The Secret Behind The Plate


May 2, 2014; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Padres catcher Rene Rivera (44) throws the ball to first for an out against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The analytic side of baseball is a cat and mouse game. One team starts shifting, a few follow, and eventually the whole sport is doing it for almost every hitter. The same has followed to pitch framing. We’ve understood receiving pitches is a skill ever since the beginning of the sport, but we had no idea how much. The Rays sparked the framing movement, signing the old and overweight Jose Molina in 2012. Molina offered no value whatsoever in any way, except for getting his pitchers some extra strikes. Teams started piling on the bandwagon, some more than others, and eventually the baseball community caught wind of what happened. Now we have different methodologies to determine framing value, with some estimates saying the best can add up to four wins. Looking at the leaderboards, it’s easy to tell, the Padres’ catchers are among the best in the game.

According to Stat Corner, Rene Rivera has been the third-best framer and Yasmani Grandal has been the seventh. They’ve caught over 80% of innings thrown by Padres’ pitchers, and have saved more runs above average (RaA) than any other tandem at 11.7. Nick Hundley, who has caught the remaining 20% ranks 20th with 1.3 runs RaA. The pitching staff has benefited tremendously, since they’ve had the fifth worst Zone%, which is pitches in the strike zone as determined by PITCHf/x. Yet they still have the fourth best walk rate in the majors despite the lack of strikes. Rivera and Grandal are stealing strikes on the corners and edges for the entire pitching staff, which is forcing opposing hitters to expand their strike zone. Padres’ pitchers are getting batters to swing at 30.2% of pitches outside of the zone, seventh best in the league.

Now let’s dig deeper into how they’re stealing so many strikes.

Yasmani Grandal catching

Huston Street

This pitch is on the outside edge, a little off the black. Grandal does a fantastic job keeping his body turned towards the plate and his arm steady, to make it appear to hit the outside third. If his arm would have to reach to catch the ball, it appears farther from the zone. His calm and smooth receiving style catches the ball all in one motion, which helps him bring it in and sell the umpire on the final strike of the game.

Rene Rivera catching

Kevin Quackenbush

Again, Rivera keeps his body quiet and his glove stiff to sell the final strike. It was off the plate but Rivera turned his body so well that it appears to hit the heart. We can see how important positioning is, because if he sets up closer to the middle there’s no way he gets the call.

Nick Hundley catching

Alex Torres

This frame was such a steal that it ended up getting the batter, Nolan Arenado, thrown out on the ensuing argument. Look at how his body stays calm but he brings his glove up with little noise. He sets up so far away that when he has to move towards the middle of the plate to catch it he earns the benefit of the doubt from the umpire. Even though Hundley is the worst framer of the Padres’ triumvirate, he still shows off the skills that make the other two so special.

It’s not easy to get a catcher who can steal extra strikes for his team, much less three. The Padres are lucky enough to have not only three of the best framing catchers, but also one of the best receiving prospects in Austin Hedges. It’s clearly an organizational philosophy, and it’s paid off so far. Even though the Padres remain six games under .500, they’ve been held afloat by the extra runs saved by the backstops. Next time you watch, make sure to look behind the plate at the skills being shown off; it’s a special treat few teams can offer.