Now that summer camp is fully underway, the Yankees coaches finally can (figuratively) get their hands on the players and provide instruction in a face-to-face yet still appropriately distanced manner. This is an especially critical period for the Yankees given two of their coaches are new additions to the staff.
Matt Blake came in to replace Larry Rothschild as pitching coach while the Yankees also hired a catchers’ coach. In one of the Yankees’ more under-the-radar winter moves, former Twins catching instructor Tanner Swanson came onboard. Swanson was known as somewhat of a catcher whisperer in Minnesota, and the Yankees hope he brings some of that magic to the Bronx.
The Yankees have the best offensive catcher in the game in Gary Sanchez, and bringing in a guy like Swanson may be the final push on the defensive side that transforms Gary from a great player into a transcendent player. His work behind the plate has been much-maligned by fans since he broke into the majors, justifiably so at times.
Sanchez memorably led the league in passed balls in 2017 and 2018 with 16 and 18 respectively. This prompted the Yankees to ask Sanchez to tighten things up behind the dish, though this came with a hidden consequence. Tom showed earlier this year that while Sanchez improved in the passed ball department, his framing runs plummeted into the negatives and his caught stealing rate nearly slashed in half. Josh conducted thorough research on this very topic, and found a significant correlation between framing runs and passed balls. It appears one has to make the choice which metric they value more.
This is where Tanner Swanson comes in. Speaking with John Flaherty on YES Network this past weekend, Swanson jumped right into the culture he wants to instill in the Yankees catching department and the team as a whole.
“Developing tight lines of communication with our analysts... I know a bulk of the role is designed to be around game planning, pitcher-catcher dynamics and how we can implement information in a more systematic way, and then also on the flip side of that, be able to look backwards at times to review what we’re doing... Fact checking and seeing how well we’re actually doing with our processes.”
The fact that he is concerned with not only future-oriented scouting and game planning, but also in constantly evaluating the effectiveness of those plans is refreshing. He wants to make sure that the instruction he provides works in practice, and not only in theory.
When asked which of the catcher’s defensive responsibilities (game calling, pitch framing, blocking, and throwing) was most important, Swanson responded:
“Doing everything within your power to get the most out of a particular pitcher and a pitching staff as a whole, I think that’s still a foundational piece that is highly valued... If we call that 1-A, I think 1-B would be the pitch framing. I think those two things are pretty equal. Pitch framing has really come into light with the information... that tells us just how big of an impact this really has on the outcome of a particular at-bat, a particular inning, a game, and as a whole throughout a major league season. It just has tremendous impact in terms of run prevention, greater so than anything else a catcher can tangibly do on the field.”
Swanson also reiterated a point he made on a Zoom call that Joe attended in April. He explained the impetus for encouraging a one leg down approach, delving into the numbers which suggest the strike zone has become narrower and more vertical over the last few years. This shift was “the genesis to really try to own or dominate that bottom quadrant of the strike zone, just because there’s so many opportunities to create additional strikes down there. As a result, in getting as low as possible... the knee-down positions aids our guys in doing so.”
In addition to pitch framing, the knee-down position aids the catcher in just about every department behind the plate. It can reduce some of the wear-and-tear over a season, perhaps aiding with Gary’s durability. According to Swanson, the vast majority of balls in the dirt happen within the frame of the catcher, and he maintains that the knee-down stance actually makes it easier to block a ball. It requires less moving parts than a traditional stance while also allowing catchers to remain committed longer on pitches in the bottom quadrant of the zone.
Pitch framing isn’t all about stealing strike calls that should have been balls. Equally if not more important is making sure that strikes are called strikes. The best way for the catcher to do this is to eliminate exaggerated glove movement, trying to move the glove toward the zone to receive a pitch rather than stabbing from a preset location.
I do not know the exact numbers, but I would be willing to wager that having several balls switch to strikes every game for your team has a higher impact on win probability added than a passed ball once every nine games. Indeed, by Statcast’s calculation, pitch framing can be measured using runs saved from extra strikes, which values a strike at 0.125 runs/strike. As Josh showed, Sanchez compiled a positive defensive WAR in the seasons he led the league in passed balls, yet saw that value go negative in his best blocking campaign, lending further credence to the philosophy of prioritizing pitch framing.
It is engaging to hear a thorough and well thought out analysis of what goes into making a great catcher, a welcome breath of fresh air after the meaningless monotony that flows from John Flaherty on the YES broadcasts. It sounds like Tanner Swanson has a detailed vision for improving the Yankees’ catchers.