Pittsburgh Pirates: Catcher Defensive Problems Remain

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

The Pittsburgh Pirates rise to prominence included focusing in on the inefficiencies of the market.  Finding undervalued talents, with the biggest being pitch framing.  However, along with other areas of defense, that has gone down for the Pirates in recent years.

The Pittsburgh Pirates since 2011 have seen the likes of Ryan Doumit to Rod Barajas to Russell Martin and now to Francisco Cervelli start the as the Pirates catcher.  Half of that list is a group of catchers who probably should’ve been moved elsewhere on the diamond, and they happen to be the first two on the list.

The 2013 season brought the change to focusing on Russell Martin and catcher defense was an underrated talent in the market.  When he left in free agency, the Pirates rolled the dice on Francisco Cervelli and his health.  But with the addition of Cervelli, the Pirates led the league in framing runs in 2015.

However, Cervelli and the Pirates have seen a decrease in the framing levels in the recent years.  The Point of Pittsburgh writer Jake Smail hypothesized that could relate to his concussion history, and he has since that writing been removed from a game due to a foul ball off the mask.  It’s not just the framing that has seen a decline, it’s other areas relating to catcher defense.

Below is data since 2011 (two years before the Pirates focused in on the tool) through the present season from Baseball Prospectus:

YearFraming RunsFraming Runs SDBlocking RunsThrowing Runs
2011-22.4 (29)2.5-1.7 (23)0.0 (24)
2012-21.6 (27)2.41.7 (12)-7.4 (30)
20139.2 (8)1.2-1.1 (18)2.0 (1)
201421.3 (7)2.3-0.7 (18)3.4 (1)
201529.4 (1)1.8-1.2 (25)-3.2 (28)
201610.6 (9)1.5-4.7 (30)-2.4 (23)
2017-9.0 (23)2.90.6 (14)-0.7 (20)
2018-4.4 (22)1.2-2.8 (27)0.5 (7)

The Pittsburgh Pirates drop in framing since 2015 isn’t a new development, it’s been a known.  But their throwing runs have dropped from the best in the league with Russell Martin to bottom third with Francisco Cervelli, though this year it has perked more up with Diaz getting the starts with Cervelli on the DL.

Throwing runs don’t have the impact as framing, the Pirates led the league in 2013 and 2014 with a combined 5.4 throwing runs, a bit more than half the 10 runs that equal a win.  Throwing runs are the combination of swipe rate above average (which controls for the pitcher and the runner) and takeoff rate above average (stolen base attempts above average).  While the amount of runs saved by the catcher’s ability to throw isn’t as important as their framing, there’s still value that can be gained.

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The Pirates are playing within the margins, saving two runs here, another two there, and the Pirates pick up about a half win.  For a team who is playing with a payroll as low as they are, trying to get the most value is important.  With Cervelli, the shift in throwing runs from 2014 to 2016 was a loss of 5.8 runs and the club lost 10.7 framing runs, equaling to 16.5 runs, or about a 1.5 wins.

The other area in the chart above is blocking runs, an area in which I previously wrote about last year.  Like throwing runs, blocking runs aren’t as valuable in total value as the framing runs are, but again, for a team playing within the margins looking for extremely undervalued talents, the Pirates are losing here, losing almost three full runs by their blocking.  Looking again at 2016, the Pirates lost four runs from their 2014 campaign, summing up to 20.5 runs, or two wins. The club has never had a good blocking catcher, not ranking higher than 12 since 2011, but with the decline in throwing and framing, it would be nice to get some value back via blocking.

While a focus has been on the Pittsburgh Pirates loss in terms of framing runs, the most valuable ability in terms of quantified talent a catcher has, other areas such as blocking and throwing has dragged.  The club is playing with no real margin of error, and losing value in many areas is a problem.  The couple of runs lost in blocking and throwing can add up quickly, as the 2016 Pirates lost 7.1 runs in framing and throwing, and then subtracted from their 10.6 framing runs caused a loss from about a win to about a third of a win.

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These small details to a win are important, especially when the race is tight.  The Pirates not excelling in any area is a disappointment given the Pirates love the idea of a strong up the middle defense.  If the framing never returns, the club’s catchers need to at least get close to canceling out the effects with their throwing and blocking, but at this point, they’re not, and by the end of the year it may cost them about a win (currently costing the club about 0.7 wins).