In Which Derek Norris is Blamed for Home Run Problems, Plight of Humankind

Note: The conclusions reached herein do not necessarily match the title; Derek Norris is neither fully to blame for home runs nor the plight of humankind. We’re just following standard internet get-readers-riled-up headline making. 

A couple of week ago I wrote about Derek Norris’ pitch framing struggles, noting that Norris’ early numbers, perhaps surprisingly, rated him as one of the worst framers in the league. Normally, just a month and a half into the season, we’d say something about small sample sizes and move on, but as mentioned in the article, the quick stabilization of framing numbers left cause for concern . So, instead of moving on, I yammered away about Norris’ framing ability — probably annoying half my audience — while also throwing in some video, attempting to show how Norris’ poor framing manifests itself in GIF-form.

Since then, not much has changed — heck, it’s only been 12 days. Norris’ framing numbers certainly haven’t improved, though. Per BP, he’s now cost the Padres 28.9 strikes, climbing ever-closer to Carlos Ruiz for worst-in-MLB honors. And just last week, Eno Sarris wrote an interesting article for FanGraphs/ESPN Insider on how a change in catchers — and as a result, a smaller strike zone — has changed Andrew Cashner.  From the article:

Ask Cashner about his pitching mix this year, and you start to understand how framing can affect a pitcher regardless of the count. What’s different this year? “I’m going for it with my four-seamers more,” said Cashner before a game against the Nationals. “Going for more punchouts.”

As Sarris later notes, the change in pitch mix has helped Cashner record a career-best strikeout rate (as a starter), but it’s also led to an increase in home runs allowed. Cashner continued:

“My backdoor sinker is one of my better pitches and I haven’t gotten that pitch called this year,” Cashner admitted. “That’s eliminated some of my game plan sometimes.”

Whether Cashner should be changing his approach based on a perceived — and, well, demonstrably — smaller zone is up for debate, but the simple fact that he’s done it raises an interesting question: how much affect can an expanding/shrinking strike zone have on a pitching staff beyond the numbers that sites like Baseball Prospectus track?

Which brings me back to something I said in the Norris article:

Padres’ pitchers just aren’t getting as many calls on the edges of the zone, and while I don’t want to speculate on things that might not be related, perhaps it’s forced them to attack the middle of the plate more frequently, leading to that ugly 86 ERA+ and league-leading 50 home runs allowed total.

Since then, the Padres team ERA+ has improved slightly to 87 (it’s hard to get worse) while the home run total has jumped to 62, four more than the second-place Toronto Blue Jays. The home runs have really been a problem, especially for a team that calls (still pitcher-friendly) Petco Park home. James Shields, who hasn’t had a diagnosed case of gopherballitis since he gave up 34 round-trippers in 2010, has surrendered a league-leading 15 home runs. Ian Kennedy, who missed a couple of starts with a pulled hamstring, has already given up nine homers in just 35 and one-third innings, while Cashner has allowed eight of his own after giving up just 19 during the past two seasons combined. Even the usually untouchable Craig Kimbrel has already allowed three home runs in just 15-plus innings, just one off his single-season high.

I don’t want to imply that Norris is fully (or even mostly) responsible for the pitching staff’s struggles — surely, the pitchers are mostly to blame. However, with Cashner’s changing repertoire in mind and the theory about Padres’ pitchers being forced to visit the heart of the plate more frequently this year, I wanted to take a stab at further exploring the issue. While Norris isn’t throwing any pitches, maybe he’s having a greater negative affect on the staff’s performance than anticipated. Maybe … maybe not.

With help from the indispensable Baseball Savant, I gathered all of the PITCHf/x data from this season with Norris catching (through Sunday’s game), then I filtered out only the called balls/strikes on at-bats that eventually ended in home runs. I wanted to attempt to isolate Norris’ potential affect on homers, specifically. Here are those strike zone plots:

click to enlarge
Norris zone, home runs

You can see on the left that, on at-bats that ended up homers, Norris has missed three clear strikes while also failing to get the strike call on a number (maybe six or seven) of fringe pitches. At the same time, the plot on the right, the called strikes, shows that Norris has only “stolen” one, maybe two pitches during these same at-bats.

What follows are images of some of the pitches Norris didn’t get for called strikes, along with images of the pitch that was ultimately taken deep.

Here’s an 0-1 fastball from Shawn Kelley to Mike Zunino (pitch no. 2):


Three pitches later, a slider that caught too much plate:


Here’s an 0-1 changeup from James Shields to Adrian Gonzalez (pitch no. 2):


And the next pitch, another change:


Here’s a first pitch fastball from Shields to Charlie Blackmon (pitch no. 1):


And another fastball two pitches later:


Here’s a 1-0 fastball from Brandon Morrow to that pesky Blackmon (pitch no. 1):


The following pitch, another fastball:


And finally, here’s a first pitch Craig Kimbrel fastball to Nick Hundley (pitch no. 1):


Next pitch, another fastball, this one down the middle:


What have we learned from this exercise, if anything?

  1. The theory holds, at least somewhat. In these instances, Padres’ pitchers didn’t get the strike call on the initial near-the-edge-of-the-zone pitch, and often within the next pitch or two (often with the same pitch type) they were taken deep on offerings that caught too much plate.
  2. As you might’ve noticed, three of the five should-have-been-strikes captured above were called balls, at least partially, because Padres’ pitchers missed their spots. You can tell the pitcher missed his spot by how Norris is reaching across the plate, stabbing at the pitch to catch it. That’s probably partly on Norris, who has to do a better job making those kinds of misses look more like strikes, whether it’s by setting up differently or by catching the ball in a manner more pleasing to the umpire. On the other hand, that’s mainly on the pitchers, who have to do a better job throwing the ball in the vicinity of their intended location if they want to consistently get borderline strikes — especially given Norris’ mediocre-to-below-average framing skills.
  3. Blackmon has three homers at Petco in just nine plate appearances this season. He also has three homers everywhere else in 172 plate appearances, 95 of those at Coors Field.

Maybe the biggest lesson here is that framing pitches involves many different parties, from the catcher to the pitcher to the hitter to the umpire. For his part, Norris seemingly hasn’t done a good job receiving this season despite a track-record that includes mostly league average-ish numbers. Norris’ framing deficiencies, especially when compared to last year’s Rene Rivera-Yasmani Grandal catcher platoon, have caused Padres’ pitchers to fall behind more often in the count, to occasionally change where and what kind of pitches they throw, and to (perhaps*) more often attack the heart of the plate rather than the edges.

On the other hand, the pitching staff has done a poor job of hitting its spots this season, at least from what we can tell. Both on the pitches hit for home runs — and, presumably, doubles and singles — and on previous pitches in those at-bats, the staff’s inability to consistently throw the ball near Norris’ target has likely cost them both a fair number of strike calls and a much healthier ERA. When working well, pitch framing involves both ends of the battery executing its part. Right now, it appears the Padres don’t have either end performing particularly well, and it’s led to a stretch of uncharacteristically poor results from the mound.

*Admittedly, this is still more working theory than fact at this point.

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  • DaveRiceSD

    Interesting – after this was first brought up I started paying more attention to Norris’ glove, and I did see some of the noise being talked about previously…but what was more noticeable than the quivering on a well-placed pitch was how far he’s moving to snag a goodly number of them.

    • Right – is it just that pitchers are missing so badly there’s nothing he can do, or does Norris struggle with off-target pitches more than other catchers? I’m not sure, really.

  • Pat

    Really interesting stuff! Thanks for doing the research on this, I hope you’ll keep it up!

    • Thanks, Pat! Glad you enjoyed it.

      • Pat

        Hey, Dustin, this is the very first blog I’ve ever seen from Padres land (Padres Public for sure) posted on Baseball Think Factory Newsstand!! Congratulations!

      • Thanks for the heads up!

  • Gabriel Acevedo

    anyone who thinks that Derek Norris is to blame for the out of the blue plight of the pitching, IS A FREAKING MORON!!!…its not his fault that all of the starters, minus Shields, are throwing balls UP and right over the plate. That is not a reflection of the catcher’s flaws…thats a reflection of bad pitching mechanics..PERIOD.

    lets say, hypothetically, it is Norris’s fault…why is his “bad pitching framing” NOT affecting James Shields?

    bottom line, if Tyson Ross and Cashner, have to be spoon fed, by keeping the likes of Rene Rivera, what does that say about them as pitchers, and what does it say about the on field managing?. This is professional baseball, I thought…where players come and go every season. And still you have a job to do, right?

    there are far better pitchers than either Ross or Cashner, who had to deal with adjusting to a new catcher, every so often. I think its appropriate to say, they need to get over themselves. Basically, they got rid of the best pitch framer they had in Grandal…but nooooooo…they didnt like him and couldnt meet each other half way, pitcher to starter.

    so they have no one to blame but themselves. To be perfectly honest, I was perfectly fine with them giving Grandal another shot at the crown, so to speak…he gets on base…he can hit…and when healthy, he can throw guys out. And he showed in Winter Ball, he is in fact, healthy.

    so now they have an equally impressive offensive catcher, in Norris…and you guys wanna pick apart something that at the end of the day, is NOT the main reason, they suck right now.

    • Pat

      Yes, except Shields who has given up more HR than Cashner and Ross combined, or than anyone in the NL, or all of MLB for that matter. I’m sure it’s not effecting him at all.

      • Gabriel Acevedo

        excuse me, Shields has a long track record of leading the league in giving up homers…usually, solos. That did not just start, when he came to SD. He gets hit, because he’s not terrified of throwing strikes…that has nothing to do with Derek Norris.

        So, my point still stands. If Cashner and Ross have hairs up their butts, because Rivera is gone, maybe Preller should accomodate trades for both of them, elsewhere.

        Im kinda tired of this prima donna BS, that allowed Cashner and Ross, to ONLY work with the catcher they wanted. Neither one is Kershaw, Boomer Wells or Maddux.

      • Shields hadn’t really had any major home run issues since 2010. While his strikeout and walk numbers have been great this season, he’s given up a *ton* of homers, and his ERA is below average. Cashner’s actually been really solid overall, despite the win-loss record and some home run issues of his own.

      • Pat

        Overreact much?

      • Gabriel Acevedo

        none of my posts were in response to ANYTHING that you bring or dont bring to the table…so your question falls flat, because you’re irrelevant. What does that mean?…mind your fuckin business. The conversation didnt have a damn thing to do with you and your typical, “accept mediocrity mindset”…thanx for nothing.

  • caldo

    Great piece! Isn’t all this further evidence for the immediate need of robot umps? Let’s stop worrying about how delicately Norris cushions a pitch and enjoy having a catcher that can hit!

    • Gabriel Acevedo

      can you believe how they went “all out” here, with the video clips and the whole bit, trying to smear this kid?…and then they call it a “working theory not fact”, to make it seem like no harm was done with this BS.

      they whine about Norris not setting up properly, so that he can better frame pitches that miss their intended target??…what a joke!…if he wants a pitch down and away on the OUTSIDE of the plate, how the hell is he supposed to quickly “set up” under a hitter’s armpit, when the ball misses Derek’s glove and ends up hitting a guy’s back foot?…

      GOD cant even make that pitch look like a strike?

      in EVERY SINGLE VIDEO, I see the ball is UP, over the plate or catching too much of the plate. Norris’s job is to call for a certain pitch in a specific situation, given the count…

      its NOT his job to control how the ball comes out of a pitchers’ hand.

      Never thought Id say it, but I wouldnt be against reviewing balls and strikes in certain scenarios, if they can modify it in such a way, as to not take too much time, during the game.

      • Gabriel, appreciate you reading and responding.

        First off, there’s really no “they” here. It’s just me.

        I’m definitely not trying to smear Norris in any way. I’ve written a good number of words here about his positive attributes, as well, but I’ve also talked about his pitch framing since before the season started. Like here, where I did both:

        He’s a really good offensive catcher, and a not-so-good defensive catcher. That’s all. I can certainly live with that player, but it’s reasonable, after having Rivera/Grandal last year, to assume that he’s had *some* negative impact on the struggling pitching staff.

        And I certainly agree with the notion that part of the problem is the pitching staff, and I said as much in the article. In fact, I’m not really sure who is to blame on pitches that are clearly strikes, but miss Norris’ target significantly and are called balls. Part of it’s on the pitcher, part of it’s on the catcher (and part of it’s on the umpire), but how much? I don’t know.

      • randplaty

        Why has Norris dropped off the face of the planet in terms of pitch framing? Prior to this year he was an average pitch framer and now he’s the worst in the league. Something else must be going on.

      • Yes, this is somewhat puzzling. It’s something I’ve tried to explore a bit, but (not surprisingly) haven’t really found an answer.

      • Gabriel Acevedo

        I wonder if posting these kinds of threads, serve any purpose at all, besides just passing time…

        saying that to say, Id rather have a catcher in Norris, who had above average offensive skills and better than serviceable defensive skills, than to have a catcher in Rivera or for that matter, Hundley, who for most of his career, including most of his time with the Padres, was an easy out.

        you cant have it both ways, unless you go all out to find that “Buster Posey” to scout and develop. If Derek Norris is the source of someone’s headache, then they should write AJ Preller to find out what he’s scouting on the catcher front, cuz Lord knows before its all said and done, Hedges will be a backup catcher, because he cant hit his ass with two hands in broad daylight.

        Im sitting here watching Cashner. Apparently, he has Hedges catching for him, because Norris isnt doing something that he wants done….but yet, I STILL see him throwing fastballs right over the plate (just gave up a run to Ianetta. Hedges was set up on the OUTSIDE of the plate…but Cashner thought he’d be a good Samaritan by throwing a heater right over the plate.

        looking forward to your GIF analysis on that, blaming Hedges for not setting up, properly.

      • We’re all just passing time, Gabriel. And there are worse ways to do it than arguing about pitch framing 🙂

        And I agree with you on one thing, at least. I’d certainly rather have Norris over Hundley, who isn’t very good at framing/defense or hitting (though his bat has come alive a bit this year).

        Cashner hasn’t been *great* this season, but it seems like you’re being pretty hard on him. He’s having a pretty nice year. Anyway, pitch framing certainly isn’t the end-all, be-all, and I’m sure we (more so, the data analysts who do the real work on it) don’t have a complete handle on its impact yet. But it’s something to keep an eye on this season, I think, if you’re willing to accept that it might have some affect on the pitching staff.

      • Gabriel Acevedo

        its no mystery among my circle of pals, Im not a fan of the trade that brought Cashner here in the first place…to be perfectly honest, we could do without Cashner, because he’s one pitcher..not the whole staff…but look over at first base, and that tells you all you need to know about what we lost and what we have right now.

        and I’ll leave it at that.

    • caldo, thanks! I actually hope they stick with human umps for a while longer, but there are certainly a lot of people who agree with you.

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  • Pads Fans

    Curious how many times Norris set up in the wrong place? Also, as you take a look at the Pitch F/X, also take a look at how much fewer times our guys have thrown balls low in the zone. Its substantial.