critical moments. A combination of PITCHf/x data and leverage index data showed that "a home batter in crucial game situations will get a called strike only 32 percent of the time ... in the same situation, a batter from a visiting team gets a called strike 39 percent of the time."

The season-long effect is that "this adds up to 516 more strikeouts called on away teams and 195 more walks awarded to the home teams than there otherwise should be, thanks to the home plate umpire's bias."

As a fun side note, the authors also looked at the period of time between 2003 and 2008 when umpires were being monitored by the QuesTec UIS system in certain ballparks, and rather unsurprisingly, the data showed a very different result: When umpires knew they were being put under the microscope, "they actually gave more strikes and fewer balls to the home team ... home field advantage on balls and strikes didn't simply vanish; the advantage swung all the way over to the visiting team."

Still want robots calling all the balls and strikes? Home field advantage might become entirely a thing of the past, at least in baseball.

Putting it all together to conclude ... nothing

None of this means that pitch framing is a figment of the imagination. What it does mean is that there are many other influences at work. How many of Jose Molina's extra called strikes came on three-ball counts with a star hitter in the box, David Price pitching, and in crucial moments in home games when the umpire was more likely to call an extra strike anyway?

If umpires started calling fewer strikes for home teams when they were being monitored, are also aware of pitch framing and therefore more motivated to be extra-precise when a good catcher is behind the plate?

You can ask all of these same questions on the flip side of the coin if you like.

Maybe certain catchers (cough-James-McCann-cough-cough) aren't terrible pitch framers, maybe they just aren't getting the extra advantages of catching ace pitchers at home in critical game moments -- especially McCann. How many high-leverage situations could the tanking Tigers of 2015 have been in to begin with? Aside from half-a-season of David Price and the late-season emergence of "Good Justin Verlander," how many ace pitchers did McCann get to work with?

In the end, I don't know what all of this means. I just know I'm really, really sorry about that image I used earlier.