Francisco Cervelli's framing an advantage for Pirates

Francisco Cervelli's cause is helped by being friendly with home-plate umpires. Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Francisco Cervelli's approach to playing his position can best be described in three words: catching with care.

It's an approach that requires what baseball people call "having soft hands." To Cervelli, now in his second season as the Pittsburgh Pirates primary catcher, it is what's most important to his success behind the plate.

"What I've learned is that you have to love the ball," Cervelli said, describing what the term means to him. "You don't have to fight the ball. Let it come to you. Love, not fight ... love."

Cervelli is referring to what it takes to ensure that he's getting called strikes for his pitchers.

This skill is known as pitch-framing and since the start of last season, Cervelli is the best in the major leagues at it. Using a tool that judges the probability of every taken pitch being called a strike based on count and location, we can tell you that Cervelli has gotten 241 more called strikes than the average catcher would have gotten on those same pitches.

"It is hard," Cervelli said of catching pitches and giving his pitchers the best chance at a called strike. "Especially with some pitches, because the ball is not coming straight. I'm not thinking about stealing [strikes]. I'm just trying to receive the ball as best as possible."

We can further extrapolate that those extra strikes were worth 30 runs based on the change in run value from getting the called strike as compared to not getting it. That much of an impact can be a difference-maker, particularly to a small-market team like the Pirates that is trying to compete with the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs in the NL Central.

In particular, Cervelli is very good at getting the borderline pitch called a strike. This season, he has gotten called strikes on 56 pitches that had a 25 percent chance or less of being called a strike based on count and pitch location, the most in the majors.

Pitch presentation -- which some players prefer to "framing" -- is different for every pitcher. Catching a righty is different from catching a lefty. Each pitcher has a different repertoire. Three of the pitchers with whom Cervelli has excelled most are pretty different -- now-retired A.J. Burnett, lefty Francisco Liriano and closer Mark Melancon.

"A.J. was really fun because he has the curveball and a big sinker he can put on the outside corner for righties and the inside corner for lefties," Cervelli said. "The key for him was to wait, wait, wait for the ball and catch it as deep as possible.

"With Liriano, every pitch moves so late that I have to be worried about blocking pitches. You've got to get under his [slider] because it's so hard and sometimes it's too low. You have to try not to move so much and work with your eyes.

"A guy like Mark Melancon, he can hit your glove any time you want, where you want, with his cutter, sinker and curve. You want him to be good pitching to the corners and make [those pitches] look right."

The Pirates' pitching staff is one that emphasizes keeping the ball down and getting ground balls. Cervelli plays into this an important way because his strength is in getting calls on pitches at the bottom of, or near the bottom of the strike zone. He rates by far the best at that in the major leagues. He's 81.5 strikes above average better than the next-best catcher.

Cervelli works his craft with both his eyes and with his body. One scout described what Cervelli does behind the plate as a "subtle sway," which allows him to shift into position to provide a clear look for the umpire. Cervelli goes through a daily set of drills with tennis balls and golf balls taught to him by Yankees coach Gary Tuck so that he can practice both his catching and body positioning.

Another thing that the scout pointed out, which most people wouldn't know, was that Cervelli has a good relationship with plate umpires.

"He has an outgoing personality," the scout said.

That also allows Cervelli to make adjustments to make sure what he thinks are strikes become called strikes.

"It's important to have a good relationship," Cervelli said, even noting that he does his best to make sure umpires don't get hit by stray pitches. "Playing every day, you understand that umpires are humans, too. We're all going to make mistakes. I try to control the situation and emotions to have a better reaction. You want to feel comfortable with them, talk and then make adjustments through the game."

Putting a value on what Cervelli does is challenging, because it requires looking at the game in a different way than many are used to doing. But some of the new methodologies that allow the calculation of things like strike probability are well regarded and Cervelli's contributions are now more publicly recognizable.

The Pirates fully appreciate what he brings beyond his pitch presentation.

"It's priceless," pitching coach Ray Searage said. "Everything he does behind the plate -- his execution and game calling -- helps build the trust between him and the entire pitching staff. He has grown tremendously as a catcher in the two years he has been here."

But Cervelli still feels as if he has more to do and more "love" to give.

"I feel like I'm not there yet," he said. "I'm going to keep working until my very last day."