October 22, 2021

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Robot umpires would destroy the framing skills of catchers like Yadier Molina

Robot umpires would destroy the framing skills of catchers like Yadier Molina

Robot umpires would destroy the framing skills of catchers like Yadier Molina

Information about Robot umpires would destroy the framing skills of catchers like Yadier Molina

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Where’s the value in framing a pitch if the catcher’s posture doesn’t figure into the algorithm?

Where’s the value in framing a pitch if the catcher’s posture doesn’t figure into the algorithm?
Illustration: Shutterstock

2022 will be longtime St. Louis Cardinals’ backstop Yadier Molina’s final season. When Yadi finally calls it quits, he will leave an incredible legacy behind — one of defensive prowess, solid offense, and fear being struck into the hearts of baserunners everywhere.

Did you know that from 2005 to 2018, the Cardinals allowed 303 fewer stolen bases than the next closest team, the Arizona Diamondbacks? That’s real.

Baserunners are scared of Molina. Much like how Batman makes criminals think twice before stealing, Molina makes baserunners think twice before stealing. However, the greatest aspect of Molina’s career hasn’t been his cannon from behind the plate, it’s been his trickery behind the plate.

Framing is one of my favorite things to look into in baseball. In essence, framing is just… lying. It’s lying about where the pitch came in to fool the umpire into giving your team a strike when he shouldn’t have. Over the course of Yadi’s career, Molina has routinely been near the top of the league in framing. From 2008 to 2018, Molina ranked third among qualified catchers in framing runs by FanGraphs, one spot ahead of his brother Jose. Framing is such an essential part of the catcher position and it’s a big reason why Yadi has racked up nine Gold Glove Awards throughout his career. Framing is a beautiful art that defines the catcher position… and it will be rendered useless by the emergence of robot umpires.

This season has seen a lot of robot umpire talk. We here at Deadspin have published two articles on the matter in 2021, and a quick Google search yields six such results from this site on the first page. Every time Joe West misses a call or Angel Hernandez calls a batter out on strikes for a pitch three inches off the plate, the robot umpire debate strikes up once again.

And while it would be great to always have accurate and consistent strike zones aligned with the MLB rulebook, it would also destroy the need for framing. I mean, theoretically, a perfectly accurate automatic strike zone would make pitch framing irrelevant, right?

To get to the bottom of this, I spoke with the President of TrackMan Baseball, Hans Deutmeyer. TrackMan is the company whose data was used in the “robot umpire” experiment in the Atlantic League this season. They do a lot of great work for the game, including tracking pitcher spin rate, release point, break, hitters’ exit velocity, contact zones, etc. — all the real juicy stuff statheads eat up. However, here we will be focusing on the team’s Automatic Balls and Strikes (ABS) system.

Although the system was not perfect in 2021, Deutmeyer displayed pride in the company’s ABS. “Our system was accurate to about a half-inch, and we do this at hundreds of baseball stadiums every single day,” he said.

And while the technology is not yet flawless, Deutmeyer believes a perfect ABS system is achievable. “We’ve already improved on humans, especially outside the Major League ranks, where the quality of umpire isn’t as consistent. I don’t want to say we’re perfect, but the robotics systems have proven to be more accurate, and they can be improved.”

When asked whether or not a perfect automated strike zone would eliminate framing from the game entirely, Deutmeyer was skeptical of such absolutism. “I don’t know about ‘entirely’, but yeah, it very well could change aspects of the game,” he said. “I don’t see why catchers wouldn’t continue to frame pitches, but yes, the ABS system would reduce the impact of pitch framing.”

Deutmeyer does seem extremely confident in TrackMan’s system and its potential for improvement, so — personally — I don’t see why framing would continue to be practiced with a perfect ABS system in place. In regards to how soon we could see it at the Major League level, Deutmeyer claimed that it was “up to Major League Baseball.”

Deutmeyer says TrackMan is working not only with MLB, but with organizations around the world. “We actually ran it last week at a prestigious amateur tournament with Perfect Game,” he said. “So I think we’re going to see a lot more of this in the future.”

Yadier Molina

Yadier Molina
Photo: Getty Images

I’m all for the advancement of baseball into the modern era, but I don’t want to see pitch framing disappear. Not only does framing add a skill set to an otherwise forgotten position, it also enables pitchers to nibble on the corners without fear of falling behind a hitter. When a catcher frames a pitch, they’re usually bringing a pitch that’s just centimeters away from the strike zone back over the plate. The fact that catchers can convince umpires that those pitches are strikes gives pitchers a lot more confidence to keep throwing there. Without that ability, it’s likely that pitchers would be more worried to keep trying to paint the corners for fear of falling behind early in the count. At that point, it would just turn into a challenge-fastball fiesta, and we all know how that would turn out. While endless hits and home runs might sound exciting, it would only lengthen an already slow sport, and the high that comes from witnessing incredible offensive feats would slowly fade as they would become more commonplace.

Yadier Molina is a first-ballot Hall of Famer in my eyes. I know he’s a divisive player when it comes to his Cooperstown credentials, but he’s regarded as arguably the greatest defensive catcher ever for a reason. However, if robot umpires existed during the start of Molina’s career, Molina’s Hall of Fame case would be much harder to defend. He’s made a career off framing, as have many other great catchers over the past several decades. From a baseball fan who has always loved and seen the value at the catcher position, please don’t let the art of framing go extinct for a few more strike calls. 

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