It has been a rough go for New York Mets catchers at the plate this season, with Travis d’Arnaud injured, with issues seemingly robbing him of power and arm-strength, and Kevin Plawecki and Rene Rivera gamely trying to fill in. Their numbers rank at or near the bottom at the position in notable areas, including OPS and RBIs.
But during this run at a wild-card bid, Mets catchers are doing something better than any of their counterparts -- help their pitchers get extra strikes through pitch framing. It’s the hidden key to their success.
The Mets rank third in the majors in terms of extra called strikes gotten. The system we (and others) use, with the help of our friends at TruMedia, is to look at every pitch and determine how often it is called a strike, based on the count on the batter and the pitch location. Catchers are rewarded for getting called strikes that other catchers don’t and demerited when a ball is called on a pitch that is often a strike.
The top four teams in the majors in getting extra strikes are the Dodgers, Giants, Mets and Cubs. In fact, if you rank the top seven NL teams in that stat, they’re a match for the seven teams that entered Friday with winning records.
And this is something that has been there for the Mets during the run that began on Aug. 20, when Yoenis Cespedes’ home run to beat the Giants got their season pointed towards a playoff spot. They rank second to the Dodgers since that date.
But what’s distinct about the Mets is this: The Giants and Dodgers each have one great pitch-framer (Buster Posey and Yasmani Grandal) and the Cubs have two (Miguel Montero and David Ross). The Mets have three.
What’s the tangible impact?
On a game-by-game basis, take Friday night's win as an example. Rivera and d'Arnaud had a great game. They got 5.5 more strikes than would have been expected from the pitches that Phillies' hitters took. It was their sixth-best game of the season in that regard
On a broader basis, the Mets led the league in called-strike rate last season and lead again in 2016. Bartolo Colon and Jacob deGrom ranked 4-5 in the NL in strikeout-to-walk ratio last season. Noah Syndergaard ranks second in 2016 (though admittedly he’s more reliant on swinging strikes). Addison Reed’s 6.6 strikeout-to-walk rate dwarves any of his previous four seasons. Jerry Blevins’ ratio is the second-best in his career.
D’Arnaud may take a lot of heat from New York sports-talk radio and fans for his offensive and defensive struggles, but his pitch-framing work has been All-Star caliber. Since the start of the second half, d’Arnaud ranks third in strikes looking above average (known as SLAA), behind only Grandal and Posey. For the season, he ranks third in SLAA (think of that stat as a counting stat like home runs) and eighth in SLAA+ (the “rate” version of the stat -- think of it as catching’s version of home run percentage). Though each of the Mets’ three catchers excels at making sure pitches in the zone are called strikes, what gets the attention of the pitching staff is the ones outside the zone on which they get calls.
“There’s been a couple of times just this season that I’ve went back and looked at video just because I wanted to see how low the ball was, and how good of a strike (d’Arnaud) made it look,” Reed told ESPN's Adam Rubin in April, and he reiterated that point on Thursday.
“He’s the best I’ve ever thrown to at doing that. Just the way he frames the ball, it’s unbelievable. He makes balls that are four or five inches below the zone look like they’re almost right down the middle by just the way he flicks his wrist. I couldn’t even tell you how he does it.”
The numbers bear Reed out. With the White Sox and Diamondbacks, when Reed threw a knee-high fastball (or a pitch below the knees) that the hitter didn’t swing at, he got called strikes 38 percent of the time. Since joining the Mets, that rate has jumped to 49 percent. D’Arnaud is largely responsible for that.
“Travis is the one who really stands out,” Reed said on Thursday. “And that’s not to take anything away from Kevin or Rene.”
Pitch-framing has been Plawecki’s forte since he arrived in Flushing. Over the last two seasons, he ranks eighth in SLAA and ninth in SLAA+, adjacent to d’Arnaud in both cases. Rivera came to New York with a rep for being good at pitch-framing (he ranked second in SLAA+ with the Padres in 2014) and that has held true, even with the challenge of trying to frame the 99-mph fastballs and dirt-bound sliders of Syndergaard.
And it’s Rivera who gets the last word on the subject
“I just catch the ball,” Rivera said when the topic was brought up to him earlier this season. “Know what the ball is going to do. Just set up in the right place and catch the ball. I try to be in the right position. That’s the main thing. Know your pitcher. You want to be comfortable, feel the best way you can feel.
“I never call it framing. I call it receiving the ball in the right place.”
In this case, that place may be the postseason.