When Science Is On Tim McCarver's Side

TORONTO, CANADA - SEPTEMBER 05: Jason Varitek #33 of the Boston Red Sox bats in front of catcher Jose Molina #8 of the Toronto Blue Jays and Home Plate Umpire Mike Estabrook during MLB game action September 5, 2011 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Brad White/Getty Images)

So anyway, today's Biggest Thing on the Internets is Mike Fast's huge study of catchers' measured ability (or not) to get the close pitches called strikes by the umpires. Of course, the Conventional Wisdom has always been that catchers do influence umpires, one way or another. I was always skeptical, just because I'm always skeptical in the absence of data.

Stand_back_science_medium

Well, thanks to SportVision's PITCHf/x and COMMANDf/x, now we've got data. I saw a study at the PITCHf/x Summit a few weeks ago, but Fast's study is sort of mind-blowing, because he's discovered huge differences between catchers. So huge that millions of dollars could be involved here, if teams take Fast's results at face value (or are coming up with similar results with their internal research).

I don't want to give everything away, but I have to give something away because that's what bloggers do. So I'll tell you that Jose Molina and Jonathan Lucroy are really good at getting borderline pitches, while Ryan Doumit and Jason Varitek and Jorge Posada are really bad.

But why? Fast has video, which is really fun to watch. Here's a little summary, though (because bloggers summarize):

Doumit dropped his head on 11 of the 12 pitches I reviewed on video. On the one pitch where he did not do that, he got a strike call. Molina dropped his head to follow the ball into the glove on two of the 10 pitches I reviewed on video, and both of those pitches were called balls.

Lucroy’s head was stable on all seven pitches I reviewed, and he got seven strike calls. Varitek’s head was stable on all six pitches I reviewed, all called balls, but his exaggerated glove movement may have cost him those strike calls.

I also reviewed five of Posada’s borderline pitches on video. In two cases, his arm and body movements were very exaggerated and potentially distracting to the umpires. In the other three cases, his body and glove were fairly stable (though not perfectly so like Lucroy), but he dropped his head noticeably to follow the ball into the glove. All five pitches were called balls.

Exaggerated glove and body movements are well known to be distracting to umpires. As Brent Mayne wrote in The Art of Catching:

Simply catch the ball firmly. When the pitch and glove meet, that’s where the action should stop. The catcher should have enough strength to stop the momentum of the ball so that strikes don’t turn into balls. Think of a gymnast "sticking" a landing. Just "stick" the ball, hold it for a brief second, then throw it back.

Lucroy and Molina have that technique perfected. Varitek, on the other hand, appears to have lost dozens of strike calls every year because he does not.

What we're seeing here is the modern combination of pure data and eyeball analysis. First, the data flagged Doumit, Molina, Lucroy, Varitek and Posada; then video observation was used to explain the data. And the data is more believable, more actionable, if it's accompanied by an explanation.

What's more, this sort of analysis will presumably serve as a training tool. Would it really be so difficult for Doumit to stop dropping his head on the low pitches? Would it really be that hard for Varitek to stop moving his glove so much? My guess is that a number of teams, at literally this moment, are formulating plans to train their catchers, especially in their farm systems, to be more still when catching. Hell, maybe they can even throw some Zen stuff in there.

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