By Evan Klugerman (BA, Director of Hitting at RPP)
This past year, technology came to the strike zone, as MLB began to experiment with an automated strike zone with the “RoboUmp” in the Atlantic League. Although this process is still a work in progress, I begin to wonder how this may change the game from the vantage point of a catcher. Simply put, the automated strike zone takes pitch-perception out of the equation. This undoubtedly will have a ripple effect and a reallocation of catcher responsibilities, which will change the traditional way of both measuring and evaluating catchers. Below are four ways an automated strike zone will impact the catcher position.
1. Removal of Pitch Framing
The chart below exhibits the skill differential between the top 10 percent of MLB catchers in comparison to the bottom 10 percent, and the differential of runs each asset impacts. As an example, with respect to batting (blue) the top 10 percent creates 31.5 more runs than the bottom 10 percent.
Source: Deconstructing the Catcher
As the pie chart demonstrates, defensively (blocking, throwing and framing), framing has a far greater impact on the game in comparison to blocking and throwing in relation to total output. A good receiving catcher creates 21.4 more runs (or approximately 2.5 wins) over the duration of a season, in comparison to throwing and blocking which combined impacts a combined total of 10 additional runs. Thus, the ability to frame the baseball has a greater influence on the overall game than all other facets of a catcher’s defensive responsibilities.
However, with an automated strike zone, this all changes. The chart below exhibits the differentials of both runs and responsibilities while accounting for the automated strike. Amongst the parameters of the implementation of the automated strike zone, the framing portion would be extrapolated from a catcher’s responsibilities along with the ability to impact 2.5 additional wins throughout the season. As a result, the defensive responsibilities of a catcher are reallocated to merely blocking and throwing, which together only contribute approximately 20 percent of a catcher’s overall value.
To summarize, with automated strike zone, the whole idea of how a catcher receives the ball becomes irrelevant.
2. Less Focus on Throwing
With homeruns and strike outs on the rise, the value of stolen bases has taken a hit. Chart below shows the stolen base rates since 2016, where stolen base numbers have slightly declined.
Reverting to the 2nd pie chart above (with defense out of the picture), notice that the difference in throwing skill level of the catcher results in a difference of about 2.1 runs. Such small margins instantly redirect the focus to other aspects of a catcher’s defense, as the long-term effect of stolen bases allowed does not define the true value of a catcher. Considering the combination of how small of an impact an elite thrower can have on a season (2.1 additional runs) along with the declining stolen base rates, the ability to catch and throw is nearly negligible.
3. Priority on Pitch Calling
Physically, a catcher’s main responsibility is to control the baseball, making sure the pitcher can both command the strike zone and prevent baserunners from advancing on the base-path. Since physical defensive responsibilities are in jeopardy with an automated strike zone, the mental side of the game will separate a good catcher from a bad one.
While it is apparent that catchers play a major role in decoding an opposing lineup, unfortunately, there is not yet a way to statistically measure a catcher’s impact on game management. At the same, while it is appropriate to look at several statistics such as – win/loss percentage, opponent SLG, pitcher ERA – to paint a picture of the quality of a catcher’s mental IQ, there are too many confounding variables to get an accurate representation of a catchers ability to call a game on a pitcher’s overall performance. It is inevitable that baseball will attempt to create a way to measure the ability to call a game; with an exact measurable, we begin to see how big of an impact the art of pitch calling truly has been.
Given two thirds of a catcher’s responsibility is now the ability to hit, a catcher’s primary focus will be on his offensive attributes. The chart below sums it up.
Technology is here and here to stay. For the better or worse, technology has modernized the game and both players and organizations have no choice but to adapt with it. It is inevitable that the brand of baseball will incorporate more technology, but MLB must determine how far that can be without changing the game too drastically. Although these changes will have an impact at the highest level, MLB, it will be a matter of time before the effects of an automated strike zone trickles down to the next generation of catchers.
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