Pirates catchers working hard to get — and keep — called strikes

Pirates catcher Michael McKenry receives a pitch in front of home plate umpire John Hirschbeck during a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Fla.
Pirates catcher Michael McKenry receives a pitch in front of home plate umpire John Hirschbeck during a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Fla.
Photo by Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Rob Biertempfel
| Saturday, March 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Even if it's meant as a compliment, don't tell a catcher he is good at “framing” pitches.

Framing is the subtle process of nudging the umpire to call a strike on a borderline pitch. It's done with a slight flick of the wrist after the ball is caught, just enough to get the glove in the strike zone.

It's like the “Shawshank Redemption” axiom that no convict ever admits he's guilty: No catcher will say he frames pitches.

However, there is a similar, time-honored and perfectly respectable art of persuading umps to call a strike.

“We like to call it receiving,” Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez said, grinning. “Framing is moving pitches back in the zone. Receiving is catching it where it is, holding it and, most importantly, not having any give with the glove.”

Framing, receiving ... whatever the name, Sanchez always has been good at it. One of the best in the business is Russell Martin, a seven-year veteran who joined the Pirates this year.

“It's not about stealing strikes. It's about trying to keep a strike (called) a strike,” Martin said. “Every once in a while, the umpire will make a bad call. If you catch the ball right, he'll get it right for you. Hopefully it helps the pitcher get out of a jam here and there.”

A good receiver must be a reliable, quiet target. Make it appear the ball went straight to the glove, which, of course, is in the zone. Less is more when it comes to movement. Low pitches are the hardest to receive well.

“That sinker down in the zone that a lot of catchers tend to knock out of the zone, that's the one you want to keep a strike,” Martin said. “It makes a big difference. One pitch can change a game.”

According to calculations by Baseball Prospectus researcher Mike Fast, Martin saved 71 runs from 2007-11 by getting extra strike calls on the fringes of the zone. The only catcher who was more prolific in that span was Tampa Bay's Jose Molina, who saved 73 runs.

Martin also ranks third in defensive runs saved, a metric that incorporates framing/receiving as well as a catcher's other defensive skills.

What does all this mean for the Pirates? Grab a calculator and follow along.

After the 2012 season, Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs computed how well each team did in getting strike calls on pitches in the zone. The Pirates ranked last in the majors, being robbed of 19 strikes per 1,000 pitches. The major league average was minus-5. The New York Yankees, with Martin as their everyday catcher, were plus-5.

The Pirates threw 22,811 pitches last season. So if the Pirates were 14 strikes worse than average, they lost out on 319 strikes over the season compared to other clubs.

Other stats wonks have estimated the difference in value between a called ball and a called strike is 0.13 runs. That means coulda-woulda-shoulda strike calls that never were cost the Pirates about 41.5 runs last year.

That's a significant number for a team that was outscored by 23 runs all season and finished four games under .500.

So, a good pair of hands behind the plate won't guarantee a trip to the World Series, but it could help snap the Pirates' 20-year run of losing seasons.

“I like to think I have pretty good hands,” backup catcher Michael McKenry said. “The biggest thing with receiving is time in the big leagues helps out a lot. You get to know the umpires. They get comfortable with you.”

In order for the mechanics of fram ing ... er, receiving to work, it helps if the catcher builds good rapport with the umpire.

“There's a certain point to where umpires know exactly what you're trying to do,” Sanchez said. “They know if you're trying to yank pitches back in the zone — and they hate it.”

Sanchez sheepishly admits he stole his share of strikes in high school and at Boston College. But at the pro level, it's not so easy to fool an umpire.

“Those guys have been doing it for just as long as you have,” Sanchez said. “They know your tricks. So when you catch it and hold it still, it looks a lot better than when you drag it back.”

Early in his career, Martin would let frustration get the better of him when a call didn't go his way. Eventually he realized yelling and whining was counterproductive.

“You want to win at all costs, and that mentality got me in trouble,” Martin said. “Now I still want to win, but I don't want the umpire to be upset with me because that won't help us in the long run. The best way to have a relationship with the umpires is just be honest with them.”

Even if that means using an occasional “honest” flick of the wrist.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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