CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – Catcher Roberto Perez set up on the inside corner of the plate as reliever Andrew Miller peered in for the sign, found one to his liking and fired toward the plate.
The 96.6 MPH offering made its way toward the dish as Royals pinch-hitter Christian Colon awaited the 2-2 pitch. But as the ball got closer to the strike zone, it began to settle below the lower inside corner, appearing to drift out of the zone entirely.
It was at that point, Perez caught the offering and quickly flicked his left wrist back within the imaginary box which hovers above home plate, dividing the often thin line between balls and strikes.
Home plate umpire Carlos Torres took a look at the framed glove of Perez, raised his right arm and punched out Colon for the second out in the eighth inning, keeping the speedy Terrance Gore at third base, the tying run in Tuesday night’s key sequence between the Indians and Royals.
One batter later, Whit Merrifield was rung up on nearly an identical 96.4 MPH fastball from Miller, as Perez, once again, used his quick hands to turn a potential ball into a called third strike, ending Kansas City’s rally and keeping Tuesday’s game deadlocked at one.
How big was the sequence between Miller and Colon?
According to the win probability provided at BaseballReference.com, the called third strike was the second biggest play in the ballgame, taking Cleveland from a 39 percent chance to win to 52 percent.
And as for the strikeout of Merrifield? It increased the Indians’ chances to 62 percent. For those scoring at home, that pair of strikeouts represented a 23 percent swing in Tuesday’s victory.
“I think he’s helping us out a lot,” Miller said of Perez after the game. “He gives us the ability to just go out there and throw whatever we want. He’s going to knock it down, make it look like a strike, whatever it is. He’s pretty awesome.”
Cleveland went on to win the game in walk-off fashion, 2-1.
WHAT IS FRAMING?
Some don’t like to use the word framing to describe a catcher’s attempt to make a ball look like a strike. In some ways, the word itself has some negative connotations tied to it, as if the team’s backstop is trying to lie to an umpire about how good a pitch truly was.
Others have now chosen to refer to the art of pitch receiving as presentation.
Whatever you call it, the desire to add calls for a pitcher is not anything new for catchers. We’re only just now getting to a point, especially with PITCHf/x data and other tracking tools becoming a bigger part of player evaluation, where we can begin to quantify how much value presentation/framing provides.
And when it comes to stealing calls, Perez has become one of baseball’s best catchers.
Before we get into some of the particulars, it is first fair to preface the stats by acknowledging a perfect system is still not in place. Sometimes the data tied to pitches that should be balls or strikes leave some room for error.
But if we use the information currently available to us, we see Perez’s name regularly near the top of pitch framing leaderboards.
In terms of data compiled by StatCorner, the Indians’ catcher ranks seventh in baseball, among catchers with at least 3,000 pitches received this season, in calls added per game (0.96). That per-game average is also tops in the American League this season.
And as far as RAA (runs above average) goes, another way of helping to determine value added behind the dish, Perez ranks third in the league (5.6), trailing just Jason Castro and Brian McCann, despite playing in limited time this year due to an early season thumb injury.
What does that all mean?
Quite simply, Perez is making life easier on his pitchers by getting them a few extra strike calls. And as we witnessed on Tuesday, sometimes one or two calls can be the difference between winning and losing.
“You just throw it in the general direction of home plate,” Indians reliever Cody Allen said, “and if it’s close to the plate, you might get a strike.”
HOW ABOUT SOME EXAMPLES?
Let’s look at the two sequences in Cleveland’s opening matchup against the Kansas City Royals.
In the first frame, we see where Perez sets up, just off the inside corner as he prepares to catch a fastball offering from the lethal and devastating Miller.
Colon chooses to take the pitch from Miller, understandable as the ball appears to come in just a little low and inside. That part of the strike zone is usually where the southpaw registers swinging strikeouts with his dominant slider, but this time, a fastball is taken in the same area.
Faster than you can blink, Perez flicks the wrist in an upward motion, raising the eye level of the home plate umpire to produce the called third strike in potentially the second-biggest play in the ballgame.
One batter later, Perez is once again set up on the inner portion of the plate. This time, it’s a 3-2 delivery on the way from Miller, who is preparing to, once again, fire a hard fastball down and in.
The pitch could not be caught any closer to the lefty’s previous pitch to Colon, as Perez, once again, catches the payoff offering and uses his quick wrists to position the ball back in the perceived portion of the strike zone.
In what looks like an instant replay, the Royals hitter second straight hitter is rung up on the pitch. This time, the called third strike ends the inning and kills Kansas City’s attempt to take the lead.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Perez said. “Knowing myself that it’s a ball and I can make it a strike, it’s good for me and good for the pitchers.”
PUTTING IN THE WORK
For Perez, the emphasis on becoming a better pitch framer came in Spring Training. The catcher, even in his Minor League career, has always been viewed as an excellent receiver behind the plate.
But he wanted to get even better, knowing that part of his game can become a potential gamechanger for his pitchers.
“I just try to make everything a strike,” Perez said. “I think stealing a strike can change the game dramatically. I was glad to get those calls [on Tuesday] in a big situation.”
From there, the 27-year-old backstop went to work with Indians first base coach and former Cleveland catcher, Sandy Alomar. The objective? Work on getting under the ball and improving his balance.
“Balance can dictate how your glove moves when you’re receiving,” Alomar said. “When you have that force of the ball coming to your body, how are you going to receive it if you’re not balanced? How are you going to hold that ball in the area where it could look like a strike? We’ve been looking at videos and stuff like that.”
And after taking an extensive look at Perez’s already stellar receiving, Alomar suggested the young catcher should spread his legs a little farther apart, giving him a better base to work from.
“Even though you’re in a primary position with nobody on base, those are the times that you can get lazy and you’re not getting a lot of strikes,” Alomar said. “When your feet are too close together, then the balance is not there. It’s like trying to hold a building with a cone. But if you’re [spread out], and your shoulders are wider, then you’ll move. If your feet are wider, the ball will hit you and you’ll be more sturdy.”
Alomar sees that sort of balance as an instrumental part of presenting the ball to the umpire and being in a much better overall position to catch the offering and prevent it from kicking away on a possible wild pitch.
With a wider base, Perez has now focused on staying under the ball — in other words, going against the pitch as opposed to following it with your glove — which allows him a better opportunity to bring his large mitt back over the perceived strike zone portion of the dish in a much quicker fashion.
A split second, after all, can be the difference between making a ball appear like a strike.
“The more underneath the ball you are, the effect you’re going to get visually, the effect you’re going to give the umpire, is that you received the ball instead of just snatching it,” Alomar said.
PRESENTATION: INSTINCT OR HARD WORK?
Alomar appreciates the instinct-hard work debate as much as anyone when it comes to pitch framing.
After all, the former catcher could spend hours upon hours trying to teach any of us the art of receiving and get nowhere. Where does the hard work end and the anticipation or instincts begin?
“Bert’s been that guy, since he was a kid he’s played catcher,” Alomar said. “He figured it out on his own, and he has his way of doing things, but you know, you can still tinker here and there. But, you don’t mess around too much with those kinds of guys.”
What Alomar does appreciate, maybe above everything else, is how coachable Perez is when it comes to working on ways to make his game even better.
“You can go to him, and he responds right away and gets excited about it,” the former catcher said. “He’s done a good job, man. It’s not easy to fill Yan Gomes’ shoes, when a guy’s been a solid catcher, too. To come in, rush out of an injury, because we had no choice, he’s kind of come along.”
It’s that sort of contribution by Perez which completely justifies how often he plays. It also makes him valuable in terms of receiving, in addition to his obvious value in cutting down attempted basestealers in the run game, despite an offensive production which can leave sometimes leave something to be desire.
And that sort of assistance behind the plate could not be appreciated any more by the pitchers that throw in Perez’s direction.
“Say a call doesn’t go my way,” Allen said. “I’m like, ‘Man, every part of that was a strike.’ And then you go back and look at it and you see Yan or Roberto kind of give it one of those [quick wrist flicks] that I didn’t even see.
“They do it so quick and they are so good at it. I’m like, ‘Wow, that was a whole ball off the plate, but I’m seeing it as a strike.’ But, I think more so than anything just having those guys back there, you just know you make a good pitch and they are going to do what they can with it.”