BRADENTON, Fla. -- Pirates pitchers call it a "vacuum." They throw a pitch down in the zone, maybe even just under the zone, and Francisco Cervelli's gloved left hand sucks it up.Cervelli has a knack for receiving and presenting pitches -- for pitch framing, as it's known around the game.
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Pirates pitchers call it a "vacuum." They throw a pitch down in the zone, maybe even just under the zone, and Francisco Cervelli's gloved left hand sucks it up.
Cervelli has a knack for receiving and presenting pitches -- for pitch framing, as it's known around the game. That ability wasn't lost on the Pirates, who acquired him two years ago to replace Russell Martin and signed him last year to a three-year, $31 million contract extension that kicks in this season.
Nor is it lost on the young Pittsburgh pitchers who began working with Cervelli last season.
"He makes every pitch look really good, even your bad pitches," right-hander Jameson Taillon said. "That's a big confidence-builder."
Clubs have been working for years to fully quantify the impact of pitch framing and catcher defense. The Pirates are clearly believers in the value of strong defensive catchers. With Statcast™'s tracking technology and the wealth of information at BaseballSavant.com, we can see where Cervelli ranks among the game's best at the art of stealing strikes.
"The best catchers are the ones who know how to catch the ball no matter where it is, and Cervelli's the best at it," Steven Brault said. "It's all how you receive it and how he receives it. It's more consistent. It's always the same. Having that reputation helps, too. People know he's good at it."
One of the best the last two years, in fact. How do we know that? Start by dividing the plate into 14 zones -- nine within the strike zone, four just outside it. Then look for pitches in those four areas outside the strike zone, pitches tracked as balls but called strikes.
Among Major League catchers who received at least 500 pitches in 2015, Cervelli's first full season as a starting catcher, he "stole" 1,174 such strikes, the most in the Majors. He was third in baseball in terms of the percentage of pitches caught that fit those criteria. The Dodgers' Yasmani Grandal was first at 6.8 percent, former Cub David Ross was second at 6.77 percent and Cervelli checked in at 6.76 percent.
Cervelli missed more time last year due to injuries, so his total number of "stolen" strikes dropped to 847, still he had the 12th most in the Majors. Yadier Molina led the bigs with 1,109 followed by Buster Posey with 1,085. But on a per-pitch basis, Cervelli still graded out well. He had the third-highest percentage in the Majors at 6.36 percent, ranking behind Jose Lobaton and Jeff Mathis.
You'll notice in those charts that Cervelli is particularly adept at presenting low pitches. That's where the "vacuum" comes in handy.
"I've definitely noticed the way he receives that low ball, like he's sucking it into his glove," Taillon said.
"There's definitely ones that you go back and watch, and I'm like, that was not a strike," added Pirates right-hander Chad Kuhl.
Taillon credited Cervelli's sharp eyes and strong wrists. Brault pointed to Cervelli's low, "spider"-like setup and willingness to reach out and stop pitches as they zip down beneath the zone. Everyone praised Cervelli's consistency and respect for his pitchers -- he rarely yanks away bad pitches, for instance.
The following zone profiles, from the 2015 and '16 seasons, show Cervelli is particularly skilled at receiving low called strikes. This past season, he was even more effective on his glove side.
Statcast™ helps illustrate what the Pirates have known since the day they acquired Cervelli: He is an asset, maybe even an artist, behind the plate.
"Sometimes it's even hard as a pitcher," Brault said. "You're like, that didn't look like a strike when I threw it, but now it does."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast.