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Why is Salvador Perez a bad pitch framer?

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A catcher not named Salvador Perez hasn’t won a gold glove at catcher since 2012 (Matt Wieters). That makes four-straight gold gloves for Perez, 40% the way to the probably unbreakable record of consecutive catcher gold gloves by Ivan Rodriguez from 1992-2001 (10). He is halfway to the second closest streak in Yadier Molina’s eight-straight from 2008-2015 (broken this year by Buster Posey).

There is no doubt that Perez is a good defender. He gets good grades for throwing out runners (though newer metrics that consider the baserunner and pitcher in the play disagree) as well as being known as being a Will Shields-esque blocker when it comes to pitches in the dirt. One metric though he isn’t loved as much by is pitch framing. Ever since the public inclusion of pitch framing in our general spectrum of (trying to) understanding defensive metrics, Perez has been against the grain probably larger than anyone. It’s hard to see someone who is revered for his defense, to be so low on a particular metric. However not every player is perfect, and hell, even Mike Trout strikes out 20% of the time. It’s of course possible to be one of the best hitters/defenders in baseball without being perfect in every aspect.

So let’s look a little deeper into his pitch framing and try to understand perhaps why he is graded out so poorly there.

First overall, let’s look at how Perez stands among his fellow catchers:

This is from 2013-2016 among catchers with at least 3,000 pitches caught each season. Perez ranks 27th out of 33 in framing runs. This past year Perez ranked 43rd out of 46 catchers with 3,000+ pitches caught. Year-by-year, Perez hasn’t had a single season being above 0:

In 2013 he came close, but still he has had three seasons of -10 or worse framing years.

If you want to know how the sausage is made, all the writers at Royals Review have a monthly email thread. In this month’s thread we wondered if maybe Perez’s height had something to do with his poor framing? Do tall catchers do worse? Generally the bottom of the zone is most exploited, and taller players may have issue with the bottom than their shorter stature peers.

At first glance, no, that’s not really the case. Taller catchers don’t appear to be worse pitch framers than shorter catchers, nor do shorter catchers appear to be particularly good just because of their height. Dioner Navarro is the shortest catcher on this list (almost a foot shorter than Matt Wieters) and yet is one of the worst pitch framers out there. Buster Posey and Yasmani Grandal are both average height on here yet both are the best pitcher framers on the board. Also you’ll notice the really small r-squared value of .002, which is effectively 0.000.

If we break it down into buckets by standard deviations (Z-Score) above/below the mean height of the catchers, the buckets look like this:

It actually looks like both ends of the spectrum average worse than the middle three buckets. It doesn’t really mean anything but maybe you could argue that there is a Goldilocks height to framing.

Pitch framing is about both stealing strikes and preventing balls. You want to turn pitchers on the edge of the frame and out into strikes. You also want to be sure that pitches in the zone are called strikes. It feels like a lot of the attention is mostly given to those close pitches being turned to strikes. That’s rightfully so since they are the far majority of pitch framing chances. Balls thrown in the zone are normally strikes, but balls along the edge could be 50/50 calls.

First we’ll see how Perez does on making sure pitches in the zone are strikes.

As far as making strikes strikes, Perez seems to struggle more with pitches lower in the zone than anywhere else. Here is an example:

That’s a 1-0 curveball from Joakim Soria that according to PitchF/X crosses the plate. Perez even tries his best to bring the ball back up after receiving the pitch but it doesn’t fool the umpire. Perez has a bit of an exaggerated and excess movement of his glove when he receives. He has both a stabbing motion and a wrist turning motion. It used to be all about calling pitches and leading your rotation, but now turning balls in strikes is the thing. The true key to pitch framing is a quiet glove, making it look like you didn’t have to move at all. However umpires don’t like pitchers framing pitches. This goes against their primary job of calling ball/strikes naturally. They don’t want to be deceived.

Here’s Sal ensuring a close pitch on a 3-2 count gets called his way.

No wrist turn but there is some obvious movement at the angle we see.

The left image is where Perez caught the ball initially. The right is where he “framed” it for the umpire to make a decision; one that was ultimately deemed a strike. The ball is caught right at Bryce Harper’s crouched knees, but Perez brought it up to his hamstrings to sway the call.

Among catchers with 10,000+ pitches caught last year, Perez first on balls in the zone on a count basis, and seventh on a rate basis (of total pitches caught).

So we know about balls in the zone, but what about converting would-be-balls to are-called-strikes (out of zone strikes)?

Still more of the same, as Sal finds himself near the bottom. It’s not as if he’s really bad at one part of framing and okay at another, but it’s an all around thing. The third column is out of zone strikes as a percent of total pitches. What I also wanted to look at is what I called conversions. A catcher can only turn a ball into a strike if he’s given the chance of an out of zone pitch. So I looked at only pitches out of the zone and then looked at how often the catcher “converted” those opportunities into strikes. Still, our Sal is there at the bottom. Finally, the last column sets 100 as the league average and any point +/- that is 1% better/worse than it in each respective stat (so Perez is 7% worse than league average on both Out of Zone Strike% and Conversion%).

As far as where Perez might be the worst at when it comes to turning balls to strikes appears to be on the right side of his zone:

Those are all balls and the bottom right corner has some bleed of red into the zone (meaning a lot of pitches thrown there). Here is Buster Posey’s heatmap next to Perez’s:

You see that Posey doesn’t have that bleeding in the bottom middle and right. He also has does a little better on the edges too (hence a smaller white oval), owning that inside to right handed hitters section.

Perez seems to do okay at making that bottom left edge (inside to right handed hitters). Here is probably his best framed pitch of last year:

That location is called a ball 80% of the time. Sal has very little movement of his love, and in particular no wrist turn. Here is Yadier Molina missing a similar pitch:

The biggest difference between Perez and Molina there is the pre-movement. Perez barely moves his glove at any point, where Molina starts from inside the zone and moves it out. If a catcher can freeze his glove the entire time, it makes the pitch much more appetizing to the umpire. But if a catcher starts in the zone and moves out, it’s much easier to tell that it was a ball.

"If you're not starting lower than the ball, your natural move is going to be to go this way with the ball." Here, he makes a downward groping motion with his left hand. He added, "That's not going to look presentable." - Buster Posey

One final thing I wanted to look at (my apologies if I’ve thrown enough graphs and tables in your face today) is how Perez does between the two halves of the season. Perez is notorious for breaking down in the second half of the year, likely due to be overworked. We know there is probably some effect that the large playing time has on his offense, but what about his defense?

Yeah, it looks like he does. Using FanGraphs defensive metric, this is the average first and second half defense. Perez had the second biggest decline based on the per half average. Most catchers decline (catching is hard) but Perez is in the higher band. That’s just for overall defense, and FanGraphs defense doesn’t include pitch framing (yet), so let’s try to look at out of zone strikes by first and second half for the above catchers (note that this data only goes back to 2015).

Nothing particular here. Perez’s overall defense may decline but it doesn’t look like his framing (in)ability changes much after the All-Star break.

Pitch framing is definitely a skill but it doesn’t seem as if Perez has made any progress in getting better on it. In that linked article, Jeff Sullivan wonders if the spread between the best and worst framer is getting more narrow. Maybe Perez’s poor framing will continue to be less of a liability over the next few years. The other question is how much overall impact pitch framing is to begin with and how much weight in overall catcher defense should it get. That’s really, really, really hard to answer. For now, Perez will probably continue to win Gold Gloves despite his poor framing, and that’s okay. Everything will be okay, I promise.