Blue Jays Mailbag: Pitch Framing, a Hard No on Doug Fister, and the State of Left Field
Andrew Stoeten answers your questions in our first VICE Sports Blue Jays Mailbag.
Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
One of the things I got the biggest kick out of when I started blogging about Toronto Blue Jays baseball back around 2007 was taking the weekly mailbag that Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star was then doing, erasing all of his answers, then publishing my own—most of which called Griff's readers "fucking morons" in some form or another.
Over the years I've become somewhat less of a jerk about people with terrible, wrong opinions on baseball, but that didn't make my dips into the ol' Griff Bag any less enjoyable or frequent. That is, until Griff stopped doing them.
The 2016 season didn't feature a Griff Bag, and at some point I decided that I'd be damned if I was going to let 2017 go the same route. And so with the help of the fine folks here at VICE Sports, I'm carrying on the tradition (minus the bit about calling people morons... y'know, unless your questions are genuinely terrible).
If you have a Blue Jays question you'd like me to tackle for next week, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Now, enjoy this first edition of our weekly Jays Mail Bag!
My question is about pitch framing. If some catchers are better than others at making balls look like strikes and strikes not look like balls, and that skill is now at least partially quantifiable due to technology and advanced stats, and has now been reported on regularly in the media for many years, then is it not possible that umpires will, consciously or unconsciously, adjust the strike zone accordingly when standing behind one of those catchers who is good at pulling the wool over their eyes? Martin, as a good pitch framer, doesn't seem to have that problem, but maybe I just haven't been paying attention.
Basically, haven't pitch framing stats been around long enough for umpires to catch on and catch up? Or is there a good reason that they never will?
This is a great question, and one that you're not alone in wondering about (though if you're really in East Timor, one wonders just how far away from you the next person wondering about it might actually be).
I did some quick and dirty math with one of the key catching stats at Baseball Prospectus, Called Strikes Above Average, which they express as a percentage above or below average. Over the last four seasons there have been 62 catcher seasons in which a catcher achieved a CSAA at or above 1 percent. The number was quite similar in the four previous years: 58. However, in that time there has been a rather striking change in the frequency of truly elite strike-stealing seasons. From 2009 to 2012 there were 27 catcher seasons with a CSAA of 2 percent or above, and 10 of them with a CSAA of 3 percent or above. But from 2013 to 2016 there were just 19 seasons at 2 percent or above, and a mere two at 3 percent or above.
Both of those last two seasons above 3 percent occurred in 2014. In fact, if we break the last four years into two-year segments, we see that in 2013 and 2014 there were 11 catcher seasons at or above 2 percent CSAA, and two of those were above 3 percent. In 2015 and 2016 there were just eight seasons at or above 2 percent, and none above 3.
Truly elite framing seasons definitely do seem to be disappearing. And while I don't think this quick and dirty look at these numbers offers concrete proof that umpires are catching up and being extra vigilant not to be fooled by good framers, it doesn't exactly hurt your hypothesis.
Jeff Sullivan examined this in a piece a little over a year ago at FanGraphs, noting big drop-offs in framing value from the once-elite Jonathan Lucroy, Hank Conger, Brian McCann, and others, and postulated precisely what you have about the umpires catching up to the great strike-stealers. He added one important caveat, though:
"There is an alternate explanation, or—if you prefer—a partial explanation. As noted earlier, we've seen league buy-in as far as framing goes, and last year individual framing value among the catchers had the lowest standard deviation yet. Which means there's less of a spread between the best and the worst, and maybe what we're seeing is just randomness somewhat taking over. The lesser the spread of talent, the greater the role of randomness in determining the results. That could get at the lower correlations, and it would kind of point toward the end of framing in a different way. If everyone's good, then no one is good."
In other words: either the umpires catch up, or other teams catch up and nullify much of the value of elite framing skills by raising the floor. So I'm not sure there's compelling reason to think that catcher framing skills will always be a part of the conversation the way they have over the last few years—but if not, wow, what a ride!
"Gibbons on the state of left field: 'Right now we're looking at a Carrera-Upton platoon.'"
No, Toby, and no more questions about whether this is a joke. [Everyone lowers their hand, dejected]
I'm glad there were some questions that weren't about left field for this inaugural edition of this mail bag, because, holy shit, people, we're still three full weeks and 18 Grapefruit League games away from Opening Day. And it's not like the Opening Day roster then becomes set in stone!
So here's the thing: Given what he did in the playoffs, I'm not sure how easy a sell it would be for the front office to tell the team from day one of camp that Ezequiel Carrera has no business getting regular at-bats on this or any other team above the Triple-A level. Given that Melvin Upton is a veteran making $17 million ($16 million of which is being paid by the Padres, but still), I'm not sure how you can tell him anything but that he has a chance to win the everyday job outright, either. Nor do I think you can tell Dalton Pompey that he's really the one you want to give the job to, or do anything with him but let him force your hand by hitting his way onto the roster.
In other words, their public stance may not reflect what they're thinking internally. And Gibbons can really only comment on what he has to work with.
Another reader asked if Gibbons was aware of Carrera's ugly platoon splits, and he very much is. Arden Zwelling tweeted last week that, when asked by reporters about it, Gibbons said, "We like what Zeke's doing. He's had some crazy splits. He's been better against lefties. But it's in there to hit righties."
So they know it. And either Gibbons is just standing up for one of his guys, like a good manager should, or the club really thinks that Carrera can show more with the bat.
I'm as guilty as anybody of saying that it would be stupid to expect anything from a guy who has demonstrated over 1,000 career plate appearances that he's just not a very good hitter, especially against right-handed pitching. But would it be so bad if they ended up letting him give it a go? The answer to that —and to all of the burning position questions this spring, and every spring—depends on just how long they're willing to continue doing something that isn't working, and how capable they are of fixing the problem once they decide there is one.
Maybe that sounds like a total cop-out—like the kind of thinking that could justify any dumb move the front office might make—but they really haven't done anything dumb here... yet. And they have flexibility. Pompey could take the position and run with it. Pearce can play there quite a bit, if they don't need him at first base, or second base, or—God forbid—third base. Plus there's always the possibility of a trade, both in spring once clubs start making roster cuts, and later on in the season. Ángel Pagán is still on the free agent market. Or perhaps someone other than Pompey can have a strong showing in the minors and get a look (Harold Ramirez, maybe?).
I'm not going to try to claim that these are great options for the club, but the situation isn't quite as dire as it's often made out. They're just going to have to be ready for when it becomes painfully apparent that it isn't in Carrera to hit right-handers.
Looking forward to getting mocked in your mailbag!
My question is why aren't the Jays, who don't have a lot of starting depth if any injuries happen, looking at bringing in Doug Fister as the number 5 and having Liriano as the long man and leftie out of the bullpen? Seems to be an awful risky move to assume the health all the pitchers had last year is going to repeat.
I suspect—and this is purely speculation here, don't get me wrong—but I suspect, in fact I strooooooongly suspect that the reason the Jays haven't signed Doug Fister and moved Francisco Liriano to the bullpen is because that would make the team worse.
And that's if you forget about any of the internal politics of such a move: i.e. the fact that, though he was a good soldier last year during the playoffs, here in his free agent walk year, Liriano is going to want very badly to be a starter. As he should! And as he should be!
Liriano was a 3.5 win pitcher in 2013 and 2015, put up 2 WAR in the year between, and though he's known for being inconsistent, and the Pittsburgh portion of his 2016 was ugly, in my mind there's certainly a chance he provides that kind of value for the Blue Jays this season. The velocity and the stuff is still there for him.
Believing in Fister isn't anywhere near so easy. Except for the 180 innings and the 1.1 WAR, his numbers with the Astros last year were pretty dreadful. And Liriano in the bullpen won't provide nearly enough value over Tim Mayza, or whoever wins the second lefty spot behind J.P. Howell, to offset the value lost by replacing him in the rotation with Fister.
I get that depth is a concern, but losing a starter would be tough for anyone, and the Jays have some options that aren't completely cringe-worthy. Especially compared to Fister. Hard, hard pass. Holy shit, the hardest pass.
Hey Griff errr... Stoeten,
I'm kinda really excited about Lourdes. A) should I be this excited? and B) this seems a departure for the Jays. Is this kind of move indicative of an organizational approach, or an opportunistic outlier?
To answer your first question, no, probably not. There is intrigue in the unknown, and Gurriel has certainly looked the part (when healthy) and is an easy subject for newspaper stories, but there are still big question marks about what he's going to be able to produce with his bat—and a couple nice plate appearances in early March aren't going to change that.
True, his numbers in the Cuban league are thoroughly impressive. He slashed .344/.407/.560 in his last season there (2015-16) as a 21-year-old. But that league is watered down compared to even 10 years ago, when Yoenis Cespedes put up similar numbers at the same age. The fact that Gurriel cost the Jays just $22 million over seven years should be a bit telling—though there's room for that number to grow, if he ends up going through the arbitration process once eligible (which we're not yet sure he'll be able to do, though other recent Cuban free agents have had that written into their contracts).
As for whether or not this is a one-off or indicative of a new organizational approach, it's difficult to say. The Jays have dabbled in the Cuban market before (Adeiny Hechavarria), and they've obviously made some big bets on Latin American youngsters (Vlad Guerrero Jr. being both the biggest and the most recent), but there are only so many of these players to come around, and the rules about signing them change with each collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players. So, it's more likely that it's just an opportunistic thing, but in order to be opportunistic in these markets you need to have an organizational approach that puts resources there, so maybe it's a little bit of both.
Have you heard anything about a potential Gibby extension? I thought it would have been done by now. Heard anything otherwise? Thanks.
I can't say that I've heard anything, but Gibbons himself said early in camp that he thinks it's going to get done, but that he had essentially told Ross Atkins over the winter that he's got too much on his plate as it is to worry about ol' Gibbers, and he was willing to wait his turn. So... I don't think anybody should doubt that it's going to get done.
Hey, and maybe the fact that it isn't done yet suggests that Atkins still has some dogs in the fire with respect to left field!