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On pitch-framing and power: Sunday thoughts

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

A.J. Burnett owes Francisco Cervelli a thank-you card

Francisco Cervelli is having a fantastic year. He's hit well (.304/.380/.405 as of today, trailing only Buster Posey in wRC+ among catchers), he's handled the Pirates' staff superbly (as predicted by Brandon McCarthy), and he's been among the best pitch-framers in the game. To the last point, it's perhaps a sign of the times that even mainstream outlets now cite Cervelli's pitch-framing skill as a component of his overall value.

According to StatCorner, Cervelli is the best pitch-framer in baseball, having saved 25.5 runs compared to an average catcher. BaseballProspectus is similarly bullish but less effusive in its praise, placing Cervelli third in the game with 14.2 runs saved. There are significant methodological reasons to believe that BaseballProspectus's metrics are superior, but it doesn't change the underlying point: Cervelli is an outstanding pitch-framer. 10.7% of pitches out of the zone are called strikes under Cervelli, the highest rate of any semi-regular catcher in baseball. The table below illustrates just how much Pirates pitchers benefit:

Four Pirates are in the top fifteen, and Gerrit Cole (9.9%), Vance Worley (9.8%), and Francisco Liriano (9.7%) aren't far behind. Cervelli is stealing strikes at a truly ridiculous rate.

Of the pitchers listed above, Burnett is the most interesting case, because his catcher last year (Carlos Ruiz) is among the worst pitch-framers in the game. This GIF, originally produced in early June by FanGraphs' Neil Weinberg, shows how Burnett is effectively working with a different strike zone this year. Burnett's bounce back season is partially a product of his own considerable merits, but he owes Francisco Cervelli a debt of gratitude for fundamentally changing the context in which he operates.

Gregory Polanco and Ben Revere should form a support group

It's been an article of faith among Pirates fans that Gregory Polanco has experienced an uneven strike zone this year. Possibly due to his body type resembling that of an adolescent giraffe, El Coffee routinely seems to be victimized by called strikes off the outside corner. Take a look at the table below to see the unluckiest hitters in the MLB:

First, let's all take a moment to appreciate the plight of poor Ben Revere, whose persecution at the hands of MLB's umpires seems to have followed him from Philadelphia to Toronto.

Second, while it's true that Polanco's received very little love from the umpires this season, he's been more fortunate than Chris Stewart. Given the Pirates' emphasis on pitch-framing, it's unlikely they'll be calling for robo-umps anytime soon, but both Polanco and Stewart have legitimate grounds for consternation with the strike zones they're seeing.

Michael Morse eats his Wheaties

It's almost trite at this point, given the amount of well-deserved attention paid to the baseball-throwing acumen of J.A. Happ, to write about the successes of the Pirates' deadline acquisitions. Happ, Joakim Soria, Aramis Ramirez, Joe Blanton, and Michael Morse have all contributed to the present pennant chase.

It's the last of these players, Morse, who's received very, very little attention. Which is a shame, because he's hit .322/.420/.458 with the Pirates, exceeding all expectations and doing his best to excise the memory of his miserable early-season tenure with the Marlins, during which he hit just .213/.276/.313 and suffered from finger and back injuries. Morse's stock had fallen so low by the trade deadline that the Pirates were able to acquire him essentially for free, and while part of his recent success is in part the product of an unsustainable .439 BABIP, his power and plate discipline figures have also improved markedly since the deadline.

I wrote an article earlier this year examining potential first base trade targets, and I wasn't particularly complimentary of Morse at the time. To wit:

Michael Morse's reputation for defensive ignominy is mostly due to his repeated misadventures in the outfield--he's been an adequate defender at first base over the course of his career. His current .211/.268/.289 line also seems to be partially the product of bad luck--he still hits the ball very hard in the air (almost 97 MPH), he's just hitting the ball on the ground more often (58% of the time, up from 45%), and his already-subpar plate discipline has decayed a bit further. Morse has survived much longer than you'd expect given that his only real tool is his raw power, and guys with poor contact skills don't tend to age well. It's possible that he has something left in the tank and can return to form as a solid bench bat, but we shouldn't, in the absence of any other reason to doubt ZiPS, believe that he's a substantively better player than the guys we already have. He's also signed to a two-year, $16M deal that doesn't end until the end of 2016, which is probably the final nail in the coffin for his candidacy as a 2015 Pirate.

At the time I wrote the article, ZiPS saw Morse as a .255/.308/.410 moving forward. And to be fair, Morse's contract was a significant impediment in acquiring him--I doubt he'd be a Pirate today if the Dodgers hadn't eaten Jose Tabata's contract as part of the Morse trade.

But the most interesting part of both the above paragraph and the larger Morse story is the interplay between how hard Morse hits the ball and the relative infrequency with which he hits the ball in the air. See, 97 MPH is really, really hard. It's not quite Giancarlo Stanton-level hard, but it qualifies as the sort of power that usually leads to quite a few home runs. I'm guessing this is what the Pirates saw in Morse--he continued pulverizing the ball with the Marlins without much to show for it, which, along with his previous injuries and putatively clean bill of health, made him a strong buy-low candidate.

I pulled the average FB/LD batted ball velocities for all major league players today using BaseballSavant's leaderboard. To qualify, a hitter must have had at least 80 balls tracked by StatCast. The usual caveats apply about possible data inaccuracies; those aside, here's how all the Pirates' hitters stack up:

The Pirates have several guys capable of inflicting serious harm on baseballs. Pedro Alvarez's cartoonish raw power is perhaps the only thing, at this point, more notorious than his disastrous defense. Morse, as mentioned, is a connoisseur of well-traveled baseballs. And Jung-Ho Kang, Andrew McCutchen, and Starling Marte all fall upwards of the 85th percentile among MLB hitters in game power. Interestingly enough, Chris Stewart is the least powerful hitter in the MLB, with an average exit velocity of just 84 MPH on his fly balls and line drives.

But if Morse has such impressive raw power, why does he have only five home runs this year? The answer lies in his batted-ball distribution. 343 different hitters have made at least 200 plate appearances this year. Among them, Morse if fifteenth in ground ball percentage, at 56.5%. He's surrounded by noted power hitters like Sam Fuld, Joe Mauer, and Jose Iglesias. Unfortunately, it's very, very difficult to hit a ground ball over the fence. Given Morse's unsustainable BABIP, he's unlikely to continue hitting .300+, but if he's able to elevate the ball a bit more we could see a late power surge from the hulking righty.