I imagine this headline might infuriate some people. But there’s plenty of explaining to do. When the news surfaced that the Royals may lose Salvador Perez, their World Series MVP, perennial All-Star and Gold Glover, and face of the franchise, for the season, their was plenty of reason for fans to be sad. Losing a good catcher on and off the field, along with a player that was a driving reason for many fans to even watch or show up to games is not a good thing.
But if you look deeper, you can find many reasons on why this isn’t such a terrible outcome. For starters, it may be good for Perez himself. Giving his knees a full-season rest in a season that most likely will amount to nothing is a positive. Second, I don’t think the Royals are losing much “on-field” value here, bringing in veteran catcher Martin Maldonado on a one-year deal. Third, if all goes well, this could amount to some value at the trade deadline.
If you’re a casual fan and you judge players with the eye-test, you’re taking Perez over Maldonado eleven times out of ten. Perez has the advantage in most recognizable areas. He’s by a superior overall hitter, he hits for far more power, and by most accounts, his glove behind the plate is at an elite-level. Counteracting with Maldonado, he’s a worse hitter (career 72 wRC+ vs Perez’s 97). He doesn’t hit as many home runs (51 vs 141). Looking to the glove though, they are comparable (Maldonado was worth 11.3 defensive runs above average in 2018, Perez 10.7). You may even remember him edging out Perez for the Gold Glove award in 2017, ending Perez’s four-year run, rightfully so.
Judging off that quick comparison, Perez looks like the better player. But there is still a very important aspect of the catching game that I haven’t gotten to yet. Framing. Easily one of the more important areas that a catcher can excel in, yet one of the least recognizable talents for watching fans.
Do give you a quick run down on framing, here’s the definition Baseball Prospectus has instilled for their metric that measures it.
The specified details of the CSAA mixed models are in the Appendix. The Reader’s Digest version is as follows: the model considers each and every pitch thrown in the major leagues each season. For each pitch where a batter did not swing, we input (1) whether the pitch was a ball or strike (our output variable), (2) our various participants: the pitcher, catcher, batter, and umpire, which are our “random effects”; and (3) our chosen “fixed effects” we found to be meaningful: the PITCHf/x probability of the pitch being strike, the handedness of the pitcher and batter, and whether the team was playing at home or away. All of these fixed effects have a statistically significant effect on the likelihood of a pitch being a strike. For CSAA, we ran the model separately for each season from 2008 to the present time, and collected each season’s results.
To break down the framing numbers incorporated into overall defensive value between Maldonado and Perez in 2018, I’ll prorate their Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) to 120 games.
- Maldonado: 119 games, 3.1 FRAA, 3.12 FRAA/120 games
- Perez: 129 games, -8.1 FRAA, -7.53 FRAA/120 games
The difference in framing is huge between the two. Perez is generally considered a terrible framer, severely hampering his value. Maldonado on the other hand is considerably above-average in the department, making him an underrated asset. This changes this gap in overall value, even with hitting and other defensive aspects considered (looking at WARP), as Maldonado very well might be the better player
- Maldonado, 2016-18: 333 games, 6.2 WARP, 2.23 WARP/120 games
- Perez, 2016-18: 397 games, 5.1 WARP, 1.54 WARP/120 games
Now you may be asking why framing is such a big deal and how the Royals are impacted by this. To break it down in easier terms, I’m going to look at the rates in which both catchers assist their pitchers. There’s two things you can look at to easily identify this. Out-of-zone strike% and in-zone ball%. Narrowing a sample size to a minimum of 2,000 pitches caught in 2018, I’ll start with out-of-zone strike%. Out of 67 qualified catchers, Maldonado ranked sixth. Last year he ranked sixth and in 2016 he ranked 12th. He’s consistently good at helping his pitchers get strikes outside the strike-zone.
|First Name||Last Name||Year||Team||Sample||oStr%|
Perez is the opposite. Last season, he ranked 51st out of the 67 qualified. In 2017 he ranked as the second worst catcher. In 2016 he was the worst catcher. Terrible. Here are the 20 worst catchers in this for 2018.
Looking to the other side of things, in-zone ball% (you want to have a lower-rate), Maldonado was again, pretty good. In 2018 he ranked 14th out of 67. In 2017 he was fifth. In 2016 he was 20th. Here were the top 20 catchers from last year.
For Perez, again, not good. Last year, he had the fourth highest rate. In 2017 and 2016, he respectively had the 17th and 22nd highest rates. Here were the ten worst from 2018.
All stats courtesy of StatCorner
These lost and added calls for the pitching staff add up over thousands and thousands of pitches. For perspective, Maldonado has added 146 calls for his pitchers the past three seasons. Perez has lost 515 (!!!) calls in that same time, by far the most in baseball.
For visual effect, here’s a heatmap of each catcher’s called strikes the past three seasons.
Or in form of GIF. Here’s Maldonado using his skill to pull a ball slightly up into the zone, presenting it well for the umpire. It was tracked outside the zone, but called a strike to end the game.
Here, on a pivotal 3-2 count, he does the same thing to net his pitcher a strikeout.
Varying in certain counts and situations, this can have a enormous impact in an at bat, a game, or even a season. For example, a lost strike to begin an at bat can be a swing of nearly a tenth of a run. That adds up over the course of a long season.
Having Maldonado become the Royals starting catcher will theoretically help a lot of pitchers on the Royals staff. The added advantage for the younger arms on the staff is a nice compliment too. The injury to Salvador Perez is a very unfortunate blow to the franchise and to the season, but don’t be surprised if the pitching staff and the Royals come out looking better because of it.
Photo Credit: MLB.com