Two words: pitch framing
We watch sports, in part, to see athletes pursue greatness. This desire to continually be impressed and awed by ever-increasing feats of ability is perfectly understandable, but it often skews our perspective. It forces us to look at “the next big thing” when the current big thing is still doing great, and it is the source of silly and meaningless arguments about who is best.
Salvador Perez has been at the center of these types of discussions on social media lately, and while these discussions come from a place of passion, they can get (and have gotten) out of hand. And at the center of them is a fundamental disagreement over catcher defensive evaluation.
Of course, nobody would be talking about the Hall of Fame without offense, and Perez has been on an absolute tear for a while. Since August 4, Perez has a slash line of .280/.365/.695, with a legit double-digit walk rate in a cool 100 plate appearances. More than that, he has hit a whopping 11 home runs. Seven of them have come in the last third of the month, including a stretch of back-to-back-to-back-to-back games. His greatest feet recently has been hitting grand slams in consecutive games.
— Bally Sports Kansas City (@BallySportsKC) August 27, 2021
— Bally Sports Kansas City (@BallySportsKC) August 28, 2021
Perez has always had power, but he’s really turned it up since the start of 2020. In his last 682 PAs, Perez has a whopping 48 home runs and a .272 ISO; among all qualified batters, that ranks second and sixth, respectively. Perez has turned himself into a truly elite power hitter, and there is no argument that this isn’t the case.
This offensive powerhouse comes at the most premium and unique position: catcher. The defensive responsibilities of catchers are unmatched elsewhere on the field and require a specialization that is simply not required to play center field or shortstop. This year, catchers have hit .229/.307/.393 as a group, and their .700 OPS is the lowest among all non-pitching positions by 14 points. Among catchers, only Gary Sanchez is in Perez’s peer group, and Perez has already hit more home runs this year (37) than Sanchez has in any of his seasons (34) with over a month to go.
Furthermore, Perez isn’t just passable at catcher; among his peers, he is widely regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in the game, and he’s got five Gold Gloves to show for it. This is primarily due to his masterful handling of the running game. You simply do not run on Salvador Perez. Of the 63 catchers this year who have caught enough to allow 10 or more stolen bases, Perez rates near the top of caught stealing percentage, at 41%. But more than that, the mere threat of Perez clamps down on stolen bases.
To put the information in this table in another way: opponents have had the opportunity to steal a base 1,338 times on Perez this year. However, Perez has only allowed 19 successful stolen bases. That means that Perez has allowed one successful stolen base every 70 opportunities, a huge gap between the second best catcher this year and a comically large gap between the median catcher on this list. When people say that Perez controls the run game, that is not simply hot air: Salvador Perez is the best catcher in baseball there, and it is not even close.
But there is an elephant in the room, an elephant big enough to cause there to be some oddly disproportionate criticism of Perez, and yet an elephant that, well, has a point: pitch framing. By all accounts, Perez is not a good pitch framer. Well, that’s putting it nicely. Perez is a terrible pitch framer; Statcast puts Perez as the second-worst pitch framer in baseball, at -15 runs total (or -0.50 runs per 100 pitches) due to lost strike calls on borderline pitches.
If you begin incorporating that data into Perez’s overall defensive numbers, they understandably take a swan dive. Fangraphs rank Perez’s Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) at -4 runs this year, or 23rd among 26 catchers with at least 500 innings behind the plate, primarily because of how it incorporates pitch framing. Baseball-Reference does not weigh pitch framing nearly as heavily, and as a result it rates Perez at +5 runs this year defensively, tied with Yadier Molina for the fifth-highest figure.
You can, of course, see where we’re going with this. Wins Above Replacement is a stat that seeks to incorporate a player’s overall body of work—offensive and defensive—into a single stat that communicates overall value. And if there’s a huge disagreement about defensive value, there’s going to be a huge disagreement about overall value. Sure enough, Fangraphs puts Salvador Perez’s career WAR at a measly 14.4. Meanwhile, Baseball-Reference has Perez’s career WAR at 28.5, nearly double the overall value.
So, what gives?
On one hand, pitch framing is undeniably valuable. The ability to influence whether or not a full count ends in a strikeout or a walk is obviously a big deal, but turning counts from the likes of 1-2 to 2-1 can result in drastically different outcome probabilities. A catcher who is good at it can be a true difference maker in ways that aren’t obvious, and catchers who are bad at it can avoid a hit to their reputation for the exact same reason.
On the other hand, that pitch framing matters at all is an inherently silly and unfortunately ridiculous fact of life stemming from the fact that umpires are, to put it kindly, inconsistent. This is not like when nobody realized just how important walks were; umpires are supposed to do their jobs without influence from the players. Exploiting the imperfection of the human condition is a wholly different situation than exploiting market inefficiencies in the game. Major League Baseball realizes this, and we’re already started down the road towards robo umps. It’s not a matter of “if,” but “when.”
For the people who are absolutely adamant that Perez is ridiculously overrated because of pitch framing, well, their position is absolutely defensible. And for the people who think Perez is one of the best catchers in the league because pitch framing shouldn’t matter, their position is absolutely defensible, too.
Perez’s Hall of Fame case comes down to something else: hitting. No one is really arguing about whether or not he’s a good hitter—clearly he is. The question is how good of a hitter is he and for how long he must sustain that. Perez has one route to Cooperstown, and that route is crushing dingers. If he can get to 300 career home runs, then we can start talking. If that happens, the pitch framing value proposition won’t just be academic. If it doesn’t, the whole point is mostly moot anyway.
In any case, if you’re not enjoying watching Perez play baseball regardless of the numbers, that’s on you. And you’re missing out.