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Pitch-framing contributes to more complete picture of catcher WAR

Catcher Willson Contreras cost the Cubs 16 runs in 2018 because of poor pitch-framing, according to Fangraphs.com. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Since pitch-framing metrics became part of baseball evaluation just more than a decade ago, they mostly have been a side issue, discussed in addition to wins above replacement instead of as part of it.

This year, there’s a change. Fangraphs.com now includes framing in WAR starting in 2008, paralleling a move Baseball Prospectus already had made in its WARP.

With that move, strong framers such as former Cubs catchers Miguel Montero and David Ross and former White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers have received WAR boosts, while current Cubs catcher Willson Contreras and current Sox catchers James McCann and Welington Castillo are looking at downgrades.

Framing metrics are based on pitches in the strike zone that are called balls and pitches outside the strike zone that are called strikes. The balance of the lost strikes in the zone and gained strikes outside the zone are converted to a run value, just as run value is calculated for hitting, baserunning and defense. A player’s total run value then is converted to wins in determining WAR.

At minus-16 runs last season in the Fangraphs metric, Contreras cost his team more runs by framing than any other major-league catcher. McCann also was on the negative side at minus-3.5, and Castillo was at minus-5.4.

For their careers, Contreras is at minus-23.6, McCann at minus-33.4 and Castillo at minus-52.3. Contrast that to Montero (plus-127 for his career), Flowers (plus-89.4) and Ross (plus-80.7).

For better or worse, all those runs can make a huge difference in WAR. Montero’s new fWAR of 28.9 is a gain of more than 15 wins from his old 13.3, the sixth-largest gain of any catcher in 2008-18. Castillo, down from 13.2 to 7.6, has the 12th-largest fWAR decline via framing.

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For his career, that puts Montero in a range with good catchers such as Benito Santiago (28.7), Mickey Tettleton (28.5) and Mike Scioscia (28.5), with the caution that we don’t know how including framing would have affected their numbers. Without framing, Montero’s WAR neighbors include Rick Wilkins (14.2), Todd Hundley (14.2), Dan Wilson (13.9) and Ron Karkovice (13.7).

In comparing WAR at Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference.com, the biggest difference has been in their calculations of defensive runs. Now with framing in the mix, there’s a special gap for catchers.

In his 339 career games, Contreras is at 8.4 career WAR at Baseball-Reference but 6.4 at Fangraphs. Castillo’s 7.6 fWAR is a giant step down from his 12.4 bWAR.

The biggest fWAR boosts have gone to the Braves’ Brian McCann (30.4 to 49.2), the Dodgers’ Russell Martin (29.5 to 46.7) and the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina (34.8 to 50.5), as David Appleman pointed out in a Fangraphs article.

Along with the Giants’ Buster Posey (38.7 to 51.1), all have seemed a little WAR-light in Hall of Fame discussions.

The Hall midpoint for catchers falls between Bill Dickey (56.1) and Gabby Hartnett (53.7). Earlier, Posey’s 38.7 would have left metrics-minded voters to debate whether framing and his effect on pitchers filled the gap. His new 51.1 fWAR frames the discussion differently.