Baseball is full of little details the casual fan might not notice during a game, but catching is usually at the center of it all.
Pitch framing, which is a catcher’s ability to present a pitch well to the umpire and making sure a strike is indeed called a strike, is one of the most-studied details in baseball right now.
The Augusta GreenJackets have used a group of catchers who have been steady this season. Their framing abilities have been a part of the pitching staff’s success.
While some focus on a catcher’s ability to turn balls into strikes, the GreenJackets’ catchers said playing the position has more to do with securing correct calls.
“Your job is to catch what they throw, and whether it’s a strike or not, isn’t up to you,” catcher/infielder Ben Turner said. “If you’re catching balls and pulling pitches back into the strike zone, you’re probably not getting called strikes. It’s just catching the ball and giving the umpire a good look at what they’re throwing.”
Recent studies have revolutionized a catcher’s perceived value based on his ability to frame pitches and secure strikes.
Mike Fast, now an analyst for the Houston Astros, published a study for Baseball Prospectus that concluded pitch framing can have a major impact on saving strikes, outs and runs.
There are techniques that have helped save runs, and are being introduced earlier in a catcher’s career.
Augusta catcher Trevor Brown offered a technique he uses to secure a correct call, which has less to do with pulling pitches into the zone and more to do with the umpire’s perception.
“You make the pitch look as good as it possibly can for the umpire,” he said. “He sits behind you and, with his perception, you want to catch the ball in the center of your body, because if you catch it outside your body, in his perception it’s going to be outside the strike zone, too. So I always think even if it’s a little on the corner, just center the ball up on my body, because if I do that, for him behind me, it’s going to look like a strike more.”
Augusta catchers added another factor to sticking a pitch and securing a strike: anticipating and beating the ball to the spot.
“It’s like physics,” said Brad Moss, who is in his first season of pro ball. “If the ball and glove are in the same spot, they’ll go the same way. If you beat the ball before it gets there, you might stick the strike instead of pulling it out of the zone and possibly losing a strike. Guys with really strong downward movement on their fastballs, you really have to beat it to the spot or the ball will take your glove out of the zone.”
Brown said GreenJackets closer Tyler Mizenko is an example of a pitcher with strong downward movement. He said Mizenko’s hard sinker will come toward his left knee, so he moves his glove there before the pitch arrives, rather than allowing the glove to move with the momentum of the pitch.
These techniques are being implemented at younger ages and in different situations. Brown said during lessons he offered this past off-season, he talked to 8-year-olds about framing pitches.
While training in Venezuela, Eliezer Zambrano said he learned on a pitch machine.
“They put it (on) fastball and move side to side, because in Venezuela we don’t have too many guys throwing two-seamers like Dominicans,” he said.
As the catchers continue to move up the system, umpires tend to be more consistent with experience, and their framing abilities take on a greater role.
A player training to catch a ball might seem elementary, but it’s just one more detail in a game full of them; execute them well and the result is an efficient machine that wins more games.