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How robot umpires could affect the Yankees’ catchers

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Can the electronic strike zone reduce the team’s reliance on framing?

New York Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez at spring training in 2020 Photo by J. Conrad Williams, Jr./Newsday RM via Getty Images

When Ben Lindbergh was an intern with the Yankees, one of his biggest takeaways was the importance of pitch framing and just how far ahead of the rest of the game the Yankees were on the subject. New York recognized the importance of stealing strikes for pitchers before almost anyone else in the game, and they made it a fundamental part of their catching philosophy, from developing in-house catchers to recruiting all-world framers Russell Martin and Brian McCann.

This focus continued with the development of one Gary Sanchez, who for most of his career struggled with blocking pitches but was at worst an average pitch framer. That changed last year, as Sanchez had his worst defensive season, seeing his framing metrics plummet while he improved blocking.

The Yankees seem to be addressing this regression, with Sanchez adopting a new series of catching stances and seemingly more flexible than in previous seasons. The Athletic has a great writeup from Lindsey Adler here (subscription required), but it’s clear that the Yankees recognize the tradeoff in blocking vs. framing.

The Yankees’ backup catcher, meanwhile, might be one of the absolute best framers in the game. One of the reasons the team was comfortable letting Austin Romine walk this winter was because his presumptive replacement, Kyle Higashioka, might be a better defender than Romine.

Of course, we’re at the edge of a new frontier for pitch framing. Electronic strike zones, the so-called “robot umpires”, have developed quite a bit in the past few seasons. MLB used the Atlantic League as a testing ground for robo-umps, and a variation of the system will be used for select spring training games this year in Grapefuit League action. The electronic strike zone still needs a good deal of testing and refinement, but it’s clear that the future of baseball involves some element of automated strike calls.

At first glance, this could really hurt the Yankees in a few ways. There’s an opportunity cost to time and training; if Sanchez is working on rebuilding his framing value, he’s not working on his swing mechanics or plate discipline. As framing becomes less valuable with the implementation of electronic strike zones, the returns to that time and training decline proportionally.

There’s also the opportunity cost of carrying Higashioka; he’s a pretty poor MLB hitter, and the Yankees let a reliable backup in Romine leave, and signed two depth pieces in Chris Ianetta and Erik Kratz to minor-league deals that limit their roster flexibility. If framing is less valuable, it makes Higashioka less valuable to have on the 26-man roster.

But there’s a good case that framing was naturally becoming less important, all on its own. Take a look at the MLB-wide standard deviations of framing runs since 2011:

We can see there’s a pretty consistent decline in the range of framing runs across baseball - good teams were still good, but the difference between a good and bad team is less than it was.

Framing is still really important—the Yankees were fourth in baseball in this timespan in framing runs. But what this shrinking standard deviations tells us is that the band of runs is tighter over time. The value of having a 75th percentile framer is less now than it was five years ago, because the distributions of catchers is smaller now. For the Yankees, that means that they’ve seen the relative value of framing erode slightly, lessening the potential impact of electronic strike zones.

There’s a long way to go before we have full-on automated strike calls in MLB. Even once a reliable system is in place, bugs, glitches and nostalgia will rally resistance to the idea. From the Yankees’ perspective, while they built a large part of their impressive analytics system around framing, it seems as though that edge might be dulling even now, which should leave them more open to the idea of robo-umps.