The Pirates completed a three-game sweep of the Cubs on this Thursday night at PNC Park, winning 9-5.
But before the series got underway, Jacob Stallings had some catching practice to do.
The routine goes like this: Stallings and bullpen catcher Jordan Comadena head to the bullpen, or sometimes a batting cage, with a sack of different sized baseballs. Stallings crouches like normal, and Comadena flips him a ball, underhand. Stallings catches it, trying to keep his hand as still as possible.
The two continue this until Comadena breaks out the weighted balls. They are roughly the same size as a normal baseball but are heavier and a little squishier. Comadena mixes in three different weights: 16, 21 and 32 ounces. Catching a regular baseball later will feel like a feather, even if it is coming in at 95 mph.
Stallings then puts on a wrist weight on his left arm and they continue, again trying to minimize movement.
"It's just really strengthening, and sticking and not letting the pitches drag you out of the zone," Stallings was telling me at his locker.
Time for the next exercise. For this one, Stallings is going to need to put on a glove.
These sessions of Stallings catching barehanded lobs from Comadena have happened four times a week over the past few months. The goal: To make Stallings a better pitch framer.
And it has worked.
According to Baseball Prospectus, before 2019, Stallings had accumulated -1.2 framing runs over limited cameos in three major league seasons. While that was a poor total, Stallings was bouncing between Triple-A Indianapolis and the majors. When he was promoted, he was trying to build rapport with the pitching staff. His development was secondary to the team's needs.
After being sent to Triple-A in April, Stallings was brought back to the majors in May when Francisco Cervelli was placed on the injured list with a concussion. Knowing he was getting an extended look in the majors, Stallings wanted to improve his game so he did not have to go back to Indianapolis. To do that, he knew he would have to start stealing more strikes for his pitchers.
"Since I've come back from the minor leagues this year, it's really been a big focus," Stallings said. "I learned what we were being judged on and graded on."
Comadena and Stallings worked together to build the weighted ball program, though it was initially Comadena's idea. While Stallings was bouncing between the majors and the minors, Comadena was working out of the Pirates' bullpen. There, he saw the different pregame routines and exercises other catchers around the league were doing. Later, he and Stallings handpicked the parts they liked to make their own program.
"He was open to try[ing] some of this stuff," Comadena was telling me on the field after the Pirates had taken batting practice. "It's been a lot of fun throwing different ideas at him, different drills."
The program they developed has been worth it. This season, Baseball Prospectus reports that Stallings’ pitch-framing skills have saved Pirates pitchers 7.3 runs. That is the 12th best total out of 111 qualified catchers this season. One of the main reasons he is not even higher is because of his limited playing time. Had he spent the whole season in the majors, he likely would have been in the top 10. If he played the same amount of innings as a full-time catcher, he could flirt with the top five.
Pitch framing was an important aspect of the Pirates’ playoff teams from 2013-2015, reaching the pinnacle in 2015 when Cervelli and Chris Stewart’s receiving skills saved their pitchers nearly 30 runs in one season, the most in baseball.
This season, the Pirates rank 22nd in baseball with -7.1 framing runs. That is due in large part to Elias Diaz, whom Baseball Prospectus considers the worst pitch framer at -14.4 runs.
"It is an important part of the catcher, and certainly an area we are working to get better and need to get better," Neal Huntington said.
When teams started valuing pitch framing earlier this decade, the mindset was that it was a skill a catcher either had or did not have. However, in recent years, it has become apparent that it can be learned.
"It's something that can absolutely be improved upon, [like] all aspects of your game," Comadena said. "... If you want to have a different result, sometimes you've gotta try some different things and try to implement some different things into your game."
Stallings knew he needed to get better, which is why he started doing the weighted-ball exercises to strengthen his forearm, wrist and shoulder. That's the key to pitch framing, or so Stallings thinks.
"Well, that's where I feel my arm tire when I'm doing it," he joked.
Stallings, Comadena and bench coach Tom Prince, a former catcher, also do a lot of video work — not just of Stallings' catching, but of the catchers near the top of the framing leaderboards, too, trying to pick up tips. Yasmani Grandal and Manny Pina of the Brewers are able to get close to the batter. The Braves' Tyler Flowers is a taller guy like Stallings, so he wanted to see how he uses his long arms to his advantage. Colin Moran put Stallings in touch with Max Stassi, a former teammate of his in Houston who now plays for the Angels. The two text each other often about the secrets of the craft and even grabbed breakfast together when the Pirates traveled to Anaheim in August.
"It's been an evolving thing," Stallings said. "I feel like we've learned a lot and gotten a lot better throughout the year. It's just the intent of learning the K-zone. Learning when I'm back there what's a strike and probably what's not, and not giving up on anything."
While Baseball Prospectus does not give the option to see how many runs Stallings has saved month by month, Joe Musgrove has seen Stallings' framing ability improve as the season has progressed.
"From a pitching standpoint, there are so many times over the course of a game, over the course of at-bats, where you are trying to gain control," Musgrove was telling me. "Whether it's getting ahead 0-1 or if you're getting back in the count 1-1, the numbers go to show the averages drop drastically [with those strikes]. ... He does a really good job making those borderline pitches go our way."
Clint Hurdle praised Stallings' work with Comadena and for him buying into the "fight for every pitch" mentality the coaching staff tells their catchers, but also said he has benefited from more playing time in the majors.
"Familiarity with the staff is big," Hurdle said. "Knowing what they've got when they've got their 'A' game, knowing what they're going to go to in their 'B' game, building those relationships and the experience with the reaction to the ball. The actual ball flight. Certain pitcher's sliders break different. Certain pitcher's fastballs ride different. He's got all of that in his back pocket now."
While Stallings has improved as a hitter this year, he is always going to be regarded as a defense-first catcher. Since he has improved at framing, he is making his case of being one of the better defenders in the league. Even in a disappointing year for the Pirates' pitching staff, Stallings has made a positive impact.
"You can go 0 for 3 and still have a good game if you do well receiving," Stallings said. "It's made the game more fun for me."
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