The Catcher Who Can’t Catch As Well As We Might Think

Salvador Perez has five Gold Gloves, but does he deserve them?

I was casually scrolling through Baseball Savant the other day when I came across this cool leaderboard of catcher framing statistics.

Then I had this thought, “Hmm, I’ve seen Foolish Baseball’s video on how Jeff Mathis is an elite framer, but I wonder who the worst framer is. It’s got to be Gary Sánchez, right?”

Savant’s database goes all the way back to 2015, so I set the timeframe from 2015 to 2020, waited for my page to reload, and then I laughed.

Gary Sánchez is not the worst framer in baseball.

No, the worst framing catcher from 2015-2020 was actually Salvador Pérez.

What? Doesn’t he have a Gold Glove? Actually, he has five.

There were so many questions filling my head. How could you win multiple Gold Gloves as a catcher while being so bad at one of the most important parts of catching? Isn’t this really bad for the Kansas City Royals? If so, then why do they continue to play him at catcher?

My hope is that as we try to find some answers to these questions, we begin to understand the sabermetrics revolution better and see just how far MLB has come in embracing nerds, and just how much room it still has to grow.

 

Is Pérez Actually the Worst Framer in MLB?

 

Baseball Savant tracks two different statistics: strike rate and runs from extra strikes (which is actually just derived from strike rate). Strike rate is a simple calculation of the percentage of pitches from the borders of the strike zone that end up being called strikes. Runs from extra strikes (RES) is a calculation based on strike rate and total number of pitches caught on the borders, that tells an individual how many runs the catcher cost/earned for his team.

From 2015-2020, among the catchers who caught at least 5000 pitches, these are the bottom five catchers in strike rate:

Worst Strike Rates 2015-2020 (Min. 5000 Pitches)

As you can see, Perez finished fifth-lowest just in terms of strike rate. However, if you look at the bottom five catchers in RES, this is what you get:

Worst Runs from Extra Strikes 2015-2020

Out of every catcher in MLB, Pérez has cost his team the most runs, despite not having the worst strike rate. How can this be?

Well, RES is a counting statistic. This means the more pitches a catcher catches, the higher the magnitude of his RES score. The more you play, the more extreme your RES score.

So, no, I wouldn’t say it’s fair to call Pérez the worst at framing in MLB, but I would say, he is the most consistently worst framing catcher in MLB.

Even in terms of strike rate, there are only two catchers who are worse at framing than Pérez that have caught 10000+ pitches since 2015 (and Nick Hundley also has a pair of Gold Gloves too!). In fact, if you look at the leaderboard again, Pérez has caught the eight-most pitches out of any catcher since 2015, and that’s including the fact that he missed all of 2019 due to injury.

Catchers with the Most Caught Pitches 2015-2020

For some reason, the Royals keep letting Pérez get away with this, and it’s hurting the team.

 

Pérez’s Butterfly Effect

 

The effects of bad framing often go unnoticed because framing doesn’t really affect a catcher’s major statistics. His fielding percentage doesn’t go down, and there’s no error recorded in the scorebook if he’s a bad framer. No, rather, pitchers are the ones that bear the burden. Theoretically, pitchers are the ones that suffer from bad framing through higher ERAs, lower strikeouts and more walks. Let’s see just how much Pérez ‘s poor framing affects his team.

If you just take the 2015 season, the Royals’ backup catcher was Drew Butera. Taking the five Royals pitchers who threw the most innings in 2015, these are their ERA’s and SO/BB ratios when pitching to Pérez versus when pitching to Butera.

2015 Kansas City Royals Pitchers Pitching to Pérez vs. Butera

Huh, now that’s strange. It seems like the pitchers actually pitch better to Pérez. I guess framing doesn’t really matter that much right? Well, not exactly.

I didn’t mention that Butera is just as bad at framing as Pérez. Butera’s strike rate in 2015: 44.2%. Pérez‘s: 44.4%.

This clearly isn’t the best example, so let’s fast forward to 2018. The Royals fielded a different backup catcher that goes by the name, Cam Gallagher. Now Gallagher’s strike rate in 2018 was 51.3% compared to Pérez’s 43.7%. This is a big difference behind the plate, but does this result in big differences on the mound? See for yourself:

2018 Kansas City Royals Pitchers Pitching to Pérez vs. Gallagher

All of these pitchers, minus Danny Duffy (who only pitched 6.0 innings to Gallagher), saw better results pitching to Gallagher. I will admit, the sample size isn’t huge: Kennedy pitched the most to Gallagher, and that still only accounts for 25.0 innings. But, I do think the results were drastic enough to show that Pérez’s poor framing had at least some effect on pitchers.

To put things into perspective, the 2018 Royals starting pitching staff’s 4.95 ERA finished 29th among 30 teams. But, the five pitchers’ listed above combined for a 2.93 ERA when pitching to Gallagher. This would’ve been the lowest in MLB.

Likewise, the staff’s 2.11 SO/BB finished 27th in MLB, but their 2.93 SO/BB with Gallagher would’ve been the seventh-highest SO/BB ratio in 2018.

There’s reason to believe that Pérez is hurting his pitching staff, so does he really deserve his Gold Glove awards?

 

Stolen Gloves?

 

Clearly, there’s more to catching than just knowing how to frame pitches, so if Pérez is bad in the framing facet of the game, he’s got to be really great at the other parts of catching if he wants to win a Gold Glove, right? Let’s see.

Let’s start by considering just a single defensive statistic, Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). DRS, conceptually, is pretty easy to understand: it’s simply how many runs a player saved his team by playing above-average defense. The part that’s more difficult to understand is how you calculate this practically.

One way we can try to make more sense of this statistic is by looking at the components of DRS. Think of all the different skills needed to be a good catcher: framing, calling a game, throwing out runners, blocking pitches. These are the categories that contribute to a player’s DRS score.

Strike Zone Runs Saved (rSZ) calculates how well a catcher frames. Catcher ERA Runs Saved (rCERA) refers to how well a catcher handles a pitching staff. Stolen Bases Runs Saved (rSB) refers to how well a catcher prevents stolen bases, either by actually throwing out runners or by simply making them hesitant to steal in the first place. And finally, Good Fielding Plays Runs Saved (rGFP) mostly refers to how well a catcher can block balls in the dirt.

From 2015-2020, Pérez won Gold Gloves in 2015, 2016 and 2018. This is how he ranked in each of these statistics in each of those seasons among catchers who caught at least 800 innings each of those seasons.

Salvador Pérez Defensive Rankings (Min. 800 Innings Caught/Season)

There’s clearly a trend here. Pérez’s rSZ and rCERA are never all that great (and his rSZ is usually pretty terrible). His rSB, on the other hand is usually elite and his rGFP isn’t all too shabby either. But, his low rSZ and rCERA bring his DRS down to pretty modest levels.

If Gold Gloves were given purely based on DRS, there is no way Pérez deserves any of the Gold Gloves he was awarded between 2015 and 2018. Now, we can argue whether or not DRS is a good statistic, but let’s put that on hold for a second. Assuming DRS is the best statistic we have to determine fielding ability, the Gold Glove voters are consistently voting wrong. How can that be? Well, it’s not that difficult to understand.

The reason Gold Glove voters vote inaccurately is the same reason I get questions on my midterms wrong despite there being no trick questions on the test: we both didn’t pay attention in class.

We both have short attention spans. What we notice isn’t everything we actually see. Think about it: When was the last time you turned on a catcher’s highlight reel and you saw clips of them framing pitches? If you’re like me, the answer is never.

We see them making diving plays on pop-ups as they fall into the stands or sick backdoor pickoffs, but we never see them frame pitches. Throwing out runners, diving plays and good blocking technique are easy to remember, but the time a catcher somehow gets a pitch that’s two balls off the plate called for a strike, that success is usually just attributed to the pitcher throwing a dirty pitch.

Ultimately, good framing or calling a good game doesn’t show up on the box score, but both passed balls and thrown-out runners are recorded in the play-by-play. These are the numbers and plays that are remembered throughout history. That’s why voters don’t vote according to the numbers.

Pérez may pass the eye test, but voters are failing the numbers test.

But maybe the voters are right. Maybe DRS isn’t the best statistic. Maybe throwing out runners and good blocking technique matter way more than framing pitches. But I would argue against that, because believe it or not, good framing does in fact show up on the box score, albeit indirectly.

Like we saw above, having a catcher that’s good at framing makes a huge difference. Pitchers’ statistics will suffer from having a poor framer behind the plate, so I think framing should matter at least a little more when considering who wins the Gold Glove award.

All this is to say, Pérez is by no means a scrub. Why do the Royals keep him behind the plate despite him lacking in this one facet of the game? Well, he’s pretty darn good at some other stuff. He can throw runners out, block balls, and heck, he can hit the ball pretty well too.

So no, this isn’t a call for him to never catch another game as long as he lives, but rather, a call for Gold Glove voters and fans to pay just a little more attention and maybe next time, they won’t get questions wrong on their midterm.

Oh, and if you want to see the video version of this article, here it is.

Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)

 

Samuel In

Samuel is a lifelong San Diego Padres fan with a deep appreciation for small market teams, YouTube and random conversations. You can share in all his misery on Twitter at @Samuel_Out.

  • Avatar Hot Droppings says:

    This is a great read! I have arguing with my Blue Jay fanbase friends the importance of a catcher is not in the bat, runners thrown out and passed balls, but rather in game calling, framing, working with pitchers, leading the team on the field.

    • Samuel In Samuel In says:

      Thanks for the comment! Catching is definitely harder to do/analyze/understand than we make it out to be sometimes. Always a whole bunch going on that we don’t always see.

  • Avatar CW says:

    Great article I can say as a Royals fan that Perez is an overrated player especially behind the plate. Similarly to his game as a hitter his defense is all flash and no nuance. He supposedly improved his framing last year and will make about 150 million dollars despite most Royals fans thinking he was “taken advantage of” by signing his first contract. Ask Jon Singleton and Scott Kingery how badly they feel about their contracts. The Royals obviously love his intangibles and it’s not my money to spend but it’s nice to see a little pushback on a useful but massively overrated player.

    • Samuel In Samuel In says:

      Haha, I definitely don’t know enough about him or the situation to make any statements on his value to the team, but I will say I was actually shocked when I saw his framing statistics…

      • Avatar CW says:

        As any non Royals or casual baseball fan would be. If we judged Salvy by the announcers he would be passing Johnny Bench any day now in catcher value. Crazily they are already mentioning increasing his days off behind the plate (actually a very useful idea) by using him as a DH? He will run into enough bad pitchers who give him a first pitch without a wrinkle to get his HR but that contract isn’t going to age well at all.

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