A veteran of seven Atlantic League seasons, James Skelton has been stealing strikes from behind home plate since 2013.
Pitch framing is an art form, a subtle skill that takes years to master. It’s valuable, too. Catchers like Skelton find work at every level of professional baseball from teams looking to conquer the strike zone’s borders.
And now, it doesn’t matter.
With an Automatic Ball-Strike System powered by TrackMan radar in place throughout the Atlantic League’s eight ballparks, Skelton’s pitch framing skills are suddenly obsolete.
“It's going to be a lost art in the game,” said Skelton, a former Lancaster Barnstormer and current member of the York Revolution.
If it reaches other levels of professional baseball, the change is going to require a shift in how baseball executives evaluate their catchers, negating one of their most important skills.
There are players who have built careers on it, like Jeff Mathis, a 15-year veteran of the major leagues who currently plays for the Texas Rangers.
Despite a career batting average of .196, Mathis has earned more than $18 million in salary over the course of his career because of his reputation as an elite defensive catcher. With radar technology overtaking a catcher’s ability to frame pitches, a defensive catcher’s career path becomes much more narrow.
Before that kind of big money hits the chopping block, Skelton is the test subject.
An Atlantic League all-star this season, Skelton’s skill profile is similar to that of a typical major league defensive catcher — slick glove hand included.
Brian deBrauwere, the home plate umpire during the All-Star Game this year, said Skelton framed a few pitches so well that he would have called them strikes without thinking twice. The ABS called them balls.
“Whatever the catcher does to it, it doesn’t matter,” deBrauwere said.
Now Skelton, who owned a .254 batting average and .766 OPS through 636 Atlantic League games, is searching for a new niche.
“I don’t really have to worry about the receiving part of the game anymore ... so I’m trying to concentrate more on blocking,” he said. “If it gets to the next level, you’re going to see a lot more defensive catchers that can block balls and hit as opposed to guys who can receive and throw guys out.”
Blocking ability becomes especially key if the Atlantic League’s new rule allowing batters to “steal first base” on an uncaught pitch sticks, though Skelton said he doesn’t like that idea and simply will not run to first if given the opportunity while he’s at the plate.
Most position players said they liked the certainty the ABS injects into the game. From their perspective, neutralizing the pitch framing ability of a player like Skelton is only beneficial.
For umpires, though it can lead to some credibility concerns, especially if a pitch in the strike zone isn’t received well by the catcher.
It’s the same clash between subjectivity and objectivity, between the eye test and data, that has pervaded baseball’s analytic revolution.
Like any other demographic within the game, the Atlantic League’s umpires have differing opinions.
“TrackMan, to me, is not going to add anything to the game,” umpire Bill Worthington said in an interview before the technology was introduced.
Worthington oozes the kind of old-fashioned defiance that opposes change in baseball, rubbing game balls with mud has he spoke before a June 5 game between the Lancaster Barnstormers and Sugar Land Skeeters.
It’s TrackMan’s encroachment on perception that Worthington doesn’t care for. The classic case study Worthington used involved a catcher setting his target on the outside corner, then flailing back over the plate to catch a pitch on the inside corner that missed his target.
Worthington, and many other umpires around baseball, would likely call this a ball because the catcher didn’t receive the pitch well. That’s conditioned baseball fans to think similarly.
“Perception becomes part of this reality,” Worthington said.
Catchers like Skelton are masters of altering that reality.
But now, players within that niche might be facing a new reality of their own as baseball decides which path it will take.
With the ABS in place for the next two years under an agreement between the Atlantic League and Major League Baseball, the wheels of change in the Atlantic League may already be turning.
Barnstormers manager Ross Peeples, who is also involved with the team’s personnel management, said the new rule with probably change what he looks for when he scouts catchers.
“You’ll probably get one that’s a better hitter that can just catch the ball,” Peeples said.