Brewers' Lucroy, Pirates' Martin steal strikes behind plate
In the battle between hitter and pitcher, the ball-strike count is paramount. When batters enjoyed the advantage in the count last season, they produced a collective .957 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) — about 40 points above the mark posted by NL MVP Andrew McCutchen. When they fell behind, however, they posted a Clint Barmes-esque .504 OPS.
This weekend, the hitter-pitcher battle between the Pirates and Brewers may well be determined by the men squatting behind home plate.
Sabermatricians have discovered that catchers play a major role in influencing the count through “pitch framing” — the art of getting called strikes on borderline pitches. Pirates backstop Russell Martin and Milwaukee's Jonathan Lucroy are elite pitch-framers, and their handiwork could transform sluggers into banjo hitters.
Turning a would-be ball into a strike produces a swing in value of about 0.16 runs, according to analyst Tom Tango. Catchers receive thousands of pitches per season, so those turned calls add up.
Lucroy was the game's best pitch-framer last season, saving his team more than 30 runs compared to an average catcher. Martin's subtle sway over umpires saved nearly 20 runs. In 2012, by contrast, the Pirates' main backstops (Mike McKenry and Rod Barajas) were 26 runs below average. Pirates offseason pickup Chris Stewart, currently rehabbing a knee injury, ranked second in Pitch Framing Runs last year with the Yankees.
Catcher Pitch Framing Runs
Jonathan Lucroy +31.1
Chris Stewart +22.7
Yadier Molina +19.8
Jose Molina +19.3
Hank Conger +18.1
Russell Martin +17.9
Lucroy and Martin excel at getting calls on pitches thrown inside the strike zone and off the plate. Those out-of-zone calls are especially crucial for control-challenged arms like Francisco Liriano and Wily Peralta (Friday's scheduled starters) and Edinson Volquez (Saturday).
In-zone Out-of-zoneCatcher strike pct. strike pct.
Jonathan Lucroy 89.8 8.8
Russell Martin 87.9 8.3
Avg. MLB Catcher 85.5 7.2
David Golebiewski is a freelance writer.
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