Ethics: Turning balls into strikes with subtlest of motions and cheating into a science

US professional sports has raised cheating – the conscious violation of the laws of the game – into a system, as the following article by AP published earlier this year on baseball catchers demonstrates by negative example. Of their ability to frame a ball thrown outside the strike zone as a strike, AP comments, “Technically, it is an attempt to cheat, an ingrained and artful baseball deception as old as the neighbourhood play at second base.” 

The basic approach promoted is American pragmatism – any means to the end, the end justifies the means, winning is everything / the only thing, and everything goes. Success becomes the criteria of the private sport empires to discard basic norms of modern sport such as a level playing field. Such concepts as “selling the catch” (baseball, football) and “the good foul” or even “the good hard foul” (basketball) have become official and introduced into the everyday vocabulary of competition to degrade the culture of sport, athletes and humanity. It is little wonder that hooligan behaviour is rampant and the “major leagues” are mired in an unprecedented moral crisis.– Tony Seed

Rays catcher Jose Molina is considered the gold standard for framing pitches, which can help bring several extra wins | Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

Rays catcher Jose Molina is considered the gold standard for framing pitches, which can help bring several extra wins | Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

AP (March 22) WASHINGTON — It was a crucial pitch in a game in the early 1990s. A fastball. Away.

When the ball hit Randy Knorr’s mitt, Knorr, a Toronto Blue Jays catcher, moved it back over the strike zone.

The umpire called it a ball.

“Fifty thousand fans in the stands are booing,” Knorr said. “I knew it was a ball. I was just trying to bring it back over. And he smacked me in the back of the head and said: ‘Don’t ever do that to me again. You know that was a ball, and now you made everybody in the stadium think it was a strike.’ ”

At that moment, at least, Knorr was no Jose Molina.

We’ve all seen it on television: the center-field camera zooms in on the mitt, where the catcher does his best to massage balls into strikes. Technically, it is an attempt to cheat, an ingrained and artful baseball deception as old as the neighbourhood play at second base.

How much does it influence the game? More than you probably thought. In a sabermetric age in which everything is seemingly measurable, teams can calculate how many runs a catcher can save by mastering the art of pitch framing. Web pages galore are devoted to the topic, with statistics enthusiasts analyzing the location of every pitch and tabulating which catchers are best at gaining strikes.

Teams are keeping count as well. Knorr is now the bench coach for the Washington Nationals, who have devoted more resources to analytics in recent years under General Manager Mike Rizzo. This spring training, Rizzo made a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays to acquire Jose Lobaton, in part, because Lobaton rated well in pitch framing.

And where did Lobaton learn the skill? From the guru himself, Molina.

“It’s like those pitches away that, when you think that it’s a ball, he can make those a strike,” Lobaton said. “I’ve been trying to do the same. But I’m not like him. I try to be like him, but I can’t.”

A half-dozen extra strikes in a game can make a difference. Rays Manager Joe Maddon once said that Molina was worth 50 runs a season based solely on pitch framing. Other estimates vary, but mathematical consensus indicated that Molina’s subtlety with the glove translates into three to five extra wins a year. That’s enough to win or lose a pennant.

“Any pitch that can change a count that way, whether it’s going to be a 2-1 or a 1-2, that’s the biggest swing you can possibly have right there,” Nationals reliever Drew Storen said. “It keeps you in good counts. It definitely helps you out if you can get five or six calls that would have gone the other way just from the catching framing it.”

Molina’s peers at the top of pitch-framing ratings include his brother Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals and Jonathan Lucroy of the Milwaukee Brewers. All have something in common: soft movements using the wrist and elbow, while the rest of the body stays still.

Speaking about Lucroy, Brewers closer Jim Henderson said: “You would think if you miss your spot as a pitcher with that small target, you might not get the call, but somehow, he makes it work within the parameters of the plate there. So it’s actually amazing how well he does if we screw up.”

Lucroy said it took years to hone the skill after he first paid attention in the minors.

“You can see a big, big difference between guys who can catch and guys who can’t,” Lucroy said. “The pitcher hates it because he wants to be able to pitch and throw, knowing the pitch he throws, that if it’s a strike, it’s going to be called a strike and not taken outside of the zone.“

He added: “The easiest thing for young players to work on is just keeping your head and body still and just moving your hand. That’s all it is, catch the ball and stop it.”

Or, as the Nationals’ pitching coach, Steve McCatty, put it, “You’ve got to stick the landing.”

Another pitch-framing master was the four-time All-Star Bob Boone, now an assistant general manager with the Nationals. Boone would be so intent on keeping still that, if the bases were empty, he would let the ball glance off his webbing and roll to the backstop rather than move his mitt to catch it.

“If you can get a half-inch on each side and the strike zone’s 20 inches high, that’s 20 square inches,” Boone said. “That’s like 4-by-5. All of a sudden, the pitcher knows I’ve got that much bigger strike zone.”

Conversely, there are catchers who cannot sit still. It should not be a surprise that Jorge Posada, who retired from the Yankees after the 2011 season, statistically ranks among the worst pitch framers in recent major league history. Posada spoke of the importance of the skill while working as a guest instructor with the Yankees this spring, but he did not venture an opinion as to his own ability.

“I guess people can go back and look and see how they thought I did,” Posada said. “Some guys were better than others, I guess.”

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