There are new ideas.
And sometimes an old idea is simply re-packaged, re-purposed, and given a new name. Catchers have been trying to fool umpires for years, but in recent years it has been given the name of pitch framing. The concept came into the mainstream, kinda sorta, in September 2011 after Mike Fast of Baseball Prospectus put out this seminal work on the art of pitch framing. For years, Pirate fans knew that Ryan Doumit was bad at catching and getting called strikes. Now there was a way to quantify it and give it a name.
(Side note — After Mike Fast published that article in September 2011, he was quickly scooped up by the new-look Astros in February 2012, where he works in their robust analytics division.)
(Side note 2 — Hank Conger ranked 4th last year in Runs Above Average at pitch framing. He was traded in November to the Astros. I’ll let you connect those dots.)
When Neal Huntington got on the scene in late 2007, he was walking into a terrible situation. Maybe he knew about pitch framing, maybe he didn’t, but he had plenty of other things on his to-do list.
During the early part of Huntington’s tenure, the Pirates suffering through some atrocious defensive catchers (with Ryan Doumit receiving the bulk of the playing time), especially on the pitch framing end of things. Using Statcorner’s sortable charts by year, here’s the runs above (below) average for the Pirates’ main catchers during the Huntington era:
- 2008 — Ryan Doumit (-59.7 Runs Below Average)
- 2009 — Ryan Doumit (-24.7 Runs Below Average), Jason Jaramillo (-9.3 RBA)
- 2010 — Ryan Doumit (-20.5 Runs Below Average)
- 2011 — Ryan Doumit (-17.9 Runs Below Average), Michael McKenry (-6.1 RBA)
In those four seasons, Ryan Doumit alone was -122.8 runs worth than the average catcher at framing pitches. That’s 12 wins worth of awful, including a stunning 6 wins in 2008.
So whether it’s a coincidence or if Huntington and his team read the September 2011 pitch framing study, the Pirates suffered through 2012 with Rod Barajas (-13.1 runs below average) and Mike McKenry (-13.4 runs below average), then went out and got one of the best pitch framers in the business in the form of Russell Martin.
In 2013, Martin was +17 runs above average at pitch framing — a 30 run swing from Barajas/McKenry’s production behind the plate. That doesn’t even include Martin’s high ability to throw runners out on the bases (something Barajas/McKenry were awful at), which isn’t germane to this article. This year, Martin was +11.7 runs above average, good for 10th in MLB.
Huntington decided not to sit around this offseason and wait on Martin’s decision. Or perhaps he feared that they would come up short in the end. So at November’s GM Meetings, Huntington traded for Francisco Cervelli of the Yankees (+7.4 runs above average in 2014) and gave up LHP Justin Wilson. Overall, it has the chance to be a good trade. Any time you can trade a reliever for an everyday player, you do it. There are some caveats to that rule in this trade — Cervelli has had a very checkered injury past and Wilson is a power lefty that is somewhat of a rare commodity, especially in the Pirate system.
Apparently, Cervelli also calls a strong game. He could throw out a few more runners for my taste (25% caught stealing in 2014), but it seems as if the Pirates got a Russell Martin-lite. Although Cervelli is in his second year of arbitration, he’s only projected to cost about $1.1M. Now that we know Martin is getting $16.5M/year on his Blue Jays contract, Cervelli is only going to cost 6.67% of Martin’s 2015 salary. Of course, Cervelli has to stay healthy and upright for this deal to work.