Is Catcher Framing Cheating?
A parable about the Hall of Fame and how baseball's morals evolve
On September 15, 2010, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter pretended to get hit by a pitch.
Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chad Qualls missed inside with his first pitch to Jeter and it glanced off the knob of Jeter’s bat. Qualls and Rays manager Joe Maddon believed the ball was live and fair, and thus that Jeter could have been thrown out at first base; it looks to me like the ball caromed off the bat and hit his hip, meaning it should have been ruled foul and the at-bat would continue with a 0-1 count. Yet Jeter immediately recoiled as though the pitch had struck his elbow, and he sold it well enough that Lance Barksdale awarded him first base. “My job is to get on base,” Jeter explained later. “He said it hit me, so I'm not going to argue with him.”
The baseball world spent a couple days debating the sportsmanship of Jeter’s chicanery, but the incident was largely forgotten.1 It didn’t tarnish Jeter’s reputation as an upstanding athlete who played with integrity. No one puts an asterisk next to his career achievements, and despite the Hall of Fame electorate’s predilection for keeping out candidates who blur the lines of fair play, Jeter cruised into Cooperstown on his first ballot with 99.7% of the vote. Even Maddon, who watched Jeter’s undeserved free base turn into a run against his team when Curtis Granderson homered a few pitches later, saw fit to not just condone Jeter’s charade but praise him for it. “There's several thespians throughout baseball,” the opposing manager said.2 “I thought Derek did a great job, and I applaud it, because I wish our guys would do the same thing.”
The story has stuck with me ever since because I was surprised at how little backlash it generated. In a sport that relishes endlessly relitigating its own purity, whose vanguards take any excuse to bemoan the inferiority of modern baseball and the lost art of playing the game The Right Way™, why wasn’t this seen as cheating?
I’ve spent many years trying to define a good generalizable test for what I consider to be cheating. The best one I’ve come up so far is: Knowingly exploiting fallible rule-enforcement to gain an advantage that would be impossible with more-observant officiating. By this definition, Jeter’s flopping obviously fits. His one-man show affected the outcome of the play only because the umpire had but a brief, obstructed view of where the pitch landed. Had Barksdale had access to multiple camera angles and instant replay there would have been no point to Jeter’s theatrics. Under the since-implemented replay-challenge system, Maddon would have asked for the call to be reviewed, and it would have been overturned in short order. Jeter exploited an information-asymmetry that theoretically should not exist in order to turn a foul ball into a free base. I call that cheating.3
I bring this up not because it’s important to rehash the morality of a play from over a decade ago that didn’t even change the outcome of the game (the Rays still won, 4-3) but because, in the midst of a Hall of Fame voting season where debates about cheating have taken center stage, and on the heels of a coordinated push to write Steroid Era players out of the record books, I think it’s instructive to consider how arbitrary and fluid our conceptions of fair play in baseball are.
For example, catcher framing.
For those who aren’t baseball-obsessives, framing, also known as receiving, presenting, and stealing strikes, is the art of catching a pitch on the edge of or outside the strike zone so that it looks like a strike. As skilled as professional umpires are — their job is much harder than it looks from the couch — it’s unfathomably difficult to tell whether a small sphere that can be thrown in excess of 100 miles per hour passes through an imaginary box. It turns out that, in borderline cases, umpires are subconsciously influenced by physical cues in how the catcher “frames” the ball as it zips into their glove. While this has been a known phenomenon in industry circles for decades, it has grown more salient in baseball analysis in recent years because pitch-tracking technology has rendered it measurable.
If you ever played catcher in Little League, this concept may sound familiar. You probably thought you were being really sneaky by yanking your mitt towards the middle of the zone after catching a pitch, and that you were too slick for the umpire to notice. It turns out framing is not quite that simple. Skilled receiving is as much about making it look like the pitcher hit their target as it is about making that target look over the plate. Consider this example from then-Houston Astros catcher Christian Vázquez in a game last September:
To my eye, Will Smith’s fastball to Max Stassi actually does hit the outer edge of the zone.4 Vázquez tries to help him out even further by yanking his mitt several inches towards the heart of the plate after catching it. But Smith misses his spot badly (or at least what Vázquez thinks is Smith's spot), and Vázquez has to lurch across his body to catch the pitch before he can try to frame it. Beyond how far the glove travels, watch how much Vázquez' head moves as he stretches towards the ball, and how his knees jostle as his momentum abruptly shifts. When the pitcher misses the target by this much, there’s only so much the catcher can do to present it smoothly, but this pitch would probably have been called a strike if Vázquez had made it look easier to catch. And this missed call was a costly one: Instead of striking out to end the inning, Max Stassi walked to keep it alive, setting up Matt Duffy’s walk-off hit in the next at-bat.
Contrast that with this presentation last April from Yankees catcher Jose Trevino, who is considered one of the best framers in baseball. Michael King misses well inside with a 3-0 fastball and Franmil Reyes takes the pitch for what should be a walk. Instead it’s called a strike.
Trevino doesn’t bring his glove over the plate — you can see some subtle movement, but his mitt still finishes a few inches inside. Yet there's a quietness to how he catches the pitch. He looks natural as he lifts his glove from his pre-pitch setup to where the ball lands. His hand moves only slightly as he secures it. Save for his left forearm, every part of his body looks perfectly still. Trevino gets the call because he sells that King hit his target, which creates the visual cue of a hittable pitch. It made a real difference too, as Reyes ended up striking out two pitches after this would-be ball four.
As you can hopefully see, framing is an art form. Nonetheless, the term stealing strikes is appropriate. In a world where umpires enforced the rulebook strike zone without fail, King’s pitch would have been called a ball, Reyes would have walked, and no one would argue that Trevino’s receiving technique should supersede the pitch’s location. It is human fallibility, not a preference for nonconformity, that prevents umpires from calling a consistent, clearly defined strike zone.5 Framing is a deliberate effort to exploit the practical limits of fair officiating.
We should tread with more nuance here. I don’t believe it’s unethical to work to ensure that a pitch in the zone is correctly called a strike. It’s also probably impossible to generalizably differentiate a catcher attempting to influence the umpire from holding an athletic squatting posture and presenting a clear target. Yet I don’t think these caveats change the broader point. I’ve never heard of a catcher who makes a distinction between balls and true strikes in how they receive them, nor am I sure they could do so reliably in real time even if they wanted to. And while intent may be hard to prove for an individual pitch, we know that every team in the Majors is trying to steal strikes. Catchers are evaluated and acquired based on their framing metrics. Coaches work with them to improve their presentation skills. Some clubs even acquire pitchers based on how well their pitch characteristics align with their catchers’ receiving strengths. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just smart baseball.
At this point I should reveal that I, too, have been presenting my pitch in a deceitful frame. I’ll first admit that, true to Betteridge’s law of headlines, my answer to the question in the title is no, framing is not cheating. And it’s easy to demonstrate why: There is a webpage hosted on the official Major League Baseball domain that approvingly displays a leaderboard of the best framers in baseball. It’s hard to interpret that as anything but an endorsement of it as an honest skill. (I assume the NBA doesn’t showcase a list of its top floppers.)
I do sincerely believe that concept of stealing strikes is unsportsmanlike. The integrity of any sport hinges on the officiating being above the fray, and directing gamesmanship towards the umpires confounds their status as third-party observers. But if Major League Baseball is okay with it — as one could reasonably infer they are since they allow the practice to continue unchecked in the public eye and discuss it in its publications and broadcasts — then it can’t be considered cheating.6 Given the existence of the Baseball Savant leaderboard, I would go a step further and argue that catcher framing has MLB’s explicit approval. Therefore it's as legitimate a strategy as pinch-hitting a right-handed batter to face a lefty pitcher.
My second confession is that this essay isn’t really about catcher framing.
In 1998, reporter Steve Wilstein spotted a bottle of androstenedione in Mark McGwire’s locker. The news sparked a public-relations mess in the midst of McGwire’s record-setting 70-home-run season: How could one of baseball’s most-sacred milestones be eclipsed by someone who used performance-enhancing drugs? Yet as Wilstein noted in the second sentence of his bombshell story, androstenedione was then considered legal in Major League Baseball.7 Then-Commissioner Bud Selig brushed off the concerns of impropriety: “I think what Mark McGwire has accomplished is so remarkable and he has handled it all so beautifully, we want to do everything we can to enjoy a great moment in baseball history.” If the league had been interested in showing that they took PEDs seriously, a high-profile player going on the record about his ongoing steroid use was a hanging slider right down the middle. It speaks volumes that they didn’t even swing.
In 1889, Pud Galvin was heralded by the Washington Post for revitalizing his career with the help of a testosterone-boosting elixir. A century later, when McGwire openly discussed his (and others’) use of a modern-day equivalent drug with the Associated Press, not only did the writer emphasize that the substance was not prohibited, but the Commissioner had never even heard of it. Yet while Galvin has had a home in the Hall of Fame for decades, a culture shift occurred between when McGwire went on the record about his supplements and when his name came up on the Cooperstown ballot. Despite the facts that his career ended before a real PED policy went into effect, that he was never reported to have failed even a non-punitive survey drug test, and that the league had clearly condoned his use of androstenedione, McGwire’s face is conspicuously absent in the Plaque Gallery. So are the busts of Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens, all inner-circle baseball greats who were never contemporaneously punished for PEDs but who have been shut out of the Hall because of retrospective judgments about how they played the game. (Which isn’t to say there aren’t good reasons not to honor Bonds and Clemens as people.)
Some fans and writers have advocated for a compromise approach, allowing that dopers whose drug use predated the collectively bargained Joint Drug Agreement can be grandfathered into the Hall of Fame, but arguing that those who received official discipline for doping should be barred from Cooperstown. Yet this too betrays an anachronistically harsher attitude towards PEDs than were understood at the time. The two players on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot to whom this proposed restriction is most relevant are Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez. Ramirez served two separate 50-game suspensions for violating the JDA, while Rodriguez was sidelined for the 2014 season for his role in the Biogenesis scandal. Note that these were temporary punishments with predetermined lengths, not indefinite lifetime bans. Ramirez and Rodriguez each played for multiple seasons after returning from their respective furloughs. Outside of cases like domestic and sexual violence, there are few other limited-duration suspensions that hold continued salience in defining a player’s legacy many years later. How many Hall of Famers were suspended for being part of an on-field brawl? In all the debates about whether Sosa cheated by using PEDs, did anyone care about the time he was actually suspended for using a corked bat?
It would have sounded preposterous a few decades ago, even within my lifetime, that players’ accomplishments could be retroactively dismissed as cheating for behavior that the league openly condoned. What happens if we see a similar sea change in how the sport views catcher framing?
There’s another relevant moral evolution that today’s fans have witnessed in real time: A reversal in tolerance for pitchers doctoring the baseball. Major League Baseball banned the use of foreign substances on the ball in 1920 (with some initial exceptions), but the practice has persisted with varying degrees of brazenness. Historically, spitballers like Gaylord Perry sought to reduce the friction on the ball as they threw it. (That Perry’s plaque adorns the halls of Cooperstown despite his being famous for cheating, and even once getting suspended for it, is further grist for letting the stars of the Steroid Era in, too.) Yet in the modern game, sticky substances have become more desirable, as gripping the ball better helps pitchers improve their command and generate more spin. The resurgence of foreign substances grew pervasive enough that MLB announced a crackdown in 2021 — a welcome (if clumsily executed) step towards ensuring fair play a century after adopting the original rule, but also an implicit admission that they had been tacitly condoning such behavior to that point.
How will future baseball historians untangle the web of pitchers who used Spider Tack? Will the aces of the 2010s be viewed through a fog of suspicion, just as the sport sees sluggers from the 1990s? Will the next generation of Hall of Fame voters be wary of spin-rate spikes the way recent electorates have looked askance at power surges? Most importantly, will the stewards of the game seek to retroactively punish players for behavior that, however wrongly, was then considered acceptable?
The year is 2027. Three years after MLB implemented the Automated Ball/Strike System in 2024, catcher framing in the big leagues is a thing of the past. With some distance, the practice starts to seem strange and unsportsmanlike — just in time for Buster Posey, one of the game’s great receivers, to get his first crack at Cooperstown. What should have been a drama-free waltz into Cooperstown is derailed by ahistorical moralizing. He made a career out of tricking the umpire?
It sounds silly and far-fetched. It probably would have to Mark McGwire, too.
Moral relativism is a slippery slope. Acts of bigotry, marginalization, and violence are unacceptable whether the rest of society saw them as such or not, and whitewashing such instances can perpetuate their harms. But to shoehorn anachronistic standards of fair play into your analysis of even recent bygone eras is to run afoul of baseball historicity. If you assume that today’s definitions of cheating can be neatly molded onto the past — and will remain intact in the future — your conclusions are sure to be off-base.
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Perhaps the very idea of such pearl-clutching about this sounds naïve to fans of more-contact-oriented sports where such flopping is more common, but baseball presents fewer situations where a player pretending to be hurt gives a team an advantage.
Far be it from me to question Maddon on this, but as someone who’s watched thousands of professional baseball games, I disagree that it’s common for batters to flop as obviously as Jeter did — or at least to get away with it and then publicly admit to it.
So does Oxford, which has two definitions of cheat that fit this incident like a glove: “to trick somebody or make them believe something that is not true,” and “to act in a dishonest way in order to gain an advantage, especially in a game, a competition, an exam, etc.”
The TV graphic is not a reliable source for the true strike zone.
Do not read this as endorsing a technology-based automated strike zone, which both wouldn’t fully solve this problem and would create many others.
Whether MLB ought to be seen as the standards-setter for the game of baseball at large is a subject for another day.