One of the most difficult things to measure in baseball is catcher defense. In earlier posts, I have attempted to quantify this facet of the game based on how well catchers stop the running game, block pitches and avoid errors. Those items only account for a portion of a catcher's responsibility though. For example, they say nothing about game calling or understanding of pitcher abilities and tendencies.
Another part of catcher defense that has not been measured until recently is pitch framing or receiving. You have probably heard broadcast analysts such as Tim McCarver talk about how catchers can get umpires to call more strikes by the way they receive the ball. You may have scoffed at the notion that a catcher could consistently influence major league umpires to call more strikes. Sure, umpires make mistakes but not because of the way a catcher receives the ball, Right? Actually, recent research suggests that catcher receiving may indeed be an important skill with more value that one might think.
Former Baseball Prospectus researcher and current Astro statistician Mike Fast tried to quantify the value of pitch receiving by using Pitch f/x to determine where strikes were typically called by umpires. He figured out which pitchers were getting more or less strikes than they should given the location of pitches. This allowed him to isolate the effect of individual catchers on balls and strikes. He found big differences between the best and worst catchers in the league. Moreover, he determined that is seemed to be a skill that was consistent from year to year.
Fast determined that, from 2007-2011, part-time catcher Jose Molina got 551 more called strikes than you would expect for an average catcher. According to for Baseball Prospectus writer and and current Rays statistician Dan Turkenkopf, turning a ball into a strike is worth about .133 runs on average. So, Molina saved his teams an estimated 73 runs or 35 runs per 120 games with his pitch receiving skill. How substantial is 35 runs per 120 games? That's about how many runs Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre has produced with his bat this year which is a lot.
On the flip side, Fast estimated that Ryan Doumit cost the Pirates 26 runs per 120 games on balls/strikes during the same period. Most catchers were much closer to average than Molina and Doumit. One of the better ones according to Fast's work was Tigers backstop Alex Avila at 13 runs per 120 games from 2009-2011.
Max Marchi, who works for Baseball Prospectus and has consulted with a major league team, did further work on pitch receiving making adjustments for umpire, ballpark, batter, ball-strike count, pitch location and type. Marchi estimated that Molina saved his teams 111 runs from 2008 through early 2013, a number that caught the attention of Rays manager Joe Maddon. Marchi also confirmed that Doumit was awful on balls/strikes.
A visual difference between Molina and Doumit can be seen in a Grantland article by Ben Lindbergh. If you watch carefully, you'll see that there is very little movement when Molina catches a ball. His body is still and the ball falls quietly into his mitt. On the other hand, Doumit shows a lot more motion jerking his head and lunging at the ball as if he is reaching to pull it into the strike zone. Lindbergh notes that this happens consistently on their pitches which could be what is influencing umpires.
Complete pitch framing data are not available at Baseball Prospectus at this time, but Matthew Carruth publishes some data at Stat Corner. I don't believe his method makes all the same adjustments as Marchi's algorithm, but it's probably a reasonable approximation. Carruth establishes the strike zone base on pitch f/x and umpire calls and tracks the rate of called balls within the zone and called strikes outside the zone for each catcher.
According to Carruth's data, Avila is still good at pitch framing getting 30 more calls than would be expected from the average catcher. That translates to 4 runs on the season or 7 per 120 games. Additionally, back-up catcher Brayan Pena has saved the Tigers 3.5 runs or about 10 runs per 120 games.
Neither Avila nor Pena are in the class of Molina or Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who leads all catchers with 25 runs saved in 2013. However, the Tigers duo has performed above average and it's something to watch the next time you tune into a game.