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:
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.
Three pitches later, a slider that caught too much plate:
And the next pitch, another change:
And another fastball two pitches later:
The following pitch, another fastball:
Next pitch, another fastball, this one down the middle:
What have we learned from this exercise, if anything?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.