During yesterday’s series finale against the Twins, which ended in a 6-3 win for the Royals, Brandon H. of Twitter posted this thread about Brad Keller and Salvy, which I found pretty intriguing:
When I initially did some digging, I thought that this conundrum was simply a Keller-Salvy dea. I figured that Keller would benefit from being paired with Cam Gallagher from here on out in 2021. After all, Gallagher mostly caught Keller during his full season as a start in 2019 (due to Salvy missing the year due to injury), and I hypothesized that Keller and Gallagher probably just had better chemistry together than Keller and Salvy.
However, when I looked into things, especially on Baseball Savant, I stumbled upon a bigger problem: Salvy’s framing has been pretty poor in 2021.
For a pitcher like Keller, catcher framing and getting extra strikes are huge. Keller does not generate a ton of whiffs (23 percent whiff rate, which is 1.5 percent below average), though his 19.2 K rate currently is an actually a career high. To succeed on the mound, Keller lives on the edges as a pitcher, especially with his slider. If he is not getting hitters to chase, then he needs to get those borderline calls to be effective.
This year, his walk rate is at 10.4 percent, which is not only a career high, but 2.5 percent higher than his walk rate in 2020, according to Savant. With a K/BB ratio of only 1.84 (lowest of any Royals starter, according to Baseball Reference), it is not a surprise that Keller has experienced one of his roughest years at the Major League level, though his recent starts, sans the walks, give hope that Keller can turn things around soon.
While Keller is struggling with walks this year, he is not alone. As a pitching staff, the Royals have the third-highest walk rate, and rank 25th in K to BB rate, according to Fangraphs data, as of May 31st. Even though those mediocre walk and control numbers could be credited to approach (which may fall on pitching coach Cal Eldred), Salvy and his framing may have a bigger effect on those metrics than imagined, especially when Royals fans dig deeper into his framing numbers via Baseball Savant.
And thus, not only would Keller benefit from pitching more with Gallagher, but would other Royals starting pitchers also benefit from pitching to Gallagher rather than Salvy, especially in the midst of the Royals pitching staff’s walk issues thus far in 2021?
Now, framing has always been an issue for Salvy, ever since they started recording that data back in 2015. From 2015-2018, Salvy cost the Royals 54 runs on extra strikes, and his strike rate over that time period averaged 43.7 percent, which rates as pretty below average (the league average strike rate tends to be in the 47-48 percent mark). While Salvy showcased strong blocking skills and a great ability to gun down runners on the basepaths, his lackluster framing during that timespan made Royals fans wonder if Salvy needed to explore more time at first base or the DH spot, especially as he got older.
That being said, last year, Salvy demonstrated some gains in his framing skills, albeit across a much smaller sample.
Though he only saw 996 pitches behind the plate, he generated zero runs on extra strikes, which was league average, and an 11 run improvement from 2018. Furthermore, he improved his strike rate to 48.9 percent, a 5.2 percent improvement from 2018. Those increases were major gains for Salvy, and even Fangraphs, who use FRM to evaluate framing effectiveness, seemed to hint that Salvy was much improved as well. His FRM went from 11.9 runs below average in 2018 to 0.3 ABOVE average improvement, a 12.2 run increase. Thus, it seemed after 2020 that Salvy had worked on things behind the plate in his time off, and as a result, not only improved his framing, but his overall value as a catcher (which further justified his extension).
The biggest improvement Salvy seemed to have in 2018 to 2020 was his ability to frame strikes in the lower part of the strike zone. Take a look at how his strike rates improved from 2017 to 2018 to 2020 in Zone 17, 18, and 19, respectively, which spans the bottom part of the strike zone, from left-to-right, respectively.
As one can see, Salvy became stronger each season framing pitches in the bottom left and bottom right parts of the strike zone each season during that three-years sample. And, even though he regressed a little in the bottom middle from 2017 to 2018, he improved 4.3 percent from 2018 to 2020, which was a promising sign. As a result, take a look at how Salvy’s runs on extra strikes and strike rate numbers improved over that time span as well (pay attention to the metrics in the red circle).
However, the gains of Salvy’s framing from 2020 has seemed to be just a small blip on the radar thus far, as Salvy has regressed in his framing metrics. Of qualified catchers, Salvy is tied for the worst mark for MLB catchers in terms of runs on extra strikes, as he has cost the Royals four runs due to his framing. Here is a look at the five lowest catchers in baseball, according to Savant:
Granted, Salvy’s strike rate is better than the other four, which puts a positive spin on an otherwise rough-looking set of rankings. That being said, considering the Royals pitching struggles thus far in 2021 (they rank 27th in starting pitcher WHIP and 23rd in reliever pitching WHIP), the Royals need someone behind the plate that can give Royals pitchers the extra strikes they need to be in favorable counts, which can limit the big innings. Right now, it’s difficult to see if Salvy is bringing that benefit to Royals pitchers on a framing end, unfortunately.
So with Salvy’s struggles in framing, how does Gallagher compare? Thankfully for the Royals, Gallagher has been a nice complement to Salvy, and has been able to hold his own defensively to the multiple-time All-Star. The Royals having at least one decent framing catcher is nothing to shrug at, as the Orioles have two BELOW average framers who have garnered innings behind the dish in Baltimore (which explains the Orioles’ struggles this year).
While he is far from the offensive force that Salvy has been this season (Gallagher is posting a 36 wRC+), the Royals’ backup catcher has been much stronger in his framing, much to the benefit of the Royals pitching staff. Let’s take a look at how both Royals catchers compare in framing metrics, via Savant:
As Royals fans can see, Gallagher pretty much outdoes Salvy in framing overall and by a considerable margin. He is four runs better in terms of getting extra strikes, and his strike rate is 6.3 percent better as well. Furthermore, Gallagher has been much better than Salvy in those 17-19 zones, which has been an area of struggle for Salvy traditionally, and especially in 2021.
In zone 17, Gallagher is 16.7 percent better. In zone 18, he is 23.4 percent better. And in zone 19, he is 14.5 percent better. On average, in zones 17 through 19, Gallagher generates strikes 18.2 percent better than Salvy and that is nothing to overlook, especially for a pitching staff that metrically has struggled with control and command so far in 2021.
Now, what does this mean for Mike Matheny and the Royals? Does this mean Salvy should hit the bench? Of course not. Even if Salvy is a below-average framer, his arm strength (he has caught six runners on 17 attempts this year), blocking, and offensive ability still warrant him a regular spot behind the plate. Going into Monday’s game against the Pirates, Salvy is posting a 117 wRC+, which is the second best mark for any Royals hitter with 40 or more plate appearances, according to Fangraphs. Furthermore, he is tied with Carlos Santana for the home run lead at 10, and let’s be honest, he’s the heart and soul of this Royals team. Salvy could be the worst framer in the league (which is possible at this point). That is not going to affect his playing time in a considerable way.
Nonetheless, the framing metrics should at least make Matheny examine what pitcher-catcher matchups to explore. A starting pitcher like Keller, who lives down in the zone with his sinker and slider, would benefit more from a better framer like Gallagher than Salvy. The same could also be said for Brady Singer, who is a sinker-slider pitcher as well. With Jorge Soler’s struggles offensively, Gallagher starting behind the plate occasionally (and moving Salvy to DH consequently) could give an opportunity for the Royals to not only rest Salvy and save his legs when these two pitchers start, but also to help these pitchers get the extra strikes they need to be effective.
It will be intriguing to see how Matheny utilizes Gallagher and Salvy going forward. Salvy’s framing issues are not a huge problem, but they are still an issue at the end of the day, especially for a pitching staff that struggles to limit walks. Even if Gallagher doesn’t offer much of a boost offensively, his framing can help this pitching staff, especially Keller, whom the Royals need to be successful this year.
With Soler out due to injury, maybe Salvy can get more at-bats at the designated hitter spot?
That could be a win-win for not only Salvy, but the Royals pitching staff as well.
Photo Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images