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How one subtlety could seal A.J. Ellis's fate

LOS ANGELES -- When Andrew Friedman was still working out of his office in St. Petersburg, Fla., he gave Ryan Hanigan -- a career .256 hitter -- a three-year, $10.75 million deal. He lived with the fact that his other catcher, Jose Molina, batted .178 last year while hitting no home runs.

The reason Friedman and the Tampa Bay Rays valued those two catchers where other teams did not comes down to one of the game’s most important subtleties, pitch framing, which could, in turn, frame the conversation about what the Dodgers do at the catching position this winter. For years, Hanigan and Molina were the masters at holding their mitt in the right position to convince the umpire pitches were strikes. Friedman’s group found a way to quantify the skill and, slowly, others have caught on, making pitch framing one of the frontiers in baseball analytics.

It might not be good news for one of the most popular players in the Dodgers’ clubhouse, A.J. Ellis. According to ESPN Stats and Info, when Ellis was catching, 80.1 percent of pitches inside the strike zone were called strikes. That ranked 35th out of 42 catchers studied. Ellis got strike calls on 8.3 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, well below the major-league average of 9 percent.

Let’s compare those numbers to the top free-agent catcher on the market, former Dodger Russell Martin. On pitches both inside the strike zone and outside the zone, Martin gets way more calls than the average catcher. On strikes, umpires called it correctly 85.5 percent of the time. On balls, they called it incorrectly 9.4 percent of the time.

While 80.1 percent to 85.5 percent might not jump out as the biggest chasm, it is when you consider that the average starting catcher frames more than 9,000 pitches a season.

What’s the value in one catcher getting 450 calls a year -- say, five a game -- more than the next guy? What's the value in stealing one pitch a game that should have been called a ball, but isn't? If you're striking somebody out to end an inning with the bases loaded, pretty important.

We’ll find out just how valuable it is, because early reports suggest Martin, 31, wants a deal in the four-year, $60 million range.