Did Yadier Molina forget how to frame pitches?


Pitch framing is something people have talked about forever, but it’s just been in the past couple of years that we’ve had really good research and data on it. While clubs have likely been analyzing it for a long time, it really broke into the wide public discussion back in September 2011 when Mike Fast published a big on it at Baseball Prospectus. Since then a catcher’s ability to frame pitches is included in most halfway decent analysis of a catcher’s defensive chops.

Over at Five Thirty Eight Rob Arthur notes that one of the top pitch framers of the past several years, both by metrics and by assumption and reputation — Yadier Molina — has fallen off in that department precipitously:

Since 2008, Molina has been the fifth-best framer in the league. In that time frame, Molina has saved more than 114 runs by flipping pitches that would have been close calls to strikes (worth about 11 wins, in aggregate). Since pitch framing isn’t yet accounted for when sabermetricians project a team’s statistics, Molina’s secret skill helps to explain the Cardinals’ outdoing their projections for the past 10 years and some of their perpetual October success (though to a lesser extent).

But this year, Molina’s framing is no longer even average. Already in 2015, Molina has cost his team about four strikes, while the best framers have gained more than 15. That may not sound like much, but over the course of a season, it could add up to a gap of more than 150 strikes, worth something like 25 runs.

I am severely under-qualified to parse actual data about anything, but I do have a couple of questions about this.

The first question is an obvious one: are 21 games in 2015 enough to allow us to draw any conclusions about Molina’s skills here? Arthur notes a decline over a couple of seasons and asserts that, while it’s only May 4, Molina has caught 800 pitches this year, combatting any small sample size arguments, but I’m still rather skeptical. Eight hundred things is a lot of things, but something being a big number doesn’t render a statistical sample significant, does it? Twenty-one games is still 14% of 150, and we don’t make such conclusions off of any other stats in 21 games, do we? And I’m not being 100% rhetorical here. Really, I do want to know why it’s OK to give weight to 21 games worth of framed pitches and not 21 games worth of anything else.

A more fundamental question, however, is whether this is really about Molina declining in skill as opposed to result. Keep in mind that a “framed” pitch has two elements: the catcher’s frame and the umpire being convinced that something was a strike. Given that pitch framing has broken pretty wide as a metric, is it not likely that umpires are aware of it too? And that they view pitch-framing as less than a cool skill than as a means of embarrassing umpires by making them look incompetent and easily-fooled? If you were an umpire, complete with an umpire’s typical ego, standing in behind a notoriously good umpire-fooler, would you not be a bit more exacting and tough on your ball-and-strike calls? Might you, in your own way, decide to tell the world that “no one’s gonna fool me!”

Not to say that players don’t decline, because they do. And Molina has a lot of mileage on his odometer. But I feel like there’s a lot more going on with pitch-framing numbers than the raw numbers. There really is a human element to the notion, and some of those humans are major league umpires. That has to mean something.