With David Ross retiring, and Miguel Montero moving into a back-up role, we knew that the Chicago Cubs’ pitch-framing efforts would take a step back in 2017. After all, each catcher was long known as one of the best framers in the game, and they showed it in 2016: at 4.9 Framing Runs above average, David Ross provided the 20th most framing value in 2016, according to BP. At 14.6, Miguel Montero provided the 4th most.
As a team, the Cubs were a whopping 23.2 Framing Runs above average in 2016, the second most in baseball, and one of only six teams above 9.0. They were in rare company.
So, even if the Cubs weren’t losing the best of Ross and Montero, you might project a little step back for the Cubs in 2017.
The step, however, was WAY back: in 2017, the Cubs were worth negative 9.8 Framing Runs, ranking 22nd in baseball.
That’s a swing of 33(!) runs from 2016 to 2017. On the conventional (statistically-demonstrated) wisdom that about 10 runs are worth a win, that’s three wins that the framing dive may have cost the Cubs over the course of the 2017 season. The 92-70 Cubs may well have been the 95-67 Cubs with no change in the performance of their hitters or pitchers. (And, well, they probably would have seen their postseason go exactly the same way … so this is extremely academic … but 95-67 sure feels a lot more dominant!)
Willson Contreras was the biggest offender for the Cubs in 2017. For all the great things he does behind the plate (not to mention at it), he struggled with framing by the metrics: his negative 6.3 Framing Runs was 98th out of 110 big league catchers. (Most of it came with the Tigers, but Alex Avila’s year was even worse: -10.7, 105th).
Why this is additionally interesting is because framing manifests itself in pitcher results. You’ll get no arguing or apologizing from me that Cubs pitchers dealt with issues in 2017, including command troubles that were far beyond the scope of the catcher’s duties. But at the margins, it sure seems plausible that the pitchers were hurt by a call that flipped in the other direction from 2016 to 2017, yielding a few more hitters counts, a few more walks, and fewer strikeouts.
As a team, the Cubs saw their 24.3% strikeout rate (3rd in baseball) in 2016 drop to 23.6% (8th) in 2017. They saw their 8.3% walk rate (18th) increase to 9.1% (24th). Those metrics cannot be solely (or even mostly?) attributed to the catchers’ framing, but you would expect to see movements in those directions if the framing took a big step back. So it’s kind of a “just sayin'” situation.
(As another check, I’m looking at the Cubs’ DRA (a BP metric that isolates pitcher performance from the influence of other factors to determined a pitcher’s “Deserved Run Average”) in 2016 and 2017, and sure enough, the pitching was much better in 2016 (3.77 DRA, 1st in baseball) than 2017 (4.29, 9th). Again: I’m definitely not saying this was all about the framing.)
Interestingly, even Contreras himself was much better in 2016, rating at 4.3 Framing Runs, which was 22nd best in baseball. In theory, framing metrics account for the umpire and the pitcher, so that shouldn’t be the explanation. Perhaps, with so much more on his plate and his continued development at the plate, Contreras simply took a step back in his framing development. Perhaps it hurt not to have Ross and Montero around.
Another oddity: the Cubs did add Rene Rivera late in the year – he of the 12th most framing runs in 2016 – but even he was not so great in 2017 overall, rating just about average.
On the whole, I’m not yet ready to say I can tell you exactly why the Cubs were so much worse at framing in 2017, nor am I willing to say it was a primary factor in Cubs pitchers taking a step back.