Welington Castillo and Pitch Framing: Key to Pitching Success in 2016

Feb 19, 2016; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Welington Castillo (7) during spring training camp at Salt River Fields. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 19, 2016; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Welington Castillo (7) during spring training camp at Salt River Fields. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports /

When the Arizona Diamondbacks traded what many thought was the organization’s franchise catcher in Miguel Montero, the Diamondbacks needed a new catcher.

Last June, the Diamondbacks acquired Welington Castillo in the Mark Trumbo trade. Castillo assumed the role as the D-backs’ starting catcher, and from day one he made an impact with the bat.

A career .251 hitter, the Dominican Republic native and Cubs 2004 amateur draftee hit 17 home runs in 80 games with the highest slugging percentage (.496), and OPS+ (116) of his six-year big-league career.

Tuffy Gosewisch started last season as the Diamondbacks’ starting catcher, and now he is fighting to stay on the 25-man roster as a backup because he has proven over his three major-league seasons that he cannot hit with a career .212 average.

Gosewisch is the better defensive catcher compiling a 0.6 dWAR compared with a 0.2 oWAR. Defense is every catcher’s top priority, and if “Beef Welington” is going to stick as the Snakes’ starter behind the plate, he is going to have improve upon his -0.1 dWAR that he posted with Arizona because just looking at HR/FB%, Castillo is due for regression. He doubled it from 12 percent to 21 percent, and he can’t be expected to produce at that level over a full season.

Castillo has done well defensively in the past. He posted a 2.8 dWAR in 113 games in 2013 and a 1.2 dWAR in 110 games in 2014. He is actually an above-average blocker, and he does a good job containing the run game but to stay valuable to the Diamondbacks, Castillo has to be a better pitch framer.

Elite pitch-framers like Francisco Cervelli of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Yasmani Grandal of the Los Angeles Dodgers have a huge impact on their pitching staff and their teams ability to win by getting extra strikes, increasing strikeout rates, and reducing runs. Empirically, the best framers according to multiple reports, are worth an average of 15 to 25 runs above average per season, but those are rough estimates.

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According to StatCorner, a site run by software developer Matthew Carruth, Cirvelli was worth 26.7 RAA to his team last year (1.79 per game), with 201 +Calls (the number of strikes a catcher gains or looses for his pitchers). Among catchers with a sample of 5,000 pitches, he ranked first in the majors.

Cervelli generated a zBall percentage (the number of called balls caught within the strike zone) of 13.7 and a 0Str percentage (the number of called strikes caught outside of the strike zone) of 10.7. Pitches that a hitter doesn’t swing at and are in the strike zone should be called strikes, and the same concept applies for pitches out of the zone.

The reason why the stats mentioned above exist is because catchers that barely move their body and glove when a pitch is thrown are very deceiving and from the perspective of the home-plate umpire calling the game, a pitch off the outside corner or below the knees can still be called a strike.

Here are two different examples of Cervelli’s pitch framing abilities. The first example is from this spring with the Pirates and the second example is from his time with the New York Yankees.

Comparatively speaking, Castillo is considered one of the worst pitch framers in baseball, and the numbers back that up. According to Stat Corner, only four other catchers with at least 5,000 pitches caught were worse at getting extra strikes for their pitches. When the D-backs lost Miguel Montero and acquired Castillo to essentially replace him, pitch framing was one of main concerns that people in baseball talked to me about.

In 2015, Castillo caught 5,111 pitches and was worth -10.9 RAA with -82 +Calls, and a much higher zBall% (16.3) compared to his 0Str% (6.8). The end of the steroid era is known for declines in scoring and home run rates, and a rise in strikeouts. People have explained this in many different ways including rising velocity, but pitch framing is having more of an impact than is being talked about.

In June of 2014, Harry Pavlidis of Baseball Prospectus wrote an interesting feature on this subject for ESPN the Magazine, and found that the Called Strike Rate in baseball went up from 48 percent to 52.5 percent in 2014. More called strikes are a direct result of better pitch framing. From 1994 to 2014 the strikeout rate has seen a 27.7 percent increase and pitch framing has a lot to do with that.

The impact on a pitching staff is real and can be measured. With Cervelli behind the plate, the Pirates staff had the second lowest FIP, which is a better indicator of pitcher performance, (3.36) and if you look at the team’s that were in the top 10 in K/BB ratio and K percentage, most of those have catchers that are good pitch framers. With Montero behind the plate, the Cubs had the third highest K/BB, and the highest K percentage.

D-backs pitchers had a K/BB ratio below league average (2.43) in 2015, and a lot of that has to do with Castillo’s inability to turn balls into extra strikes.

This study from Pavlidis and Dan Brooks of Baseball Prospectus proves that pitch framing has a impact on the win-loss record as well.

“Our data suggest that over the past five years, the teams that have employed good framers like Jonathan Lucroy, Brian McCann, and Jose Molina have received essentially “free” MVP-caliber seasons from framing alone. (Each of those catchers has been worth about two extra wins per season over that span). This is a staggering amount of value. Add in the fact that these wins are almost assuredly not properly priced into the free agent market, and the difference between having a good framing catcher or a bad framing catcher can make or break a cost-conscious team.”

Thanks to the second wild card, winning two extra games can be the difference between making or missing the playoffs, and two extra wins from framing alone can do that for a team. Bad framers like Castillo that cost their team’s three runs a game can have an impact when teams are playing more one run and two run games.

Castillo told the Arizona Republic that he is focused on getting better at this skill.

“I’ve been working really hard at it,” Castillo said. “I don’t worry about just being on the top of the list, I want to get myself and the pitching staff more calls.” “The better angle that I present it to the umpire, I think the more calls I’m going to get,” he said. “It’s all about angles. … I need to create a little angle with my body, be more square toward the plate.”

He understands that being a better pitch framer allows him to put his pitchers in more favorable counts. Every pitch matters, but the 1-1 count has the biggest single swing in a batters production. Through August 23 of last season, hitters were batting .169 in a 1-2 count, and .342 in a 2-1 count.

39 percent of all at-bats go to 1-1, and from 2011 to 2013, 37 percent of pitches in a 1-1 count were taken for either a called strike or a called ball. Being able to turn pitches that should be called a ball into a strike in that count can turn even the most feared hitters in the game into an easy out.

For example, Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals lead baseball in on-base percentage (.460), slugging-percentage (.649), OPS (1.109), and OPS+ (195) hitting 42 home runs on his way to winning his first MVP award. In a 2-1 count, Harper was unstoppable hitting .458 but in a 1-2 count Harper hit .235.

This is because in 1-2 counts, strikeouts are more likely because pitchers are free to pitch out of the zone with breaking balls and off speed stuff.

Tom Tango estimated in “The Book Playing the Percentages in Baseball,” that a strikeout was worth -.27 runs for the batting team, and a walk was worth +.30 runs. Switching from a called ball (.075) to a called strike (-.09) which is a .16 run swing. Over the course of a full season (162 games) that can be worth an additional 25.92 runs! 

If Castillo can improve his framing especially in 1-1 count situations, D-backs pitchers are going to strike out more hitters, go deeper into ballgames, and allow less runs. That in theory would lead to more wins for the team.

Robbie Ray, who will start the season in the fifth spot in the rotation, had trouble getting deep into ballgames last season thanks to frequently high pitch counts. Better framing would help.

Zack Greinke has praised Castillo for his framing this spring, so as you watch the rest of spring action, look at how Castillo is receiving pitches in his glove because believe it or not it will make a huge difference in pitcher performance as Jose Molina proved as the backstop for the Rays for so many years.