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White Sox catchers recovering strike zones for pitchers

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They’re inexperienced in other factors, but at least they’re contributing something

Chicago White Sox v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Poor framing.
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Both the White Sox and Rays have had some gripes with the strike zone, adding to the tension (and duration) of a couple of tight games. Don Cooper had words for the umpire on Tuesday, and both teams were confused by the early strike zone on Wednesday.

Lumpy, lopsided charts hadn’t seemed to be nearly as pervasive a theme this season, but I couldn’t tell whether it was due to more accurate zones, more favorable zones, or just zoning out on the particulars of a rebuilding season. Fortunately and handily, Baseball Prospectus now offers team totals for receiving.

White Sox catchers as a group remain somewhat of a liability in this department, framing at a total of 3.3 runs below average, good/bad for the eighth-worst total in the league.

If that doesn’t sound that bad to you ... well, there’s a reason. Extrapolate that to the same amount of chances White Sox catchers had in 2016, and you’re looking at a season total of 9.2 runs below average. Not good, yet also a 16-run improvement over last season, when the White Sox were the worst in both framing and catcher defense by a laughable margin.

Beyond the favorable comparison to lowered standards, the numbers could work their way back toward average over the course of the season if the first-third is any indication.

Here’s how the framing runs totals break down per catcher (FR* denoting extrapolated totals):

White Sox catcher framing, 2016 to 2017

2016 Chances FR 2017 Chances FR FR*
2016 Chances FR 2017 Chances FR FR*
Navarro 5639 -18.8 Narvaez 1882 -1.5 -4.2
Avila 3226 -6.5 Smith 1179 0.8 2.2
Narvaez 1868 -1.6 Soto 735 -2.6 -7.3

Omar Narvaez looks to have found his true talent level. Based on Geovany Soto’s early results, it’s possible the White Sox would’ve been in the same position as they were last year had his elbow not required surgery. In his place, Kevan Smith has steadied this particular department and put it on an entirely separate course from 2016.

Speaking of which, this year’s version of Avila embodies what the White Sox were trying to do last season. He’s just as rough with his receiving, contributing to Detroit’s league-worst catcher defense. However, he’s hitting .324/.440/.640 over 134 plate appearances for the .500 Tigers. Detroit has allowed the third-most runs in the league, but they’ve scored the fourth-most. Avila contributing to that offensive output creates the kind of debate the White Sox aimed to entertain in 2016 -- the value of extra strikes versus the value of extra hits.

Unfortunately, Avila spent half the year on the disabled list. That left the bulk of the playing time to Dioner Navarro, who is not on any major- or minor-league roster this year.

(Tyler Flowers is still getting extra strikes at his usual rate. Moreover, he’s reinvented himself into a contact hitter with the Braves. That Beyond the Box Score article notes that he started his transition from swinging and missing during his last year with the White Sox, and now he’s hitting .295/.389/.431 over 124 games since the Sox non-tendered him. I want to stop relitigating this past, but seeing Flowers and Avila this productive makes that difficult, considering they had that platoon for a couple of days that offseason and then decided to make one more tweak.)

At any rate, while the White Sox’ inexperience behind the plate reveals itself in other areas -- more shaking off, more frequent mound visits, bottom-third offensive production — they’ve at least stopped collapsing the strike zone for their pitchers. A -9 framing total is within the range of a win, and thus can be negated by other factors. The improvement might be easier to recognize if the catchers weren’t getting seasoned in other aspects, or if the original iteration of the pitching staff wasn’t heavily revised by injuries:

  • Jose Quintana
  • Carlos Rodon Dylan Covey Mike Pelfrey
  • Miguel Gonzalez
  • Derek Holland
  • James Shields David Holmberg
  • David Robertson
  • Nate Jones Tommy Kahnle
  • Zach Putnam Anthony Swarzak
  • Jake Petricka Chris Beck
  • Dan Jennings
  • Michael Ynoa Juan Minaya/Gregory Infante

I suppose the improvement requires us to imagine what this pitching staff might look like with fewer strikes. That’s not something most minds were built to do.