Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

david ross cubsAfter learning that Welington Castillo was particularly bad at framing pitches last year, the topic (and skill) of receiving became especially important to Chicago Cubs fans. Indeed, the front office valued pitch framing so highly that they acquired Miguel Montero and David Ross – two noted framers – despite the presence of the younger, cheaper Castillo (who still had plenty of offensive upside). Yesterday, the Cubs traded Castillo to the Mariners.

Today, although framing is discussed widely and openly throughout the game, we often forget to analyze the impact of extra strikes given/taken from batters (like Jorge Soler, for example), as opposed to just what your catcher provides.

In an enlightening piece at FanGraphs, though, Jeff Sullivan does his best to remind us, that getting “extra” strikes can help (or hurt) you on both sides of the plate.

Expressing the results by team, Sullivan created a chart displaying the extra strikes (called) a team has received while pitching, compared to the extra strikes (called) a team has taken while batting. Presenting the results as whole number above or below zero, Sullivan calculates the Total Strike Zone Benefit each team has received so far in 2015. For more detail on his method, as well as the rest of the league’s results, check out his article.

The Cubs’ Total Strike Zone Benefit (-6) is exactly middle of the pack, 15th in baseball. The Dodgers (83), Orioles (77) and Rangers (52) lead the way with the most strike calls total in their favor; while the Phillies (-66), Diamondbacks (-52) and Royals (-52) come in at the bottom of the league in strike zone benefit. As far as the NL Central goes, the Cardinals (5), Brewers (22) and Pirates (46) are ahead of the Cubs, while the Reds (-18) haven’t been quite as good and/or lucky.

While the Total Strike Zone Benefit number does a good job of depicting the results we’ve seen thus far, separating it out into two categories (pitching and batting) helps offer a little more understanding. In that regard, the Cubs’ numbers are almost too obvious.

As a team, Cubs pitchers have received 43 extra strike calls than they otherwise should have. By my count, the Cubs’ 43 extra strikes on defense is third best in baseball, behind only the Pirates (64) and the White Sox (47). That is an expected and welcomed result, no doubt thanks to the presence of Montero and Ross, as well as the surprisingly positive performance of Castillo in that regard before he was dealt.

On the other hand, Cubs hitters have been saddled with 49 strikes called that should have actually been recorded as balls. That number is good for second worst in baseball, behind only the Diamondbacks. It is a frustrating reality, and not one that has gone unnoticed.

I do see a silver lining, though.

We know that the Cubs have made a concerted effort to increase their framing skills behind the plate, and it has clearly been a great success. The Cubs brought in the guys that they thought could do the job, and so far they have been spot on.

Additionally, and most importantly, the framing (pitching) side of this statistic is the only one directly in control of the Cubs. Cubs hitters can’t do much in terms of deciding who will be framing the pitches they’re facing; it is out of their control. When something is out of a team’s control, it is not, then, necessarily something repeatable and predictable. Thus, in theory, the Cubs can probably expect some positive regression in that regard, which should bring their overall Total Strike Zone Benefit up significantly, as the calls begin to normalize.

One easily understandable reason you might expect the Cubs’ hitting strike zone benefit to normalize, other than regular statistical regression, is because of the schedule. Out of the Cubs’ 37 games in 2015, 10 have come against the Pirates, who have benefited the most on defensive strike calls in all of baseball (Francisco Cervelli, for example, is a noted framer). Facing the best framing team in baseball multiple times is going to cause you some strike zone grief on offense (the Cardinals are also way up there on the pitching side, and the Cubs have faced them six times). The Cubs will stop playing the top framing teams for a while, those catchers will annoy hitters throughout the rest of the league, and the numbers will even out – you know, hopefully.

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