Brian McCann does a lot of things well on a baseball field. He’s an excellent hitter who also plays the most premium defensive position in baseball, and he plays it very well. One of the traits that makes McCann such a good defender is his pitch framing — his ability to fool umpires into calling pitches out of the zone as strikes. Despite catching just 92 games last year, his framing was worth 22 runs above average according to Baseball Prospectus, good for fifth in baseball.
Thanks to research done by Dan Turkenkopf and Mike Fast, pitch framing has become a hot topic over the last couple of years. The value of framing is starting to gain traction from major league teams as well. The Rays just awarded a two-year deal to Jose Molina — an overweight, 39-year-old, no-hit catcher — solely because he’s superb at framing pitches.
Unlike many other teams, the Yankees have been putting a premium on framing for a few years now, even before they belatedly moved Jorge Posada, one of the worst framers in baseball, out from behind the plate. This ideology can probably be traced back to Tony Pena, who took over as the Yankees bench coach and catching instructor prior to the 2006 season. In a Grantland article by Ben Lindbergh from earlier this year, Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli credited Pena with helping them hone their framing craft. Pena was quite the framer himself, so it’s no surprise that he’s put such an emphasis on the skill. In fact, he might have been the best pitch framer the game has ever seen. Research done by Max Marchi of Baseball Prospectus credits Pena for 248 runs saved through framing over his career, more than any other catcher since 1948.
Since Pena’s been in the fold, the Yankees have acquired and/or developed a parade of strong pitch framers. Mid-way through 2006, they traded for Sal Fasano, a good pitch framer who is now the roving catching instructor for the Blue Jays; and in 2007, they brought in Jose Molina, arguably the best pitch framer of our generation. Since Posada moved off the position in 2011, the vast majority of the catching duties have fallen to Russell Martin, Chris Stewart, Austin Romine, and Francisco Cervelli, all of whom grade out very well in the framing department. Even J.R. Murphy was one of the top framers in the high minors last year. The Yankees also sold high on top prospect Jesus Montero who was one of the worst framers in baseball before the Mariners inevitably moved him to first base.
The team’s reliance on framing also explains what had appeared to be a strange fetish for Chris Stewart, who they acquired three times in a five year span. The rest of Stewart’s defensive game is questionable and he certainly can’t hit, but he does save some runs through his pitch framing. He was miscast as an everyday catcher in 2013, but he’s not as useless as he looks.
Unlike Stewart, Brian McCann brings more to the table than pitch framing — he’s paid the big bucks because he’s a great hitter who plays a position where offense is hard to come by. Nonetheless, the Yankees have had a penchant for pitch framers for a few years now and the McCann signing continues that trend — McCann’s an excellent pitch framer and could conceivably get even better under Tony Pena’s tutelage.
Pretty much everyone knew framing was a skill well before the first study dropped — the art of catcher framing has been around for as long as there have been catchers, but nobody really knew how to quantify it. It’s hard to say if the Yankees were doing some type of internal statistical analysis or simply felt that catcher defense had gone unheralded, but it’s clear that they were onto something that many other teams weren’t.
Photo by Ryan Leary (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons