What does it mean to suggest that a catcher can transform a game completely with his ability to frame pitches? Christian Vazquez took it upon himself to demonstrate the occurrence in his return to the Red Sox on Friday night, in which his impact reverberated across a 5-3 Red Sox win over the Blue Jays.
Vazquez went 2-for-4 with a double and scored a pair of runs. He picked off Troy Tulowitzki at first base to end the second inning. In a vacuum, those contributions would have been sizable.
Yet in some ways, those obvious outcomes were not the area of the game in which Vazquez had his greatest impact. For that, it was a trio of full-count pitches that Blue Jays hitters took, only to see their expectation of a base on balls yield to a called punchout by home plate umpire Ted Barrett.
Vazquez is a known master of legerdemain, the subtle motions of his hand not only subtly sweeping pitches into the strike zone but, at times, seeming as if they hypnotize home plate umpires with Jedi mind tricks. That the 25-year-old has considerable skill when it comes to framing pitches in a way that wins strike calls was obvious to both the Red Sox and Blue Jays.
“I thought he was really good — really good at catching the low ball. It just looks like he has nice soft hands behind the plate,” said Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin, who is considered one of the foremost pitch-framers in the game. “He kind of works with the pitch. It’s a short sample, but you can tell that he’s got good actions back there.”
“His hands are soft, they’re strong at the same time to present pitches to the home-plate umpire I think very clearly,” concurred Red Sox manager John Farrell. “There might have been a number of times here tonight where that borderline pitch, he’s able to give that presentation to get a called strike.”
Three instances came to mind:
1. In the third inning, Porcello got Ryan Goins on a borderline 89 mph fastball on a 3-2 count to lead off the inning — a pitch at the top of the strike zone that is often called a ball. A walk would have put a runner on first with no outs — a game state that, on average across baseball in 2015, resulted in 0.84 runs in an inning, a far cry from the 0.26 runs that, on average, crossed the plate in innings where the leadoff batter was retired. That framed pitch represented the single biggest change of run probabilities in the game – but it arguably was not the game’s largest swing.
2. In the top of the sixth inning, reigning American League MVP Josh Donaldson stepped to the plate with a runner on first and two outs. On a 3-2 pitch, Porcello got a called strike three on a cutter that may or may not have clipped the upper corner of the strike zone on the pitcher’s glove side of the plate. Donaldson, who makes a point of not arguing with umpires, found the call sufficiently objectionable that he argued with the umpire.
According to the Red Sox Strike Zone Twitter feed, the pitch on which Donaldson was rung up is called a strike just 22 percent of the time. Donaldson was clearly dismayed at the prospect that Vazquez had created a strike where none had been earned by the pitcher.
“I don’t normally say stuff if it’s a strike,” Donaldson observed. “It matters if the umpire is watching the catcher, which he clearly shouldn’t be doing. That’s not his job, to watch how the catcher is catching it.”
On average, teams scored 0.44 runs during innings in which they had a runner on first and second with two outs. The Jays, of course, fell on the zero side of that equation when a pitch that Donaldson viewed as a ball instead was called a strike after Vazquez coaxed it into the zone.
That baseball-wide average includes every instance of a two-on, two-out run scoring scenario — including, for instance, cases where a pitcher batted. That number doesn’t account for the increased probability of scoring that would arise from Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion following Donaldson in the lineup — a menace that became clear when Bautista led off the seventh (after the Sox had plated an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth) by walking in front of Encarnacion’s two-run homer.
One can’t assume that the seventh-inning walk and homer would have followed a walk. Nonetheless, if that had indeed been the sequence, then Encarnacion would have launched a grand slam instead of a two-run homer.”
“We could have been looking at a tie game,” grimaced Donaldson. “Who knows if it would have played out the same?”
“That’s huge, especially in that particular example because you see who’s coming up behind [Donaldson],” said Jays manager John Gibbons. “That makes all the difference.”
“When you get those borderline pitches, it definitely takes some pressure off the pitcher. It can change the outcome of a game,” said Martin. “When you’re playing a close ballgame, every out is huge. It definitely has an impact. . . . That changes the game. No question.”
3. Finally, in the eighth, Vazquez stole a full-count called strike three with Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar at the plate and Koji Uehara on the mound with two outs and none on. Pillar vehemently disagreed with the call . . .
. . . with what appeared to be well-founded reason.
On average, teams score 0.22 runs during innings in which they have a runner on first with two outs. Vazquez ensured that the Jays, in that situation, instead were held off the board.
In a vacuum, then, those three pitches add up to a 1.24 run impact in a single game — a huge transformation in its own right. Yet the effect of turning three borderline 3-2 pitches into strikeouts runs deeper, whether in the form of forcing hitters to expand their strike zone and swing at pitches that they’d prefer to ignore or by letting Porcello become just the second Red Sox starter of the season to record an out in the seventh inning.
Without Vazquez, it’s possible that Porcello’s night would have ended in the sixth or fifth inning. With his artistry, the Sox gained outs and freshness.
“If he can get you a couple extra strike calls that’s a huge advantage, especially against a team like this,” said Porcello. “Getting ahead of guys and getting some of those guys is huge. If you can get ahead of them and expand the strike zone, that’s really what you have to do. If you have to be in the strike zone they’re going to get some good swings. So his ability to catch a ball and frame it back there is huge for our pitching staff.”