Which catchers are best at stealing strikes?

BY MARK SIMON
With there being an off day in the World Series, let’s take a look at a leaderboard that stoked our interest this season –- which catchers did the best job of getting strikes on pitches that maybe he shouldn’t have gotten strikes on?

Our definition for this was to look at the percentage of pitches that were called strikes, and were outside the strike zone, but within two inches of an edge of the strike zone (as designed by my colleague, Andrew Kyne). This was measured per charting from BIS video scouts. This is an inexact science based on many things (and publicly available pitch-location data assisted the process), but we’re comfortable with our methods and our video scouts.

Here are the top 5.

1. Jeff Mathis, Diamondbacks (22.1%) –- Mathis was the head of the Diamondbacks three-pronged catcher platoon. Each of the others made the top 10 too, but Mathis was the best of the best. He was of major assistance to Zack Greinke, having caught all of Greinke’s starts. Mathis’ long-worked skill of getting strike calls on low pitches also helped coax a career year from Patrick Corbin, who had a 1.83 ERA in 12 starts with Mathis as his backstop.

2. Austin Barnes, Dodgers (21.4%) –- You might have thought Yasmani Grandal would be the top Dodger, but it’s actually Barnes, who doesn’t hit much, but brings great value to the pitching staff. His success rate jumped three percentage points, meaning he produced about 50 more stolen strikes than he would have at least season’s 18.3 percent rate.

3. Gary Sanchez, Yankees (19.8%) — Sanchez’s pitch-blocking skills are much maligned, but his pitch framing compensates successfully for that.

Take a look at Sanchez’s called strike rates by location in this chart, paying specific attention to the areas with multiple asterisks. Sanchez was excellent at getting extra strikes in all three of those areas. From top to bottom (with the asterisks), he’s 7, 14 and 10 percentage points above the MLB average. And that’s just for left-handed hitters.

4) Alex Avila, Diamondbacks (19.8%) — Avila has had his ups and downs with his framing success, but in 2018, he followed Mathis’ lead and was quite good, particularly with pitches that were just off the outside corner to right-handed batters and the inside corner to left-handed batters. It helped him finish with a career-high six Defensive Runs Saved.

5. Max Stassi, Astros; Luke Maile, Blue Jays, Chris Iannetta, Rockies (19.7%) — There is not a huge difference between the fifth-best and 10th-best catchers on this list. These three just happened to be in the next three spots. Stassi put a lot of effort into improving his framing in the offseason and it paid off. Maile’s pitch-framing was good in the past. This year was more noteworthy for his bat catching up to his glove. Iannetta, like Avila, has had good seasons and bad seasons. This year, he was good at stealing strikes, but didn’t rate as well on pitches in the strike zone.

Let’s note one more name since it’s pertinent to the World Series.

11. Sandy Leon, Red Sox (18.9%) — Leon is a good strike-stealer (11th rates in the top 20% of catchers), but his forte is in making sure that strikes are strikes. He has the highest called strike rate among catchers on pitches in the strike zone, at nearly 94 percent.

And let’s also note the catcher who rates at the bottom of the list.

65. Isiah Kiner-Falefa (13.1%) — The Rangers put Kiner-Falefa in a challenging spot, asking him to catch a little more than 300 innings this season. The rookie utility man who is a standout defensive third baseman, he struggled both with framing and pitch-blocking, costing his team 10 runs in total in those two areas.

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