Catcher framing (also called pitch framing) is the ability of the catcher to receive a pitch into his glove that makes it more likely the pitch will be called a strike by an umpire. Catcher framing can fool an umpire into believing a pitch just off the edge of the strike zone (the “shadow zone”) is a strike or sometimes even a pitch 4 to 5 inches out of the strike zone is called a strike. It is a valuable skill but in the overall scheme of baseball, I believe it is overrated. I’m not going to drill down into the statistics in this article; I leave it to the reader to explore further if desired.
MLB Official Definition of Catcher Framing
Catcher framing is the art of a catcher receiving a pitch in a way that makes it more likely for an umpire to call it a strike — whether that’s turning a borderline ball into a strike, or not losing a strike to a ball due to poor framing.
7. Pitch Framing only matters on certain pitches. For example, it only matters on pitches where the batter doesn’t swing. The swing rate in baseball is 46%. https://library.fangraphs.com/offense/plate-discipline/ This means 54% of all pitches are not eligible for the catcher to influence the umpire by pitch framing. A further analysis of the number of pitches that are obviously balls would further whittle down the number of pitches where pitch framing could be a factor. This means the majority of pitches are not subject to catcher framing.
6. Catcher framing rarely changes a ball into a strike, likely about 0.5% of the time. I remember reading an article several years ago that stated this percentage. Incredibly, with all the statistical analysis available surrounding baseball, there is no statistic that quantifies the percentage of likely balls that are turned into strikes by catcher framing. There is the “called strike rate”, and it might be useful to see if a certain catcher improves a team’s called strike rate and correlate that to catcher framing skill. Also, there is a (dubiously) derived statistic called “Framing Runs”. But nothing that directly states the number of balls in the shadow zone that were turned into strikes. If catcher framing is a big factor the percentage of called strikes should be increasing as catchers have improved their pitch framing skills. Has it increased? Well, according to FanGraphs, the called strike rate on pitches out of the zone decreased from 2020 to 2021. https://blogs.fangraphs.com/the-strike-zone-is-imperfect-but-mostly-unchanged/
5. On those occasions when catcher framing works—a ball is called a strike—it’s probably not in a high leverage situation. This is simply because high leverage situations are not as common as low leverage situations. If we define a high leverage situation as one where there is a runner in scoring position, a simple tally of the number of pitches made with baserunners that reach second base per game vs. number of pitches without runners in scoring position will illustrate this thought.
A good example of a low leverage situation would be bases empty and a 3-0 count. Umpires are more apt to call a borderline pitch a strike on a 3-0 count. In this situation, umpires might call a borderline pitch a strike regardless of whether or not the catcher skillfully framed the pitch.
In a high leverage situation, 3-2 count for example, umpires are likely to scrutinize the location of a pitch more than they would on low leverage counts, making pitch framing less effective.
Generally speaking, the ball-strike count influences all aspects of the game of baseball and catcher framing is no exception.
4. Every catcher performs pitch framing but only about 33% are able to make a statistically significant impact with pitch framing. If we use the statistic “Catcher Framing Runs” as the standard, and the league average in this statistic is 0, then only 20 of the 59 catchers rated have “Catcher Framing Runs” of 2 or more. https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/catcher_framing?year=2023&team=&min=q&type=catcher&sort=4,1
Also, the separation between teams with catchers skilled at pitch framing is decreasing. As a result, the importance of pitch framing as a differentiating skill has decreased with time.
3. Umpires are aware catchers are pitch framing and are taught to recognize it. Along the same lines, umpires know a catcher’s reputation and statistical record for pitch framing. I think some (most?) umpires go into a game thinking they aren’t going to allow a catcher’s glove movement to fool them into calling a ball a strike. I dare say that some umpires probably feel offended that catchers try to trick them and therefore are predisposed to be wary of pitch framing.
Another factor is that some catchers are not as subtle at pitch framing as others and might not gain the respect of the umpire for this ability. Ironically, a catcher that overdoes the pitch framing motions might inadvertently turn a borderline strike into a ball because of the over exaggerated movement of the catcher’s glove to the middle of the plate. The umpire who hesitates to make a call might conclude the pitch must have been a ball since the catcher’s glove movement “oversold” the attempt to frame the pitch as a strike.
2. Umpires are getting better at their jobs. With the use of PITCHf/x system as an umpire grading, education, and training tool, umpires’ ability to determine balls and strikes have improved. The usage of umpire scorecards and continuing umpire education means umpires are better now than they have ever been. Thus, the ability of a catcher to “steal strikes” is a diminishing talent.
1. Robo-umpiring is coming. Also known as computerized umpiring, this system has the potential to make catcher framing obsolete or perhaps such a specialized skill as to make it irrelevant.
Why is catcher framing important? It is a highly developed skill, or more accurately, it is an art. Major League Baseball players are professionals who strive to be the best at their game, constantly improving their craft. Pitch framing is a catching skill and catchers who want to be the best must develop this skill.
While catcher framing turning a ball into a strike might not happen very often in a high leverage situation, it’s possible it could happen at an important point in a game. It could make all the difference in the result of a ballgame. For example, a called third strike in the bottom of the ninth inning, ending the game. Therefore, MLB catcher’s must utilize catcher framing.
Catcher framing is important because if you are a minor leaguer trying to make it to the show and you are not good at pitch framing, you likely will never catch in the major leagues. Perhaps the automated ball-strike system will allow marginally skilled pitch framers to make it to the majors, but right now it is unlikely they will make it.
Does catcher framing make a difference in the outcome of a game? Unlikely that it makes a direct difference in the outcome, however, it could have a cumulative effect on the outcome of a game by influencing certain at bats that result in particular batters making outs whereas if there wasn’t catcher framing perhaps they might have drawn a walk and gotten on base. An analogy would be—Does the awarding of a ball or strike because of a pitch clock count violation make a difference in the outcome of a game? Unlikely, but in rare cases it might.