New catcher Martín Maldonado has been an important asset to the Royals. While his bat has been more of a liability than anything else, its his work behind the plate that’s making him a valuable addition to the team.
And by valuable, I mean he’s dealing with a (currently) inadequate group of pitchers that should (and have the ability to) be doing more to keep the team in games.
Since the injury to Salvador Perez put the team into something of a quandary, the Royals have had Maldonado and Cam Gallagher to choose from as backstops. As unproductive as Maldonado has been at the plate, Gallagher is somehow much worse. Granted, Gallagher has only had 18 plate appearances but you would hope to expect something better than an -16 wRC+.
Maldonado is currently one of the best pitch-framers in baseball. His 1.6 FRM (framing runs) is tied with Jorge Alfaro of the Miami Marlins for fourth-best. Looking at defensive runs saved (DRS), Maldonado’s has five runs saved which ties him with Buster Posey and Austin Hedges for the league lead. He’s top-10 in Def as well (3.0) so it goes without saying he’s pulling his weight despite the offensive deficiencies.
Here’s a quick example of some strikes that Maldonado ‘created’ with his framing ability.
The benefits of pitching to the edges of the zone are exemplified chart created by Andrew Perpetua. The areas high in the zone and around the sides extending to both bottom corners of the strike zone show the disparity in exit velocity.
I spoke a while back to the proclivity of some of the Royals pitchers to throw to the edges and how a catcher with strong framing skills can help steal strikes. As it stands, they are throwing to the edge the second least of all teams and conversely have had pitches land out of the zone the second most.
The Royals are pretty average in terms of Edge/Heart ratio. Favoring the edge is clearly desirable, and for the Royals, it works out to 1.2 pitches on the edge of the zone for every middle zone pitch they throw.
Needless to say, Maldonado has had his work cut out for him.
Called Strikes plus Whiffs (CSW) can give us a little more clarity when it comes to pitch control. It takes the ratio of pitches taken and whiffed in relation to total pitches. For the Royals as a team, they have a CSW of 26.2%. That puts them ahead of only the Baltimore Orioles (25.3%).
This chart can help give a little context to these numbers.
Right now, Richard Lovelady, Jake Diekman, and Scott Barlow are the best on the pitching staff at 35.1%, 33% and 31.3% respectively. Three starters, Jorge Lopez, Jakob Junis, and Homer Bailey are also throwing to the edges under what is considered average.
Another metric you can look at for a some more context as to what catchers are doing to help pitchers is called strikes above average (CSAA). This stat accounts for various factors including the pitcher and umpire, with the former being their ability to hit their spots and the latter being their tendencies to call strikes in certain locations.
Right now, Gallagher (10th) is actually ahead of Maldonado (24th) but both are producing positive results. Maldonado has had four times as many framing chances as Gallagher so the ranking difference between the two can be taken with a grain of salt.
To get a better idea of the influence the catcher and umpire have had on balls and strikes, let’s take a look at a couple of charts. The Royals’ staff has thrown 40% of their pitches to the edge of the strike zone. The zone plot is pretty convoluted so I’ll just provide the link should you be curious.
What we want to know is how many erroneous calls beset the staff. Let’s start with called balls. It’s hard to make out but we can see a fair amount of non-strikes that landed in the zone.
18.3% of those pitches were actually in the strike zone. That’s quite a bit.
Here is the plot for all called strikes on the zone edge.
Of those, 32.9% called strikes were called incorrectly. Can we attribute this to Maldonado? Its hard to say. Without knowing his actions on each pitch, and being aware of his framing ability, we can assume that a large portion of those pitches being called in the favor of the Royals were thanks to Maldonado.
The Royals pitching staff is struggling and there aren’t any quick fixes. They are eighth-worst at preventing runs and a big reason for that is they give up line drive contact tied with the Texas Rangers for the highest rate in baseball. When that happens, the Royals allow a .621 batting average which is actually lower than their expected average.
While their ‘actual’ batting average against is right around the median, their expected metric has the seventh-largest spread. This means that we could see things getting worse should the line drive rate stick around where its at.
Maldonado is doing the best he can to help out the pitching staff. Historically he’s been a pretty good framer so this should be something he can maintain. However, until the pitchers can start to tighten up their command (and control), Maldonado’s job is going to be much harder than it needs to be.
*All data contained in this article is current as of April 24th and is courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Savant, and Bill Petti’s Baseball Tools.