Robot umps threaten to end the catcher framing era

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As calls for an automated strike zone have grown louder among Major League Baseball fans in recent years, the league has responded by testing just such a system in preparation for its eventual implementation at the major league level. The experiment began with a partnership with the Atlantic League, an independent ball league, making their players MLB’s guinea pigs in 2019 and 2021. There were still some notable kinks in the system, but it gave the league real game action to test the system out and make improvements. Now it looks like they’re ready for a major rollout of the robot umps at the Triple-A level.

Back on January 13, it was reported that the partnership between the Atlantic League and MLB was coming to an end. Beyond the automated strike zone, the league had also experimented with 17 inch bases to increase stolen base attempts, an anti-shift policy, and our least favorite, moving the rubber back a foot to make it sixty-one feet, six inches, to home plate. As you might imagine, the latter experiment provoked howls of protest from pitchers who had no say in the decision. That rule appears to be a non-starter going forward, though the base size, anti-shift rule, and other changes are still on the docket to experiment with in 2022 Atlantic League on their own.

MLB has since tested the automated system for balls and strikes at the Low-A level and again in the Arizona Fall League in 2021. Now, based on hiring notices on MLB’s website, the experiment is now coming to the Triple-A level this season, specifically, the teams hiring were the Triple-A West squads and Low-A Southeast, including the Tigers’ own Lakeland Flying Tigers. Here’s a selection of the teams in the hiring notice.

  • Albuquerque Isotopes (Albuquerque, NM)
  • Charlotte Knights (Charlotte, NC)
  • Clearwater Threshers/Dunedin Blue Jays/Tampa Tarpons (Tampa Bay area, FL)
  • El Paso Chihuahuas (El Paso, TX)
  • Lakeland Flying Tigers (Lakeland, FL)
  • Las Vegas Aviators (Las Vegas, NV)
  • Oklahoma City Dodgers (Oklahoma City, OK)
  • Reno Aces (Reno, NV)
  • Round Rock Express (Round Rock, TX)
  • Sacramento River Cats (Sacramento, CA)
  • Salt Lake Bees (Salt Lake, UT)
  • Sugar Land Skeeters (Sugar Land, TX)
  • Tacoma Rainiers (Tacoma, WA)

Now, whether the automated strike zone is close to a debut at the MLB level, or whether it’s still a few years off, it’s pretty clear this is going to happen. The big question, other than some technical issues being worked out on the system itself, is what happens to the catcher position when good receiving no longer has any real value?

The framing era’s clock is ticking

For over a decade now, the most progressive teams in baseball have made hay by emphasizing the ability to get strike calls on the edges of the zone in their catchers. Starting with a few early adopters in quantifying the effect, smart teams realized catchers like Russell Martin, and Jonathan Lucroy were far more valuable assets than was clear to the baseball world at the time. Good receiving, or framing, wasn’t new obviously, but it has since developed into an attribute that is much better understood, taught, and valued by teams.

However, lurking down the road has always been the specter, or salvation, depending on your point of view, of an automated strike zone. Obviously other sports, tennis for example, have been using various motion tracking systems for a long time now. The question has become a more prominent one when looking at catching prospects the past few seasons. Will teams still value soft hands and balance to the same degree when there’s no need to convince an umpire of a strike call?

Obviously, a catcher still has to have strong catch-and-throw skills to play the position. Blocking will remain important as well. The idea that we’ll see every third baseman with poor range converted to catcher isn’t going to happen. There will be some attempts made, as one would expect teams to try and get more offense out of the position where possible. However, it still takes a particular sort of player to develop and execute game plans with his pitchers, and go through all the extra workload involved in being a major league catcher. It’s just not for everyone.

Still, one would think that Major League Baseball sees nothing but advantages here to getting the system in place as soon as possible. First, this should help more offensive-minded catchers stay in the game. Second, presumably a tighter, consistent strike zone will favor hitters over pitchers in general. The league makes no secret of the fact that it would like to see more balls in play. Third, and probably most importantly, MLB viewers have watched superimposed strike zone boxes be violated constantly for decades now. It’s just become untenable to allow umpire fallibility to obviously affect games at such a fundamental level in major league games. Fortunately we still have check swing calls for that.

Effect on the Tigers’ catching options

The first player that came to mind when I saw the news that the robot ump was coming to Triple-A, was Tigers’ infield prospect Isaac Paredes. Way back in 2018, FanGraphs’ top prospect list for the Tigers included the note that multiple scouts thought the young infielder should try catching instead. That seemed a bit radical at the time, but going forward, Paredes may well represent a type of player teams look to convert.

As we’ve seen in Detroit, Paredes has below average range in the infield. Good hands and a strong accurate throwing arm allow him to hold his own at third base and possibly second base as well. His plate discipline says that he should be at least a decent hitter, but his power projections don’t really fit the infield positions he’s best suited for. That collection of skills sounds fairly catcher-ish. Obviously, asking a now 22-year-old infielder to convert to catcher when he’s on the cusp on the major leagues is far-fetched. However, as an example he does represent a certain type of player that teams might try to develop as a part-time catcher in the future, hoping to add offense without injury to their pitchers’ psyches.

As far as the Tigers go, this probably doesn’t change the equation at the major league level or in the farm system much. Assuming we still won’t see this in the majors for a few years, Tucker Barnhart probably won’t be the Tigers catcher by the time the robot umps arrive. Jake Rogers is probably the one who loses a little luster if good hands behind the plate no longer matter much. However, Rogers has strong overall skills at the position, and with him it’s going to come down to whether he hits enough either way. That should be decided before solid receiving grades are no longer a concern as well. It’s a similar story for top catching prospect, Dillon Dingler.

So far, Dingler looks on course to develop into a pretty comprehensively good defensive catcher. If framing ceases to matter, he still has plenty of good attributes at the position. His future role, whether more of a starter or more of a backup, was always going to be determined by the development in his bat.

Possibly the catcher this is good news for is Eric Haase. While no slouch behind the plate, he’s certainly more of the bat-first player in his role, and also occasionally employed as a corner outfielder to bring his lefty mashing ways to bear on opposing teams. While not terrible, his admittedly small sample of framing numbers from Statcast don’t paint a particularly good picture of his receiving work. In fairness, Rogers’ numbers weren’t very good either. If framing comes out of the equation, Haase’s power and versatility may keep him on major league rosters for many years to come.

Accepting our robot overlords

Whenever the automated strike zone finally does reach the major leagues, it’s going to be strange. Visually, the game need not look much different. But there’s no one to argue with on a close pitch. Catchers won’t have much incentive to set up off the plate, trying to get an outside call. They won’t have to be as graceful either, and eventually we might see an era of big-armed, power-hitting catchers whom scouts will describe as having hands of stone, taking over the game.

For now, we’ll assume there will be no rapid change to an automated strike zone at the major league level in the next year or two. However, now that such a change is pretty obviously going to happen at some point, smart teams will begin tuning their player acquisition and development to adapt to it. Whether it radically transforms the position remains to be seen, but we can at least assume that an era of more offensive-minded catchers is just over the horizon.

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