Did Yadier Molina forget how to frame pitches?

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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.

 

Cardinals beat Brewers, both clinch postseason berths

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
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ST. LOUIS — Harrison Bader tripled and homered to help the St. Louis Cardinals clinch a postseason berth on the final day of the regular season with a 5-2 win over Milwaukee, and the Brewers also earned a playoff spot Sunday via help on the West Coast moments later.

St. Louis (30-28) will be the fifth seed in the NL and open a three-game wild-card series at San Diego on Wednesday. By winning, the Cardinals avoided having to travel to Detroit for two makeup games Monday. St. Louis finished the regular season with 23 games in 18 days as it made up a slew of postponements caused by a coronavirus outbreak in the clubhouse.

“You had to throw some of the expectations out the window not knowing what to expect after taking those couple weeks off and all those doubleheaders and so many new guys,” Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt said. “It was very different, very fulfilling to make the playoffs.”

The Brewers (29-31) locked up the eighth seed and a third consecutive postseason berth after the Padres beat San Francisco 5-4 in a game that ended about 15 minutes after St. Louis’ victory. The Giants finished with an identical record as the Brewers but lost out on a tiebreaker due to an inferior intradivision record.

“It’s fitting for 2020 and everything we went through,” Brewers left fielder Christian Yelich said. “It felt just as good as past years. This year’s a unique one. There’s so many challenges we had to go through on a daily basis behind the scenes, things you don’t deal with in a normal year.”

Milwaukee will face the top-seeded Dodgers in Los Angeles in a three-game series that also starts Wednesday.

The Brewers haven’t had a winning record at any point this season. Milwaukee and Houston will be the first teams ever to qualify for the playoffs with a losing mark.

“It’s a celebration,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “We’re in the playoffs. That’s how you see it. There’s no reason to apologize for getting into the playoffs.”

Cardinals starter Austin Gomber allowed one run, one hit and two walks and struck out three over four innings.

Giovanny Gallegos (2-0), Genesis Cabrera and Alex Reyes combined to pitch the final five innings. Reyes got his first save.

“We’d have been happy getting in as the eight seed,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “We’d have been happy being the one seed, but people can say we got in if there was no expanded playoffs so that’s even another feather in this group’s cap.”

Brett Anderson (4-4) surrendered a triple to Bader and a walk to Tyler O'Neill to start the third inning before departing with a blister on his left index finger. Anderson opened the season on the injured list with a blister on the same finger and did not make his debut until Aug. 3.

Freddy Peralta replaced him a day after being activated from the paternity list, and O’Neill promptly stole second. Kolten Wong then hit a line drive off Peralta’s leg that Peralta threw into right field to score Bader and O’Neill.

Paul Goldschmidt and Paul DeJong each added RBI singles to push the St. Louis lead to 4-0.

After Milwaukee scored in the top of the fifth, Bader hit his fifth home run of the season.

“That was a big counterpunch,” Shildt said of Bader. “Got them on their heels again.”

THREE TIMES THE FUN

Yadier Molina grounded into a triple play in the eighth inning when he hit a one hop grounder to Jace Peterson at third base in the eighth inning. It was Milwaukee’s first triple play since Sept. 23, 2016, when Cincinnati’s Joey Votto lined out to first base. Molina was also the last Cardinals player to hit into a triple play when he grounded out to third base at Boston on Aug. 15, 2017.

TRAINING ROOM

Brewers: Counsell said it was too early to prognosticate Anderson’s status after departing with the blister.

Cardinals: St. Louis president of baseball operations John Mozeliak announced that RHP Dakota Hudson will have Tommy John surgery on his right elbow Monday. Hudson went 3-2 with a 2.77 ERA in eight starts before leaving his start on Sept. 17 at Pittsburgh with right elbow discomfort after two innings.

UP NEXT

Brewers: The Brewers head to Los Angeles and will likely be without two of their top starters in Anderson and Corbin Burnes, who sustained a left oblique injury on Thursday.

Cardinals: This will be the fourth postseason series between St. Louis and San Diego, who faced each other in 1996, 2005, and 2006 in the Division Series.