Roberto Pérez is built to survive the robot apocalypse.
According to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, the league will begin testing “robot umpires” as early as spring training. They won’t be used to determine in game calls yet, but the system will be in place for select locations and it’ll be tracking balls and strikes. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see that robot umps in real games are coming sooner or later.
The goal of such a system is to stop blown calls by umpires over the course of a season. Umpires who are, after all, human and cannot track a 97 mph fastball with tailing action quite like a high speed camera can. With a robotic strikezone in place, umpires will receive the ball or strike call in their ear and relay it to the field as they do now. To most fans, nothing on the surface will change. Umpires will still make judgement calls on checked swings, and the game will soldier on as it always has.
However, one byproduct of a robotic strikezone is the death of the art of catching. More specifically, the art of framing. In its simplest terms, framing is a means to fool the human umpire into thinking a pitch was a strike when, at best, it was a borderline ball. It’s more than just catching a ball in the dirt and hastily yanking it up over the plate (but it’s still worth a shot, bless your heart). It’s about the subtlety of motion as you grab a pitch just outside the zone and freeze with it over the plate. If you’re lucky — or good — you’ll fool the umpire into thinking the ball was actually over the plate, not shifted at the last second in some slight of hand illusion. Repeat that enough and you can change the course of an at-bat, a game, or even a career.
Some players, like Roberto Pérez, have mastered the art. You could argue his framing ability was the driving force behind the Indians trading catcher Yan Gomes and giving Pérez the majority of the playing time in 2019. So, in theory, stripping away the importance of framing should sink the career of someone like Pérez right?
Baseball Prospectus is the leading public-facing outlet on scouting catchers, tracking everything from run blocking to framing and everything in-between. Their framing runs metric — or runs saved as a result of good framing — had Roberto Pérez as the third best in baseball in 2019. In total, he saved the Indians 15.5 runs in 6,841 framing chances (i.e. balls that could have been framed and were not wildly out of the zone). Ahead of him was Yasmani Grandal with 19.4 framing runs in 8,000 chances and Austin Hedges with 26.0 framing runs in 5,828 chances.
So Roberto is among the elite of elite when it comes to saving runs via framing. But the thing is, he isn’t only great at framing. Along with runs saved by framing, Baseball Prospectus also tracks similar run-saving states based on blocking wild pitches and stopping stolen bases. Roberto led the league in block runs last season at 8.8; the next closest was Robinson Chirinos at 5.8. In throwing runs, J.T. Realmuto was in another world at 4.7 runs. But behind him was Buster Posey at 1.6 and — surprise! — Roberto Pérez at 1.5 runs saved by throwing.
Roberto’s contemporaries in the top of the framing leaderboard were much further down on both lists. Hedges and Grandal saved 1.5 and 1.8 runs by blocking, respectively. Hedges saved 0.3 runs by throwing, and Grandal actually cost his team 0.1 runs with his arm.
In terms of overall value, Baseball Prospectus’ framing runs above average adjusted (or all three run-saving stats plus their ability to field the position) had Pérez as the second best defensive catcher last season at 25.6. The leader was Hedges at 27.8 with an overwhelming amount of value coming from his framing ability. Grandal and Realmuto round out the top four at 20.9 and 20.4, respectively, and then there’s a chasm before you get to the rest of the league’s catchers.
None of this even takes into account Roberto’s ability to handle a pitching staff. While it’s much harder to quantify, all signs so far indicate that he has mastered that just as much as he’s mastered framing.
Even with an average bat, if clubs value anything about defense after the robot revolution, Roberto Pérez will have a home on just about any team.