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The Toronto Blue Jays: How Their Catchers Provide Top-Tier Defence

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Photo credit:© Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Bob Ritchie
1 month ago
Over the years, analysts have developed new metrics to evaluate player performance, including defence. Let’s review some of these new-ish catcher-related metrics and assess Toronto’s catchers’ performance in 2023 and 2024.
In the days of yore, the standard stats used by MLB observers to evaluate a catcher’s defence were errors, passed balls and the caught stealing percentages. In recent years, analysts developed measures such as Catcher Framing, Catcher Blocking and Catcher Throwing, providing better insights into catcher defence than the standard stats.
My article objectives are twofold. First, I will demonstrate how Catcher Framing, Blocking, and Throwing metrics provide valuable insights into a catcher’s performance behind the plate. Second, I will illustrate that Toronto’s catcher group performed well defensively in 2023 and continues to do so in 2024.
I want to acknowledge that I wrote a similar article for Jays From the Couch in 2023 – shoutout to Shaun Doyle (@DoyleJFtC), JFtC’s founder, editor, and cat herder.

Catcher Framing

Baseball Savant describes Catcher Framing as “the art of a catcher receiving a pitch in a way that makes it more likely for an umpire to call it a strike.” Many people refer to catcher framing as “stealing strikes.”
The Catcher Framing metric reflects called strikes in the Shadow Zone (see the image below). Please note that there are three essential aspects of the Shadow Zone.
  • The Shadow Zone is roughly two baseballs wide.
  • Approximately one one-ball width is in the strike zone, and one-ball width is outside.
  • Catcher Framing includes pitches received outside the strike zone but in the outer part of the Shadow Zone. Also, Catcher Framing reflects pitches in the strike zone (the inner part of the Shadow Zone). Hence, Catcher Framing rewards a catcher for stealing strikes (outside the strike zone) and ensuring pitches in the strike zone are called strikes.
According to Baseball Savant, there are three stats under the Catcher Framing approach.
  • The Strike Percentage of all non-swings in each of the eight zones.
  • Strike Rate shows the cumulative total of the zones noted above.
  • Catcher Framing Runs converts strikes to runs saved on a 0.125 run/strike basis.
 
A catcher’s ability to excel at framing is valuable. Last season, San Francisco’s Patrick Bailey produced 16 Catcher Framing Runs (“CFR”). Regarding fWAR, Bailey’s catcher framing generated 1.6 wins (I converted the 16 CFR mark into wins using FanGraphs’ 2023 10.028 runs-per-win conversion rate).
Concerning the Toronto Blue Jays, the 2023 Top Ten Catcher Framing Teams show that Toronto’s catchers posted a +7 CFR, tied for the 8th-highest. The best framer was Alejandro Kirk, who recorded a +5 CFR (775 innings), a tie for 11th-best among catchers. Danny Jansen was +2 (T24, 577 innings).
Thus far, in 2024, Toronto’s CFR ranking has risen from T8 to T3 (+2 CFR). Kirk’s +2 CFR slots at T1, and Jansen’s score is 0. As for all these metrics, it is in the early days of the 2024 campaign. Nonetheless, MLB observers should recognize that Toronto’s catchers have been, and continue to be, among MLB’s best pitch framers.

Catcher Blocking

According to Baseball Savant, Catcher Blocking is a “Statcast metric designed to express the demonstrated skill of catchers at preventing wild pitches (WP) or passed balls (PB).” The factors considered by the metric include the following:
  • pitch location, speed and movement
  • catcher location
  • batter/pitcher handedness
Baseball Savant incorporates the abovementioned factors and assigns a probability of a pitch being a passed ball or a wild pitch. “Each pitch a catcher receives (or fails to) is credited or debited with the appropriate amount of difficulty. For example, if a catcher blocks a pitch that is a PB + WP 10% of the time, he will receive +0.10. If he blocks a pitch that is a PB + WP 90% of the time, he will receive +0.90.” On the other hand, if a pitch were a PB + WP 10% of the time and the backstop failed to block the pitch, the catcher would receive a minus 0.90.
The first stat under the Catcher Blocking umbrella is Blocks Above Average, which is “the difference between actual PB + WP and estimated PB + WP based on opportunities seen.” Baseball Savant/Statcast then converts Blocks Above Average into “runs saved on a .25 runs/block basis.” That metric is Catcher Blocking Runs (“CBR”).
So, how did Jansen and Kirk fare with pitch blocking in 2023? The 2023 MLB Top Ten Catcher Blocking Teams chart has the details. Toronto’s catchers generated a +4 CBR, tied for MLB’s second-highest score. Kirk’s +4 CBR was tied for MLB’s best with Atlanta’s Sean Murphy. Jansen, who played almost 200 fewer innings than Kirk, registered a +1 CBR (T27).
As of April 30, 2024, Toronto catchers remain top-tier in pitch blocking. The Blue Jays have 7 Blocks Above Average, which translates into +2 CBR. That score is T1 among MLB teams.
The new catcher blocking metric confirms the eye test: Toronto catchers have been among the best at blocking pitches.

Catcher Throwing – Overview

For the 2023 campaign, MLB implemented new rules designed to increase the number of stolen base attempts. The most significant rule change was limiting disengagements to two per plate appearance and, to a lesser extent, increasing base sizes from 15 inches square to 18.
The rule changes worked. Stolen base attempts (including third base) increased 33% (3,297 in 2022 to 4,369 in 2023). The 2023 stolen base success rate was 80%, better than the 2022 success rate of 75%.
Historically, evaluating a catcher’s ability to control the opposition’s running game was difficult. Most MLB observers understood that the Caught-Stealing Percentage was flawed for many reasons, including not accounting for the baserunner’s skill and speed or the pitcher’s ability to hold runners.
Statcasts’s Catcher Throwing metric is valuable because it accounts for the following inputs:
  • runner distance from second
  • baserunner speed
  • pitch location
  • pitcher/batter handedness
  • awareness of pitchouts or delayed steals
The two metrics under the Catcher Throwing regime are Caught Stealing Above Average and Catcher Stealing Runs. Caught Stealing Above Average is “the difference between actual caught stealing and estimate caught stealing based on the attempts seen. Catcher Stealing Runs is a translation of Caught Stealing Above Average to a run value on a .65 runs/CS basis.”

Catcher Throwing – Blue Jays (team level)

Blue Jays’ Catcher throwing was below average in 2023. Toronto’s catching consortium produced a -2 Catcher Stealing Runs (“CSR”), tied for MLB’s 19th-highest. Accordingly, the Blue Jays do not appear on the 2023 MLB Top Ten Catcher Throwing Teams.
So, how are the Blue Jays doing on the Catcher Throwing metric in 2024? Toronto’s catchers have generated a +1 CSR at the team level, tied for the second-highest. This is a welcomed progression from Toronto’s below-average 2023 -2 CSR.

Catcher Throwing – Player Level

The 2023 CSRs for Kirk and Jansen were below average (-1 each). Concerning Kirk’s CS%, the estimated CS% for the baserunners who attempted to steal second (currently, Statcast only measures steal attempts of second base) was 20%; Kirk’s actual CS% was 18%. Jansen’s throws nabbed 15% of the base stealers; his estimated CS% was 20%.
Let’s investigate why Kirk and Jansen’s CSRs were below average last season. Two factors to consider are Pop Time and Arm Strength.
According to Baseball Savant, Pop Time “measures the time from the moment the pitch hits the catcher’s mitt to the moment the ball reaches the fielder’s projected receiving point at the center of the base. Pop Time is a combination of exchange time (how quickly the catcher releases the ball, measured in seconds) and arm strength (velocity of throw, in MPH).”
In 2023, the MLB’s Average Pop Time was 1.96 seconds; Kirk (1.98 seconds) and Jansen (1.99 seconds) were slightly slower. Regarding Arm Strength, Kirk’s score was 76.7 mph, and Jansen’s was 78.2. Both marks were slower than MLB’s Average of 79.4 mph. I decided to exclude Kirk and Jansen’s 2024 Pop Time and Arm Strength data due to the small sample sizes (21 throws).
In 2024, because Jansen was on the Injured List until April 15, there have been just nine attempted steals of second base when he was catching. The estimated CS% was 10%, and the actual CS% was 11%. However, because of rounding, that CS Caught Stealing Above Average is 0. How has Gunner Kirk performed in 2024?
There have been 12 attempted steals of second base when Kirk was behind the plate. The estimated CS% was 19%, and the actual CS% was 33%. That added value translates into +2 Catchers CS Above Average and a +1 CSR, which is good for T5 with catchers.

Catcher Throwing – Areas for Improvement

One limitation of actual CS% is the pitcher’s impact on the CS% metric. However, it is a challenge to quantify how well a pitcher controls the running game. One metric I located is the average opposition distance from second base (“ODF2B”).
In 2022, Toronto’s ODF2B was 57.6 feet, MLB’s fourth-longest, and its average ODF2B was 55.7 feet in 2023, MLB’s T-16 longest. Thus far in 2024, the Blue Jays’ ODF2B is 53.9 feet, MLB’s 29th-longest lead. Therefore, Toronto’s relative performance at limiting the leads of baserunners on first has deteriorated since 2022. This could be because opposition baserunners are progressively more aggressive. Also, I sense that Toronto’s pitchers are less effective at holding runners due to non-optimal use of disengagements, not paying attention to baserunners, poor pick-off moves, etc. In other words, Toronto’s pitchers need to contribute more toward Toronto’s base-stealing defence.
In summary, Toronto’s catchers have performed near the MLB Average in Catcher Throwing. However, Blue Jays’ catchers should strive to improve their Pop Time, Arm Strength, and possibly their throwing accuracy. Nevertheless, Toronto pitchers also need to up their base-stealing prevention game.

Fielding Run Value

Baseball Savant produces a relatively new metric, Fielding Run Value (“FRV”), which is “Statcast’s metric for capturing a player’s measurable defensive performance by converting all of Statcast’s individual defensive metrics from different scales onto the same run-based scale, which can then be read as a player being worth X runs above, or Y runs below average.”
Toronto’s 2023 catchers produced +9 Fielding Run Value, MLB’s 6th-highest. Thus far in 2024, Toronto’s Fielding Run Value (+5) ranks as MLB’s best. Blue Jays’ catchers are excellent defensively.

The Last Word

At the outset, I had two objectives. The first was to explain/introduce new-ish catcher performance metrics. I highlighted that catcher framing is more than just “stealing strikes”; it is also about ensuring that pitches in the strike zone are called strikes. I described how Catcher Blocking is a more granular metric than simple passed balls or wild pitches. Lastly, I outlined how Catcher Throwing reflects our understanding that throwing out would-be base stealers is complicated by many factors, including the runner and pitcher skills.
My second objective was to highlight how well Toronto’s catchers have performed defensively in 2023 and thus far in 2024. A disappointing season or seasons at the plate, such as Kirk’s, can obscure the reality that the catcher is performing well defensively. Toronto’s catching consortium has, and continues to, perform well defensively.

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