Q&A: Russell Martin on the Art of Pitch Framing

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images Russell Martin

After years of seeing poor receivers like Ryan Doumit cost them strikes, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Russell Martin to the biggest free-agent contract in franchise history over the winter. According to Baseball Prospectus analyst Max Marchi’s pitch-framing statistics, Martin, a converted infielder who worked hard at becoming a better receiver, ranks fourth among major league catchers with more than 105 runs saved because of framing from 2008 to present, or roughly 0.23 runs per 100 pitches. Pittsburgh’s two-year, $17 million commitment is already paying dividends. With Martin behind the plate picking up extra strikes, the Pirates had their best April since 1992, the last season they were a winning team. I caught up with Martin to find out how he does it before a game at Citizens Bank Park.

With PITCHf/x in the past few years, people have tried to put a value on turning a ball into a strike, and what the best catchers are worth. Have you seen those stats? Have you noticed more emphasis on it from teams or coaches?

It’s been talked about more. It never really used to be talked about. I’ve always known that it makes a big difference, just looking at the greats over the years that have been really good receivers, but there’s never been an association with numbers. It’s kind of hard to put a value on it. It’s hard to illustrate.

This is a plot of the called strikes for all the Pirates pitchers. The first image is the last five seasons, and then the second image is this season. The red area is where the called strikes are. This season it’s been a much bigger blotch than the last five seasons, so that seems to suggest that might be you doing something.

Short sample right now, though.

Yeah, definitely.

But yeah, sure.

It seems like the main difference is on the top and bottom there. Is there an area that you feel like you’re most able to get those extra strikes?

Probably bottom-middle of the zone. I’ve always been pretty good at getting that pitch.

[Note: From 2008 to present, Martin’s rate of getting strikes on called pitches below the zone by two inches or less has been 13 percent above average. He’s been 19 percent above average at getting strikes on called pitches above the zone by two inches or less, and 24 percent above average at getting strikes on called pitches off the edges by two inches or less.]

April 5, 2013

Jonathan Sanchez pitching to Andre Ethier. 2-1 count, 90 mph four-seam fastball. Home plate umpire: Mark Carlson.

One thing you’re doing here that you don’t do in the other pitches that I’ve got here is, you drop down to one knee before the pitch.

That’s just to give Sanchy another look. It allows me to free my left side completely. With Sanchez, I can get in a lower spot and kind of catch the ball on the way up, or try and time it where I’m catching it and coming up at the same time.

But my goal is not to steal strikes, it’s to keep strikes strikes. I don’t want to lose strikes. The key is trying to fight against what the ball is naturally wanting you to do.

Are there drills that you can do to improve that, or is it a wrist strength thing?

I don’t know if you can really teach it. You have to talk about it. Because if you just tell somebody to catch the ball, they’re not going to understand. They’ll just say, “OK, I’ll catch it.” Any ball that’s coming away from the plate, you try and get it out in front as much as possible, to make it look like it’s on the plate. Catching a slider here [gets into crouch, holds glove hand way out in front of him] as opposed to catching it back here [brings glove hand back toward his body] … I mean, it looks like an absolute ball if you catch it [close to the body]. But if you catch it out front and you present it well, it looks more like a strike.

Is it more of a challenge with someone who struggles with his control and you don’t know that he’s going to hit the target? Are you just trying to catch the ball more so than frame it?

There are some guys that you just try to catch the ball, because sometimes they’re not controlling whether they’re sinking it or cutting it; guys that are a little erratic. I remember when I was with the Dodgers, a guy who had great stuff but was a bit erratic was Chad Billingsley. And with him, I just tried to catch the ball. He wasn’t necessarily a pinpoint location guy, so it was tough for me to get strikes for him, because his stuff was so good, his breaking ball was so sharp.

Is it something you do more often with him [Sanchez] than with someone who hits his spot every time?

If it’s a ball, I just catch it, throw it back. Or if it’s right down the middle, I just catch it and throw it back. When it’s a borderline pitch and I need it in a situation, I’ll try and catch and stick it, and hold it for a little extra time. But for the most part, I’m just trying to catch the ball and kind of help the rhythm of the umpire as well. You don’t even mess with him, because if you hold it too long and it’s a borderline pitch and you do it all the time, the fans will start screaming and everybody, the benches, start talking and stuff, and umpires don’t really appreciate that.

You get greedy and you try to … you know where the strike zone is, and sometimes you’re like, I need that pitch to be a strike! And you’ll catch it off the end of the glove, and that’ll kind of take it away. So that gets me in trouble, too. Because if your glove’s on the plate, you get more calls that way, too. So sometimes I see myself, I’m catching balls right on the tip of my glove. Playing with fire there.

April 29, 2011

Buddy Carlyle pitching to J.P. Arencibia. 1-2 count, 87 mph cutter. Home plate umpire: John Hirschbeck.

Are you just trying to get it back into the zone as quickly as possible and as subtly as possible?

I just tried to make it pop. And that ball doesn’t look like it’s a strike from that angle, but it’s kind of an off-center angle. It’s a little slider. I must have made the mitt pop right there, you know what I’m saying? That’s one of those situations where, at the right time, if you get that good pop, it excites the umpire and you get that strike.

You don’t want to pull it back obviously.

Yeah, you don’t want to make a big pull, like a Mike Piazza “I’m pulling it all the way back over there.” It doesn’t really work too much. It works in Little League, maybe.

June 16, 2010

Clayton Kershaw pitching to Scott Rolen. 2-2 count and 3-2 count, both 94 mph four-seam fastballs. Home plate umpire: Hunter Wendelstedt.

This is going back to Dodger days. I’m going to show you a two-pitch sequence, so this is the 2-2, and you don’t get the call. Is there anything you could have done that you didn’t to get the call, or is it just one of those things where you’re doing everything perfectly, but you just don’t happen to get the call?

He thought it was low. I mean, it is low a little bit.

[Makes exasperated sound.] Maybe if I’m a little sharper, a little cleaner with it, maybe. But I felt like it was presented decently.

This was the hardest pitch I’m going to show you, 94 miles per hour. Is it harder to frame a pitch that’s coming in fast, or is it easier because it’s not moving as much?

I’ll tell you what’s hard with this. There are some pitchers that have the freedom to throw a four-seamer or a two-seamer, so you don’t know whether their fastball’s going to sink or kind of run. Those guys, like A.J. Burnett’s one of them, they have the freedom, and you want them to have the freedom on the mound to do whatever they want to do.

This is the very next pitch in that at-bat. Also 94 miles per hour, just a little lower, even. And you got the call that time.

You know, I might’ve said something about the previous call. [Laughs.]

There are runners on first and third there. Do you focus less on framing a pitch when you’ve got runners on base to worry about?

Body positioning is a little bit different when there are runners on base. It plays in on how you’re angled. A lot of catchers these days, when there’s guys on base, they cheat a little bit. So their body’s turned to get in a throwing position where they can shorten their footwork and the amount of body movement they need to throw the ball to second base. When there’s nobody on, you can just get in a really comfortable position.

Rolen got thrown out arguing that call, and then Dusty Baker did too. Is it satisfying when you feel like you get a borderline pitch called a strike and a guy goes back to the dugout shaking his head? Do you feel like, “I did that” or “I played a part in that”?

No. Honestly, no. I mean, I’m a competitor, so I enjoy winning the game, but I want the game to be played fair, and I want to get every strike I can for my pitcher, and I’m honest. You have to have an honest relationship if you want trust from the umpires, and that’s why I feel like it’s dangerous to be called a “strike stealer.” I want to be more of a “strike getter” or a “strike keeper.” But if you catch the ball the right way, every once in a while you do get a call. And just like anybody else, sometimes I don’t get calls.

I don’t know if that answers your question. You asked me if it was satisfying …

As a hitter, when it happens to you, I guess it’s frustrating.

It is frustrating.

So when it works the other way …

It feels good because you know that you’re helping the team win. But at the same time, you don’t want umpires to make bad calls.

July 20, 2011

David Robertson pitching to B.J. Upton. 0-0 count, 92 mph cutter. Home plate umpire: Dan Iassogna.

Are you trying to change the umpire’s frame of reference by setting up so far inside that it looks like a strike?

I want to make sure that the pitch is in there, and sometimes I cut umpires off with my head, where they can’t really see where the ball is. And David Robertson, his ball just naturally comes back toward the plate. It looks good to the umpire, and for the hitter it looks horrible. That ball, it looks like it’s in between — yeah, it’s clearly inside a little bit.

Do you try to angle yourself to give the umpire a better view?

If they ask me. I’m not necessarily thinking about it, because I can’t see the umpire. Seeing it from this angle now I know what they’re talking about when they tell me they have a hard time seeing the pitch inside. [Laughs.] For me, I’m more worried about my pitcher executing a pitch against B.J. Upton. You have to get the ball in on B.J. He’s got really quick hands.

August 27, 2012

David Phelps pitching to Kelly Johnson. 0-1 count, 88 mph slider. Home plate umpire: Angel Hernandez.

You can see him cursing at the end there.

He doesn’t like it. Yeah, that ball’s inside a little bit too. Umpires are human. They miss every once in a while.

Do you feel like in the future, if they were to have some sort of automated ball-strike system, it would take some of the technique out of catching? You wouldn’t have all this nuance, trying to frame the pitch and trying to present it the right way.

It would take away from part of that, the … what’s the word I’m looking for?

The art?

Yeah, it’s definitely, it’s a skill, it’s an art. I mean, that’s what catching is all about. If you can’t make that comebacker look good for Greg Maddux while he’s with the Braves, he’s not the same pitcher. There would be a lot of a lot of curveballs that are down in the zone, don’t get called, that cross over the plate. If it was automated and that pitch would get called, it would be devastating for hitters. Because there are curveballs that cross like, right here [goes into crouch, holds glove where the bottom of the zone would be], and I’m catching down here [holds glove lower and behind where the plate would be]. It never gets called, ever. If I catch a curveball [low], I feel like more often than not, that’s crossing a strike. But you’ll never get that call. If it was automated, it would be ugly; the calls that would be made. Guys would be like, “What are you talking about?”

Do you have any sense of what [pitch framing] is worth to a team?

I don’t know what it does in wins or runs, but in baseball terms, one pitch can change a whole game. One pitch, one count. What’s the difference between going 2-2 instead of 3-1? I mean, it’s a big difference. How important is it? If you’re building a team and you’ve got a young pitching staff, and you’ve got a catcher who’s going to be a middle-of-the-order hitter, it’s a tough call. Do you want to go with the guy who’s going to be a good receiver, or do you want to be the guy who’s going to score some runs for you? Who knows what’s worth more to a team? I don’t know.

If you could choose between catchers who are average across the board but excellent in one area — whether it’s a really good throwing arm, good game caller, good pitch blocker, or a really good pitch framer — which do you think is the most important over the course of a year?

One thing I do know, I feel like it’d be a lot easier to teach somebody how to frame a pitch than it would be to teach them how to hit homers and drive in runs. [Laughs.] Now how good you become, I think it’s just a matter of repetition. I learned a lot from just watching and observing, and I’m sure there are kids that are watching the Molinas and Poseys and all those guys and seeing what they’re doing now, and they’re kind of putting that to work at a young age.

Are there catchers that take it less seriously? Like, they think, “I’ve got to catch the pitch, but it doesn’t matter how I catch the pitch”? Are there guys who work much harder at it than others?

I honestly think it’s a skill that if you do work at it and you’re taught the right way, you can definitely teach it. Because I was taught. I started at 20, and I had a coach who taught me about, like early on, the importance of getting the low strike, and going to get it. And he talked about getting it this way [holds glove rigidly], and I kind of changed it to just keeping it loose.

The more you work at it, the better you can get at it. How good you can be? I don’t know. To me, the best are the Molinas. I feel like they’re really, really, really good.

Filed Under: MLB, Los Angeles Dodgers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Grantland Q&A