This catcher would take Stras to another level

November 5th, 2019

If there was anything more predictable than the fact that Stephen Strasburg was absolutely going to opt out of the remaining four years of his contract after the postseason show he just put on -- and opt out he did over the weekend -- it's that the second he did, his hometown Padres, bursting with young talent but badly in need of a stud starting pitcher, would immediately express interest. (They reportedly already have.)

The fit here is beyond obvious. Strasburg was born in San Diego, and pitched for Padres legend Tony Gwynn at San Diego State. The rebuilding Padres -- owners of nine straight losing seasons, dating back to the Chase Headley/Adrián González 90-win team in 2010 -- finally, finally look like they might be ready to turn the corner behind Fernando Tatís Jr., Manny Machado, Kirby Yates, Chris Paddack and friends.

Set aside the fact that we said a lot of the same things about Patrick Corbin going home to the Yankees last year -- he didn't -- and that just last year Strasburg sold his home in San Diego to move his family full-time to Washington, D.C. Let's assume for a second that Strasburg does end up wearing brown -- yes, brown -- next year, just so we can ask a very interesting hypothetical question:

How much better could Strasburg look if he were paired with Austin Hedges?

Hedges hit .176/.252/.311 this year, which is to say that he didn't hit at all. (No one with at least 300 plate appearances, so 272 other hitters, had a weaker line. That's a problem.) For his career, he's hit just .201/.257/.360, which is the weakest of any hitter with as many plate appearances as he's had since 2015. He hasn't hit, and he's not likely to hit.

If you're that much of a drag on offense, you better be absolutely elite at something else, and on defense, Hedges clearly is. You can see that at the top of his Baseball Savant player page, which mixes a lot of blue (bad) for hitting with dark red (outstanding) for pop time and pitch framing. No catcher in baseball grades out better at framing than Hedges.

That's a big deal -- framing is part of why Yasmani Grandal is going to be such a sought-after free agent this winter, and why Mets pitchers had such issues with Wilson Ramos. It's worth noting that seven of the 10 weakest-framing teams had losing records, and six of the top 10 best-framing teams avoided losing records. Good framers get more strikeouts and fewer walks from their staff than poor framers. Remember when Yu Darvish went on his ridiculous 162/18 strikeout/walk run in his final 20 starts? Seventeen of them were caught by backup Victor Caratini, who is considered a much stronger framer than starter Willson Contreras.

There are various sites that all do slightly different versions of a pitch framing metric, because it's as much art as it is science, yet each of the major sources tell the same story -- that Hedges is No. 1, and that (using the rough "10 runs equal one win" conversion scale) through his framing alone, he's added about two wins of value.

Baseball Savant: +20 runs, first
FanGraphs: +21 runs, first
StatCorner: +21 runs, first
Baseball Prospectus: +26 runs, first

When that many independent sources agree not only on ranking but scale, that gives you a strong amount of confidence that something real and valuable is being measured. The pitchers throwing to him agree.

"He's the best defensive catcher in the game," Yates told near the end of the 2018 season. "There's nothing he doesn't do extremely well, from blocking to calling games to receiving to throwing."

"He makes it look so good to me that I'll get upset on the mound, or I'll say something because I think it was a strike," starter Matt Strahm said this May. "Then he'll come in the dugout, and he'll be like, 'Strahmy, that was [outside].' And I think, 'Damn, bro, you made that look really good.'"

In Washington, Strasburg had a pair of catchers who weren't awful at framing, but were slightly below average. Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki were each mild negatives; as a team, the Nationals were minus-6 runs, or 19th in baseball. The Padres were third, with Hedges dragged down a little by backup Francisco Mejia, but let's play this out: What if Strasburg got to throw to Hedges all the time?

A hypothetical Strasburg in San Diego

It's not that Strasburg was hurt by this that much in Washington, again. It's that Hedges is such an incredible boost in San Diego. Take Joey Lucchesi, for example. The soft-tossing lefty got through 163 2/3 league-average innings -- throwing to Hedges 95 percent of the time -- in part by getting a called strike on 56.3 percent of takes on the edges (fourth-most among starters, and well above the Major League average of 48.4), and, when all pitches were included, Lucchesi was helped by pitch framing more than any other pitcher.

You can see what this looks like in practice when Hedges earned Lucchesi a strike he perhaps didn't deserve against Austin Slater on July 26 ...

... and how it looks the other way, when Strasburg didn't get the strike three he'd earned against Josh Donaldson on July 18.

We're cherry-picking a mere two videos there, but you get the idea. Let's try to work through some basic math to see how much Strasburg might have been helped in 2019.

Strasburg could have gained about three runs from better pitch framing.

In what we call "the shadow zone," or the baseball-width edges all around the strike zone where nearly 90 percent of framing value comes from, we can see that San Diego pitchers throwing to Hedges found more called strikes than Strasburg did.

Strasburg: 50.5 percent of takes became strikes (322 called strikes)

Padres pitchers to Hedges: 54.1 percent (1,540 called strikes)

If we give Strasburg the same 54.1 percent called strike rate that Hedges gave to his pitchers, that's another 22 called strikes. What's that worth? Something along the lines of "0.13 saved runs per additional called strike," whether we're looking at research from a decade ago, or work done more recently. Multiply 22 times .13, and you get about three runs.

That's not accounting for the handful of obvious strikes in the zone called balls (Strasburg had five this year, while Hedges had just six all season), just the ones on the edges. This works out nicely with a separate estimate, which is that if you look at the +25 run improvement from Nationals catchers (minus-five) to Hedges (+20), realize that Strasburg throws about one-seventh of a team's innings in a healthy year, and divide 25 by 7, you get ... just a touch over three runs.

Okay, so ... three runs doesn't sound like an enormous number. But it's not nothing, is it? On a WAR basis, that's about a third of a win. Strasburg allowed 79 runs this year, and cutting three out of that is a drop of 4 percent. It slices his ERA from 3.32 to 3.19. It also doesn't account for the ancillary benefits of extra pitches; when Strasburg lost that Donaldson 1-2 pitch we showed above, he still got the strikeout, it just took another nasty pitch to do it.

It also doesn't account for where, specifically, Hedges is great, and that's specifically at the bottom of the zone, where he was the second-best framer on low pitches, while Gomes was about average and Suzuki was near the bottom. Guess what Strasburg did more of this year than ever? Throw breaking pitches (a career-high 31 percent), and throw them low (an average of 1.71 feet off the plate, his second-lowest). If Strasburg had more confidence in those pitches turning into strikes, he just might throw them even more.

Take the value of a 1-1 pitch, for example. If the count went to 2-1 this year, hitters against Strasburg (on that pitch and any following it in the plate appearance) had a line of .298/.447/.427. If that 1-1 pitch was a strike, pushing it to 1-2, then hitters managed a mere .105/.134/.172. It's a pretty big deal.

Strasburg doesn't necessarily need any help, of course. He's had a fantastic career, and he was outstanding in 2019. But imagine if there were a way he could be even better? Going from just-OK framing to the best in baseball would certainly be a way to do it -- and something the Padres should be selling hard, in addition to "coming back home" and "big new contract." It won't be the tipping factor, but it could be a factor.