Coming into the season, we were on alert about Welington Castillo’s questionable pitch-framing ability thanks to a variety of third party sources on the subject. That tends to lead to bias when using our eyes to evaluate how he actually did this year, so I don’t necessarily trust that it felt like Castillo wasn’t much better this year than in the past (though still quite good at the other catching stuff).
According to one set of data, however, Castillo was indeed pretty bad at framing. Moreover, he wasn’t alone on the Cubs:
One way of looking at which catchers were worst at "pitch framing" last season pic.twitter.com/f7h0J6CGjk
— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) October 8, 2014
John Baker figures prominently there, right with Castillo in terms of strikes the team lost (arguably) because of poor framing. In other words, the Cubs got far fewer strikes than they should have gotten this year, based on where the pitches actually were. Sure, it could just be an umpire-related fluke, but the data – and the theory behind it – strongly suggests the Cubs lost these strikes because of the way their catchers received the ball. And we’re not talking about the Cubs not getting a framing advantage. We’re talking about the Cubs affirmatively losing strikes. This is a serious issue.
Baseball Prospectus generally agrees with Mark Simon’s calculations, placing the Cubs third worst in baseball, having lost about 228 strikes this year, and somewhere between 27 and 34 runs due to framing (though BP has Castillo as bad as Simon does, BP has Baker just about framing-neutral). StatCorner has Baker as slightly below average, and Castillo the second worst in baseball, ahead of only Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Rafael Lopez and Eli Whiteside, in small samples, come up negative as well. In total, StatCorner has the Cubs giving up about 30 runs thanks to poor framing, which is right in step with BP’s calculation.
A win is usually worth about 10 runs, so we’re talking about three *entire* wins the Cubs may have lost this year due to poor framing. Let that wash over you like a tartar sauce shower.
An important caveat: the last couple years we’ve really still only started to understand and analyze pitch-framing in a granular way that attempts to say “this is how many strikes you lost, thus this is how many outs you lost, thus this is how many runs you lost, thus this is how many games you lost.” I don’t think it’s unfair to say that this is not an exact science just yet, and many folks – me included – were really shocked to learn in the last 12 to 18 months just how valuable pitch-framing could be.
But … yeah. However you slice it, the Cubs were likely really bad at framing this year, and it cost them dearly. As we look ahead to a competitive window, this kind of thing is where seemingly middling teams can take a leap forward – or where seemingly strong teams can fail to get over the hump.
Since it was both of the Cubs’ primary catchers (and Lopez/Whiteside, too), I can’t help but wonder: is there a pitching component here? Something where certain kinds of pitchers tend not to get framing calls as consistently as others? I don’t think we can argue that the catcher is the main guy in the framing equation, but the pitcher’s movement and locating ability has to play a part, right?
BP lets you sort by battery, so you could dig into this more if you’d like. I don’t really see anything obvious. The only pitchers that show up in the bottom 100 for both Castillo and Baker are Jake Arrieta (damn, dude: how awesome could he have been if he hadn’t lost 44(!) strikes this year, or even better, had gotten some extra ones?) and Travis Wood. Those guys are totally different pitchers, with completely different sets of tools.
If you’re looking for the top framing catchers this year:
Which catchers got the most "strikes called above average" in 2014? (quantity, not percentage). Take a look pic.twitter.com/Ohz69Ivxru
— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) October 8, 2014
Russell Martin is obviously available as a free agent, and Miguel Montero is an obviously-available trade candidate. Just pointing it out.
However the Cubs do it, you’d like to see them address this issue going into next season. I love me some John Baker, but if the Cubs are going to have a light-hitting veteran back-up taking 1/3 of the starts, they’re probably going to need it to be someone who is superlative defensively, calls a good game, works well with pitchers and young players, and is a great framer.
As for the starter … I’m torn. There’s so much to like about Castillo’s game, and there remains some uncertainty about these framing calculations. But there’s a significant chance that Castillo is one of the worst framers in baseball, and it tangibly harms the Cubs to the tune of several extra losses per season. I don’t know that his bat and other defensive skills will ever make up for that.