KC Royals catcher Salvador Perez adjusted his pitch targeting to help Johnny Cueto in his last start, according to Kansas City Star writer Andy McCullough. Could those same targeting adjustments also help Perez’s pitch framing?
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Apparently, manager Ned Yost and Kansas City Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland had a sit-down with Johnny Cueto about his recent struggles. Assistant general manager Rene Francisco acted as translator. Cueto reluctantly admitted that the targeting habits of three-time Gold Glove catcher Salvador Perez was throwing off his aim.
Cueto said that Salvador Perez’s habit of setting the glove high up in the strike zone, while intending to move it downwards as the pitch comes, made him uncomfortable. After asking Perez to hold his mitt lower, back up from the plate, and set up later, Johnny Cueto enjoyed a fine seven-inning outing in which he allowed only two-runs and notched four strikeouts.
Now, this is where the story gets interesting. KC Royals catching coach Pete Grifol told McCullough:
"“In this case, he wants a low target,” catching coach Pedro Grifol said. “At times, that’s tough for Salvy because he’s a big guy. But (Cueto) wants it. He likes it. The catcher’s job is to learn all those different personalities and make the necessary adjustments to make that guy feel comfortable.”"
When I read this passage, I realized that the 6-3, 240 pound Salvador Perez has been regularly reaching down for low pitches. I wonder if this habit might not only be bothering Johnny Cueto, but also might affect Perez’s ability to “steal” extra strikes for KC Royals pitchers. This skill is known as “pitch framing”.
Recently, sabermetric analysts have developed statistical tools to measure this ability.
Could reaching down cause Perez to lose low strikes for KC Royals pitchers? Could this tendency also explain why Salvador Perez, who excels in every other area in his defensive game, ranks well below average as a pitch framer?
It certainly seems possible. I believe it’s intuitively obvious that a player reaching down for a low pitch is less likely to get a strike call than a catcher reaching UP for a pitch in the same location.
If I were a member of the Kansas City Royals analytics team, I would compare Salvador Perez’s pitch framing metrics during Johnny Cueto’s next few starts to his numbers with the rest of the staff. If Salvador Perez’s pitch framing shows a marked improvement with Cueto, then they might have discovered a way to help the entire KC Royals pitching staff in October.
Now, the value of pitch framing is still controversial among major-league catchers. However, according to some analysts, pitch framing can be worth as much as an extra two wins per season. Considering that the average major-league starter puts up around 2.0 Wins Above Replacement in a season, that’s a massive edge.
Many analysts believe that larger catchers have trouble with pitch framing, but a recent study on The Hardball Times debunked that notion. The same study also found that pitch framing ability peaked early (age 25) and tended to slowly degrade with age.
This recent story about KC Royals catcher Salvador Perez might explain how both the conventional wisdom that big catchers struggle with pitch framing, and The Hardball Times debunking of that theory, could be true. Perhaps big catchers need to make adjustments that aren’t necessarily comfortable, but help them get called strikes on low pitches.
This issue is likely even more acute in recent years. The strike zone has lowered significantly due to major-league baseball using Pitch F/X technology to critique umpire performance.
While this idea might seem to be an esoteric bit of the catching craft, it might help Salvador Perez steal a key strike for the KC Royals in a tight October game.