As it stands right now, the Yankees are set to break camp with Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli as the team’s catchers. Austin Romine was demoted yesterday, making it all but official. Cervelli has the most offensive upside of the duo based on past performance. Although he scuffled in AAA last year, he holds a respectable (for a catcher) .271/.339/.353 line in his MLB career which is more than Stewart could dream of contributing this year. Both are terrible hitters, but Cervelli is probably slightly less terrible. Defensively, Stewart has the clear advantage. While Cervelli had a strong reputation in the minors, his defense has been nothing short of terrible. He’s thrown out a laughable 14.1% of attempted base-stealers since 2010. Yes, he’s had a nice Spring Training in terms of throwing out runners, but we’ve yet to see how it’ll translate in the long run. Stewart, on the other hand, has a strong all-around defensive reputation. But possibly the biggest discrepancy between the two is tied to their pitch framing abilities.
According to Mike Fast’s research, Chris Stewart’s pitch framing was worth around 10 runs from 2007-2011. That’s pretty impressive considering he started only 63 games over that time. He also graded out very well last season according to Max Marchi of Baseball Prospectus. Cervelli was pegged at -4.1 runs in 141 starts. Albiet in a small sample, those are also some substantial discrepancies. Check out this article for a more in-depth analysis of Stewart’s pitch framing. It even has some .gifs.
Neither of these guys is anything special, but they do each have their strengths. All things considered, it’s not clear which one would be better served receiving the majority of the starts behind the plate. I doubt the Yankees will have a defined “starting catcher” and “backup catcher”. I would bet on them splitting the catching duties somewhere close to 50/50 unless one of them somehow gets on a hot streak. Given Stewart’s apparent pitch framing abilities though, I believe it would be in the team’s best interest to have him catch pitchers who are more apt to nibble at the corners of the plate rather than guys who pound the zone. This would theoretically give Stewart more opportunities to convert potential balls into strikes.
Looking at heat maps based on pitch locations is probably the best way to get an idea of where pitchers tend to throw most of their pitches. I’ve ranked the heat maps by Edge%. Edge% is essentially the percentage of a pitcher’s pitchers that were on the outside edges of the strike zone. With pitch framing, we’re more concerned with pitches that fall just outside of the strike zone. Nonetheless, a higher Edge% does a decent job of indicating if a pitcher is gunning for the corners more often. The heat maps are from Fangraphs.com and use PITCHf/x data. Note: I left out David Phelps due to his small sample of pitches as a starter.
Hiroki Kuroda‘s heat map indicates he relies heavily on pitches on the edge or outside of the plate. This makes a lot of sense considering about 30% of his pitches were sliders.
Andy Pettitte‘s map looks a little different since he faced a higher proportion of righties due to opposing manager’s platoons. Nonetheless, it’s pretty clear that he also shoots for the outside corner. Unsurprisingly, Pettitte also throws a high percentage of sliders (24.6%).
Looking at Michael Pineda‘s 2011 data, we see a similar story. He also threw lots of sliders (32%). His pitches caught more of the zone than Kuroda’s and Pettitte’s, but were generally near the outside edge of the plate.
Phil Hughes‘ pitches appear to be a little more centered over the heart of the plate. He doesn’t bother too much with the outside edges. He comes right at hitters by throwing his four-seam fastball 65.6% of the time and keeping it in the strike zone.
Ivan Nova is very similar to Hughes. For the most part, he pounds the zone with fastballs. It’s not hard to see why these guys give up so many long-balls.
C.C. Sabathia also keeps the ball over the plate the majority of the time. His white-zone is practically right down the middle. Interestingly, he threw his slide piece 31.8% of the time. Obviously, he’s used it as more of a challenge pitch than Pettitte and Kuroda have.
If anyone in the rotation would benefit from Stewart’s pitch framing, its Hiroki Kuroda. This is primarily because he throws so many pitches just outside of the zone. In this article, I estimated that a net of 40 umpire calls fell Kuroda’s way last season with Russell Martin (and some Stewart) behind the plate. Some of this might be attributable to Kuroda (and not Martin) “fooling” the umpire, but it’s worth noting that Martin has ranked extremely well in pitch-framing metrics. Kuroda also throws a very high proportion of high-movement pitches (73.7% sinkers, sliders, and curveballs) so his pitches might be a little difficult for the umpire to follow. Hence, it might make sense to have Stewart behind the plate to nudge the umpire in the Yankees’ direction. To a lesser extent, the same argument could apply for Pettitte and Pineda. They tend to nibble at the outside corners with their high-movement pitches.
On the other hand, Hughes, Nova, and Sabathia attack the zone and probably have a lower propensity for throwing borderline pitches. Having a good pitch-framer behind the plate would still be beneficial, but probably not quite as much as it would be with a guy like Kuroda on the hill. When these guys pitch, it might be better to get the offensive edge from having Cervelli’s bat in the lineup.
The amounts to be gained here are very small, but every slight advantage obviously helps. The Yankees’ catching situation is far from ideal. Nonetheless, they can perhaps gain a few runs this year by squeezing as much as they can out of the players they have. Chris Stewart’s pitch framing is probably the only above-average skill between these guys, so they should utilize it to their advantage as much as possible.
Photo by Keith Allison [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons