It was never really a question as to whether Francisco Mejía could hit, for a catcher. He can hit, and he’s started off the season well with zero strikeouts in his first 13 PAs, and a visibly quick bat.
The question is how good of a defensive catcher he’s able to become, and whether he will hit well enough to cancel out any defensive shortcomings.
Ever since Mike Fast’s 2011 work to quantify catcher framing — the ability of a catcher to receive the pitch in such a way so that the umpire is more likely to call it a strike — we’ve known that framing is the most important aspect of catcher defense, generally outpacing blocking and throwing by an order of magnitude, so as we get to know Mejía, we should pay special attention to how he receives the ball.
I’ve made an interactive visualization of all the called balls and strikes for the Rays on the season so far (works best in Chrome), that lets you flip back and forth between catchers, pitcher handedness, and batter handedness.
Despite faring poorly by the publicly available framing metrics in 2020 (and there are valid reasons to doubt those numbers), Mike Zunino is generally considered a good receiver, so he can stand in as a useful benchmark for what a good-framing catcher would be able to achieve with this staff.
First off, here’s the rough outline of the strikes Zunino was able to get called.
While here’s Zunino’s outline superimposed on Mejía’s plot.
For the most part, there’s simply not enough pitches yet to truly establish the boundaries of each catcher’s zone. Zunino managed a few more strikes in the top part of the zone, but Mejía hasn’t received any pitches in that area yet. Mejía did get a call in the upper right and lower left that Zunino hasn’t yet been able to get.
But there is one area of concern, on the bottom left corner of the zone, where the catchers are receiving balls on the left side of their body. We’ll get to that.
Not Mejía’s Fault
Every ball/strike call is a three-person tango between the catcher (who needs to get his glove to the right spot early enough to sell the location, and then either hold it or move it subtly back to the zone), the pitcher (who needs to be in the area of his intended location to give his catcher a chance), and the umpire, who actually makes the call.
At least three of the strikes Mejía failed to get for his pitcher were almost definitely not his fault.
For the sinker in the upper right quadrant, Ryan Yarbrough hit the corner with the glove already there, and Mejía pulled it back in very slightly while keeping his glove mostly still. I’m not sure what else the umpire was looking for.
For the cutter in the upper left quadrant, I don’t think Colin McHugh got the break he wanted or Mejía expected, but Mejía adjusted to it well. There was a little more movement, but at no time was this not a strike.
And for the sinker in the lower right quadrant, Andrew Kittredge yanked a fastball to the opposite side of the plate from where Mejía had set up. It’s possible a smoother receiver could have adjusted to the pitch earlier and easier, but that’s maybe a lot to ask.
The Backhand Problem
And now for the area of concern.
All of these called balls were on pitches where Mejía needed to move his glove to the backhand side to receive a ball on his left.
In this first example, he was expecting a sinker at the bottom of the zone on the outer third, and instead he got it on the inner third. It’s an adjustment, but not a huge one, and while the pitch was very much a strike he made it appear well inside.
Mejía did poorly on a similar adjustment again on this pitch. Once again he needed to move his glove about half a plate’s width to his left to get to the proper location, and instead of successfully shifting in the same orientation, he rotated to his backhand and turned a strike into a ball.
This pitch from McHugh was never going to be called a strike — it was very much a ball in a missed location — but it’s another example of Mejía reacting slowly when he has to adjust to his backhand side.
Finally, here’s another example of that adjustment where Mejía actually does succeed in sticking the catch without rotating his glove, but because of the way he overtracks the movement, and perhaps because of how far back he makes the catch, he presents the pitch as being further outside than it actually was, decreasing the chances of the ump giving his pitcher the call.
Looking at a lowlight reel of a catcher's worst frame jobs is going to make him seem worse than he is. The Rays have had strikes called as balls when Zunino was behind the plate as well.
This pitch was probably a cross-up with Glasnow getting curve movement while Zunino expected slider, and on this one I blame the ump. But on this pitch Zunino may have lost the strike when his glove drifted back to the center before the pitch, forcing him to reach.
Francisco Mejía doesn't have to be a great receiving catcher if he hits to the level he may be capable of, but until MLB adopts an automated strike zone that makes the framing skill moot, the Rays will want him to frame the ball as well as possible, and systematic errors in a particular quadrant of the zone may make for concrete areas he can look to improve on. As Mejía better learns to recognize the movement of the pitchers on the Rays staff, keep an eye on how he adjusts to pitches low and to his left.