Framing the Problem

As I sit down to write this post, Tim Lincecum is taking the mound to pitch against the Colorado Rockies. Catching him is Hector Sanchez. Now, as you may be aware, Sanchez has emerged as Lincecum’s “personal catcher,” which is to say that he always catches when Tim pitches. Never mind that the reigning National League MVP also plays catcher for the Giants, it’s worth noting that Sanchez isn’t very good. He isn’t very good at hitting, playing defense, or running the bases. Here is a chart of all of Lincecum’s starts since the beginning of 2012 (h/t Twitter user @carmerkiew). As you can plainly see, Sanchez has started 17 of Lincecum’s last 21 starts, with 3 of the 4 non-Sanchez starts coming when Hector was on the DL.

Sanchez’s hitting woes could take up an entire separate post, but I wanted to focus on one very specific part of Sanchez’s game that he struggles with – framing pitches. Now, this has been a somewhat popular subject recently, having been the subject of posts by Baseball Prospectus’ Sam Miller, and McCovey Chronicles’ Grant Brisbee. Both articles are excellent, and you should read them both if you haven’t. The BP article has lots of GIF’s if your interested, as well as the nitty gritty details as to some of the reasons why Sanchez struggles with this particular skill. In short, the key to getting more calls on borderline pitches is to be as quiet with your movements as possible. Don’t move the glove or your head around too much and you’ll get your fair share of borderline calls. Sanchez, however, is the opposite of quiet. His head especially is all over the place, as you can see in the GIF’s in the Miller article.

Research from 2008 came to the conclusion that the run difference between a called strike and a called ball was 0.13 runs.  Now, that may not sound like much, but pitchers throw around 3000 pitches per season. In the Brisbee article I linked to above, Grant notes that for every 27.3 pitches thrown to Sanchez, Hector loses a strike call he should have gotten. Over the course of a 3000 pitch season that’s 109.9 missed strike calls – or over 14 runs lost per season. Now, obviously, this isn’t taking everything into account. For instance, I didn’t look at the number of pitches that should have been called strikes that Sanchez successfully framed.

That being said, digging yourself into a 14-run hole before taking all the good things into account is less than ideal. And the fact of the matter is right now Lincecum needs all the help he can get. As I write this he’s given up 6 runs in 5 innings with 4 walks, bringing his season total up to 11 in 10 innings pitched. He walked Rockies pitcher Juan Nicasio – twice. His fastball is dead-straight and getting crushed, and his breaking pitches can’t find the zone (luckily the Rockies are swinging at them anyway).

And, of course, there’s a measure of overreaction going on here. Sanchez’s struggles last game were historic for him – 9 pitches called balls that should have been strikes is a career high – and indeed in the game I’m watching right now he’s been better. But if Lincecum is going to continue to trot out there every 5th day, and as long as Sanchez continues to catch him, this is something to keep an eye on.

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