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Mariners putting increased emphasis this spring on pitch framing

Seattle Mariners catcher Mike Zunino, left, was fourth in the American League for plus calls in 2015, despite missing a month in the minor leagues. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
Seattle Mariners catcher Mike Zunino, left, was fourth in the American League for plus calls in 2015, despite missing a month in the minor leagues. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
Bob Dutton Tacoma News Tribune

PEORIA, Ariz. – One of the game’s nuances is getting extra treatment this spring in Mariners’ camp: pitch framing by catchers. And it’s not just because new manager Scott Servais is a former catcher.

“Chris Iannetta was quick to jump out and lead the discussion,” Servais said. “Talking about framing metrics and what’s going to be different. Why is it changing? It’s evolving.”

Iannetta ranked second last season among American League catchers in plus-calls. Mike Zunino ranked fourth, despite spending the last month in the minors.

“It’s different for everybody,” Iannetta said. “It’s based on your body type. It’s based on your style of catching, too. It’s hard to paint broad strokes for everybody because everyone has to look at what they do and figure out what works for them.

“What works for me is just trying to be relaxed. Trying to give a good target. Then just try to catch the ball where it is. Not push the ball out of the zone.”

It’s an evolving science.

“It’s a big thing this year because of how big it’s gotten,” Zunino said. “The whole league is talking about it. Last year was a big year because the stats were a little better known. I think there’s more research into it now.

“As a catcher, you want to know what you can do to get that edge.”

Servais notes it was different when he and long-time Mariners catcher Dan Wilson were playing. Wilson now serves as a minor-league coordinator and is overseeing the pitch-framing drills.

“When Dan and I caught,” Servais said, “it was more of an era where you were just supposed to catch it and hold it or stick it. Nowadays, guys are kind of learning to funnel the ball a little bit toward the strike zone.

“That seems to have benefited the guys who rank at the top of the list on the framing-metric charts. Chris and Mike Zunino (are among) the better ones in the league over the last couple of years at pitch-framing…let them talk.”

Zunino pointed to former teammate John Buck as a major influence in learning to frame pitches. Buck spent part of 2014 with the Mariners – Zunino’s first full big-league season.

“He showed me what he worked on,” Zunino said. “He had studied the Molinas (Yadier, Bengie and Jose) quite a bit. So I just took his drills and tried to do them. It was something that just fit my body style and my catching style.”

Iannetta said the skill isn’t affected by which pitcher is on the mound or where a catcher positions himself in relation to a pitch selection.

“It doesn’t matter where you set up,” he said, “you’re still in the strike zone for the most part – unless we’re intentionally trying to throw a ball. Otherwise, you’re in the strike zone or at least on the perimeter of the strike zone.

“You work within their comfort zone and where they want you. From there, you just try to keep balls in the zone.”

And while catchers will try to steal a strike on occasion, there’s an art to doing that, too. A backdoor breaking ball might offer the best opportunity.

It’s a pitch the batter often gives up on, but the umpire can see the ball is moving back toward the plate. A slight-but-fluid motion with the glove might gain the critical inch necessary for the strike call.

“You’re not trying to get 10 or 15 a game,” Zunino said. “You’re trying to get two or three a game. Maybe a big one in a 1-1 count. It’s those swing counts that really make a big difference.

“For me, I put a lot of emphasis low in the zone. If I can handle that pitch low in the zone, bring it up and make it look presentable…that’s where we teach our guys to pitch.”

Iannetta said the key is to avoid snatching or jerking the ball into the zone.

“You want to be smooth the entire time,” he said. “Just very subtle movements and make sure you’re addressing the ball the right way. Not carry it out of the strike zone. Just keep it in the strike zone.

“If it’s a strike, it’s a strike. If it’s a ball, it’s a ball. We’re not trying to deceive anyone. We just want to make sure that we get strikes called strikes.”

What about borderline calls?

“Well, the borderline one,” Iannetta said, “is probably a strike.”

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