Since his 2019 debut, the Dodgers Will Smith has been the best hitting catcher in baseball. Over his 333 career plate appearances, he’s posted a 144 wRC+, which ranks 1st among catchers and 14th best among all batters between 2019 and 2020 (minimum 200 PA). It’s not just good luck, either. He’s the real deal. Take a look at Smith’s 2020 Baseball Savant page and you’ll see a sea of red. All of his expected stats and quality of contact metrics are either very good or elite.
Did I say sea of red? What I meant was ocean of red and an island of blue. According to Statcast’s pitch framing metric, Smith was in the 6th percentile at framing up strikes in 2020. In other words, 94% of major league catchers were better at this important skill than Smith. Other major framing evaluation systems largely agree. FanGraphs FRM (when normalized by innings pitched) puts Smith’s framing in the 10th percentile (minimum 50 innings) while Baseball Prospectus CSAA is a bit more bullish, putting him in the 26th percentile. Each framing system comes with its own host of assumptions, but they all attempt to answer the same question: How good is a catcher at converting balls and borderline pitches into strikes? In the case of Smith, they all say the same thing: He was well below average in 2020.
This comes as a surprise given Smith’s average to solidly above average framing (depending on the metric) just one year prior. Baseball Savant ranks his 2019 framing in the 68th percentile, FanGraphs in the 49th percentile and Baseball Prospectus in the 65th percentile. As a prospect, Smith developed a reputation as a very good defensive catcher (with a mediocre offensive grade, lol) and he certainly lived up to that reputation in 2019. Although there’s much more to the defensive role of a catcher than framing, it was certainly never a concern in the minors.
Was 2020 just a down season? Is Smith’s framing in 2020 the real Smith? We can’t know the future, but we can probe the pitch calling data for clues about what happened in 2020 and perhaps that foretells a bit of what’s to come.
In order to dig deeper into the individual contributing factors of Smith’s framing performance, I needed to build a framing model. I decided to use a model adopted from Jared Cross (maintainer of the Steamer projection system on FanGraphs). I changed a couple components for computational efficiency, but it’s very similar. The base metric it uses to compare the framing of pitchers is something I call Called Strikes Above Expected per 100 Called Pitches (CSAE/100). It’s basically a measure of the additional strike calls a catcher receives above what a model of the average umpire would have called, given the pitch location, count and handedness of the batter, all normalized to “per 100 called pitches”.
As a sanity check, I ran the model on 2019 and 2020 catcher seasons. Below are density plots from both seasons. Along the x-axis is CSAE/100. A value greater than 0 indicates that a catcher is getting more strike calls than the model expects they would from an average umpire, and that increase is thought to be due to above average pitch framing. The red curvy blobs are “densities” and represent the distribution of catchers’ CSAE/100. There tend to be be more catchers near zero CSAE/100, which is why the peaks are close to 0. I’ve included vertical dashed lines to show CSAE/100 for Smith and fellow Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes (who is an exceptional framer).
As you can see, the framing system I’ve build here ranks Smith similarly to other framing systems in both 2019 and 2020. He’s above average in 2019 but significantly below below average in 2020.
Catcher framing tends to be highly regionalized. That is to say, catchers are better at getting strike calls in some regions around the strike zone than they are other regions around the zone and the “strength” regions vary by catcher. Maybe Smith was simply receiving more pitches to weaker regions and relatively fewer in this strength regions.
Below I’ve plotted CSAE/100 into spatial bins around the strike zone for both 2019 (top row) and 2020 (bottom row). Red regions indicate above average framing (more strike calls than expected), while blue regions indicate below average framing (fewer strike calls than expected).
In 2019, Smith was slightly below average at framing strikes in the lower regions of the strike zone, but slightly above average almost everywhere else. That profile changed in 2020, when his framing declined just about everywhere. If his strength regions were the same between 2019 and 2020, the two profiles would look the same, but they don’t. So it does appear that he got worse at framing nearly everywhere around the strike zone. Incidentally, Barnes is a full-blown ninja at framing pitches low. He was good in 2019 but truly exceptional in 2020. So good, in fact, that it makes up for his below average framing on the left side of the plate.
That solves it, right? Smith is not merely a victim of circumstance. His framing actually declined at multiple regions around the strike zone. That’s true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Smith was catcher to 20 pitchers in the 2020 season. Some of these guys throw with questionable command of the strike zone. Framing systems don’t (and can’t) account for how far a pitch is from its target. That’s because, as yet, you can’t really measure intent. Nonetheless, it’s much more difficult to sell a pitch as a strike when the catcher has to whip their glove across the zone to receive the ball. Qualitatively, we know which pitchers tend to be more wild.
Below I’m visualizing Smith and Barnes’ framing (CSAE/100) specific to the 20 Dodgers pitchers that they caught in 2020. I’m also showing their CSAE/100 for the 2019 season, if either caught that particular pitcher pitcher in 2019. Again, anything above 0 is above average framing. The numbers on each bar are the number of called pitches received by a catcher for that particular pitcher-catcher pairing in any season.
Most of Smith’s called pitches came from Julio Urías (375 called pitches, representing 17% of Smith’s called pitches), Dustin May (218, 9.9%), Tony Gonsolin (198, 9%), and Walker Buehler (197, 9%). Barnes was effectively Clayton Kershaw‘s personal catcher in 2020. That adds up to nearly 50% of the called pitches Smith caught, so I’ll focus on the above four pitchers.
As you can see in the plot above, neither Smith nor Barnes were able to produce even average framing for May in either 2019 or 2020. Over 164 called pitches, the best Barnes could do was slightly below average in 2020. Despite an above average framing season in 2019 for Smith overall, his framing for May specifically was well below average, then got even worse in 2020. This would appear to be the convergence of two effects: (1) May often misses the targets pitchers set up for him, so he’s difficult to frame in the first place and (2) Smith’s framing dipped in 2020. In the plot below, I’m showing CSAE/100 into spatial bins for Smith and Barnes 2019 and 2020 seasons, split by a few select pitchers so you can compare each catcher’s framing for each pitcher in spatial terms. Each little dot is a called pitch. You can see that Smith fails to provide good framing for May in any region.
Smith’s framing for Urias was below average in both 2019 and 2020 but didn’t decline between the two seasons. In one sense, this is a good thing. Smith’s overall dip in framing did not further worsen his framing matchup with Urías. But Barnes’ 2019 framing numbers show that Urías is a frameable pitcher, largely because of pitches caught low near the edge of the zone. This suggests a poor pitcher-catcher matchup, in terms of location and framing strength zones. Note: Ignore Barnes’ 2020 numbers with Urias. It’s only 40 called pitches.
Gonsolin makes for an almost ideal pitching matchup with Barnes. He has great command and loves to throw his splitter low. The framing model substantiates this assumption. Barnes’ framing overall for Gonsolin is well above average, and is specifically elite low in the zone. Smith’s framing of Gonslin improved between 2019 and 2020, actually. And in the plot below, you can see that this is due to significant improvements low in the zone, where Gonsolin loves to throw.
Buehler is the one starter Smith improved his framing on. Buehler is known for throwing his electric fastball high in or just above the zone and there are indeed a lot of pitches thrown there, but that’s not where Smith showed improvement. As you can see below, the improvement came mostly from pitches in the lower left corner of the zone. I’m not sure why that is, frankly. It could be Buehler hitting his targets better when Smith would set up there. It would take extensive review of the video archives to confirm this.
We just trudged through a lot of data. What does it all mean? Well, one thing is now clear: Will Smith’s framing took a step back in 2020. This dip in framing performance can be seen just about everywhere around the zone. Although he caught a lot of pitches from May, and although Dustin is difficult to frame, this doesn’t account for enough of Smith’s observed decline to serve as an overall excuse. In other words: His 2020 (probably) wasn’t just bad luck. I think Smith was actually a worse framer in 2020. To be clear, this doesn’t mean he can’t bounce back. 2020 was a short and odd season for everyone so who knows what impacted performance declines. In general, pitch framing is pretty stable season-to-season, so maybe in 2021, he’ll be somewhere between 2019 and 2020.
Smith’s bat is so prolific, his framing and his overall defense could be significantly worse and he would still make his way into just about any roster as the primary catcher. But with Barnes, the Dodgers are presented with a bit of a dilemma: If Smith’s framing doesn’t improve, how do they balance the framing utility of Barnes with the offensive prowess of Smith? With this quote from Dave Roberts, we learned the Dodgers may have already answered that question.
To start the 2021 season, we’ll likely see a nearly 50/50 split between Smith and Barnes. This should give ample opportunity for Smith to continue working on his framing as well as opportunities for Barnes to continue to work on his offense. I don’t think pitcher-catcher matchups will be assigned early on, as both catchers need a chance to sink or swim. As the summer continues, we will likely see roles solidify. If Smith is hitting the way he has historically and his framing improves, it’ll be hard to justify a 50/50 split between Smith and Barnes. If Smith’s framing struggles continue, we may see Barnes maintain a bigger role than the average “backup catcher.”