Ausmus, Tigers are suitable for framing

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus and his staff are studying ways in which to better frame pitches, from working with catchers to studying the tendencies of umpires.

Lakeland, Fla. — Brad Ausmus isn't necessarily fixated on any particular baseball sabermetric, but has said often there is value to be found in just about every statistic.

Under the category of leaving no stone unturned then, Ausmus and his staff are in the embryonic stages of delving into advanced catching metrics — namely pitch framing.

"I think we'd be burying our heads in the sand if we didn't at least acknowledge it," Ausmus said. "It's a very in vogue stat right now. We pay some attention to it, just because the effect one call in a game, changing one ball to a strike, one strike to a ball — now say it's 10 calls in a game or five calls in a game — the impact that can have over the course of a season is enormous."

Case in point: Statistics show a hitter in a 2-1 count hits 75 points higher on average than one in a 1-2 count. Any time a catcher can either show a strike clearly to an umpire, or subtly steal one, it's significant.

According data compiled by Baseball Prospectus, Giants catcher Buster Posey got his pitchers 179.6 extra strikes in 2014. Padres catcher Rene Rivera got his pitchers 176.5.

Catchers who are considered the best pitch-framers in the game — Jonathan Lucroy of the Brewers, Russell Martin of the Blue Jays and free agent Jose Molina — all got more than 100 extra strikes last season.

Tigers catcher Alex Avila, considered one of the top pitch-framers in the game, had a down year last year, getting 11.6 extra strikes.

"Alex is really good at it," Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander said. "I really like when he is getting down on one knee now. He did it during my bullpen session the other day for the first time and I loved it. We had dinner the other night and we talked about it. It really helps.

"With the low strike especially, he feels he's able to get under it a little better and really stick it."

As Avila told recently, he doesn't like to call it pitch "framing."

"I'd call it presenting," he said. "You want to catch the ball cleanly, and you don't want to make it look like you're redirecting the ball. There are a lot of catchers now that will catch it and literally move their glove six, seven, eight inches.

"That's obvious, and in my opinion you're showing up the umpire. The whole thing is with borderline pitches. You want to catch them cleanly to where you're not making it look like it's a difficult pitch."

An art form

Catchers always have tried to catch pitches softly and cleanly and in a manner that presented the ball in the strike zone. It has in recent years — especially since Baseball Prospectus and have started quantifying the data — become somewhat of an art form.

"When I played, my approach was I want to make every pitch look as good as it can possibly look," said Ausmus, a former catcher considered one of the best pitch-framers of his time. "I guess I worked on receiving but I didn't (work on framing pitches). Everything I did as a catcher, it was kind of that's the way I caught.

"You knew you were supposed to have soft hands, you wanted to make the pitch look good. But in terms of the mechanics of framing to get a strike, I think that's probably in its infancy right now."

Alex Avila catches a bullpen in spring training.

Ausmus began studying the quantifiable effects of pitch framing in 2011 when he was a special assistant with the Padres. He and assistant general manager Josh Stein studied hours of video.

"We watched guys who were good at it, guys who were bad at it and tried to identify some of the characteristics or tenants of catchers that seemed to get calls," he said. "And then try to see if we could determine the characteristics of catchers who seemed to not get calls. We came up with a relatively short list of things we thought were commonalities among these catchers who got strikes called from their pitchers.

"So I'm very familiar with this whole concept, this whole new stat, this whole idea of the effect it has and I don't think it's overly technical."

Ausmus said the reason for the study was to use the findings for player development and for scouting, to give scouts some traits to be alert for in high school catchers — not necessarily to teach at the big league level. Only recently has Ausmus talked about pitch framing with the organization's catching coordinator (Joe DePastino) and minor league farm director (Dan Lunetta), and director of player development (Dave Owen).

"I've talked to (catcher) Bryan Holaday about it," Ausmus said. "I haven't gotten too in-depth with it but really, in talking to players, you just put it in baseball terms that they're used to talking about. There's no geometry involved. It's just talking about how they think receiving the ball is conducive to getting strikes called.

"Some of them do it already, some of them you don't need to talk to. I don't think Jonathan Lucroy or Russell Martin need to work on that."

Studying the umps

Ausmus takes the science of pitch-framing another step; to collecting data on the strike zones of individual umpires.

"Absolutely we do," he said. "We can get data on what umpires give more off the outside corner more often, the inside corner, all that."

Each umpire, Ausmus said, is like a fingerprint.

"They all kind of have their own strike zone to some extent, and as a catcher playing on a regular basis, you definitely notice that," he said.

Ausmus, of course, wouldn't share any of the umpire data. But he did dispute the notion umpires would resent catchers' attempts to frame pitches, much like a hockey or basketball referee would resent players who flop to draw a penalty or foul.

"There won't be any backlash," he said. "Now, the umpires may try to hone their skills in terms of keeping a consistent strike zone. They can get the same stats that we have. If they're giving too much of the inside corner, they may try to improve and make sure they tighten up the inside corner.

"But I don't think any umpire is going to blame a catcher for trying to get his pitcher a strike. I think the umpires nowadays, they want to get the call right. Generally, the egos aren't an issue. They're trying to do the best they can. They're getting evaluated too, and they want to keep their jobs."