Meet Derek Norris, Pitch Framer Extraordinaire (Part 1)

In May of the this past season, I wrote a couple of articles that were critical of Derek Norris‘ pitch framing. By the time I wrote the second one — May 26th — Norris had cost the Padres nearly 29 strikes, second-worst in the majors behind only Carlos Ruiz, per Baseball Prospectus. I even went so far as to place a good bit of blame for the pitching staff’s struggles (and all of humankind’s) on Norris’ poor framework.

Here’s what the end-of-season pitch framing tally looks like, from BP:

Screenshot 2015-10-15 at 2.14.48 AM

Shit.

There’s Norris, with the season’s dust settled, ranking as the 10th-best pitch framer in the league. There’s Ruiz, still last, having cost his team 56.9 strikes — or almost 9 runs. Norris, instead of continuing in a chase with Ruiz for framing futility, suddenly turned into one of baseball’s best receivers right around the time I published that second article. What happened?

  1. Norris read my articles, enjoyed ’em, smiled, then immersed himself in the world of pitch framing, studying the mechanics of the Molinas and Francisco Cervelli and Yasmani Grandal, reading books on the subject, spending sleepless nights watching Tom Emanski’s framing videos, consulting with Ben Lindbergh, etc. Likelihood this is the answer: 8 percent.
  2. Someone else, most likely a Padres staffer (or Andrew Cashner), hinted to Norris that maybe his framing numbers weren’t so hot, and that it was an area he could work on. Dennis Lin wrote about Norris’ in-season framing improvements in September, where Norris seems to admit that his development behind the dish was a work-in-progress. Specifically, he discusses some areas that we were focused on early in the season: In particular, Norris said, his improvement has come through “trying to stay relaxed and be as soft as I can. And when the ball hits my mitt, not trying to let it drag, trying to catch it exactly where it is, just be nice and soft.” Likelihood this is the answer: 68 percent. 
  3. Regression — Pitch framing stats, both because they’re based on such granular measurements and because so many pitches are thrown each game, aren’t subject to heavy regression like, say, BABiP or ERA. Still, there’s obviously some present. With Oakland, Norris’ pitch framing was right around league average, so it was always odd that he transformed into one of the worst framers in the game upon joining the Padres. Likelihood this is the answer: 44 percent. 
  4. Baseball is baseball, and we don’t know nothin’. Likelihood this is the answer: 100 percent. 

Whatever happened, Norris deserves credit. If he was -28.9 strikes through May 25th and ended the season +69.8 strikes, that means he was something like +98.7 strikes in the four months in between. In other words, from June on, Norris was one of the best framers in the league, clearly behind only Grandal and, perhaps, some small sample success stories, like San Diego’s own Austin Hedges. This is good news.

While Norris’ offensive production suffered as the season grew longer, he ended the year with a respectable-for-catcher .250/.305/.404 slash line. He also bettered his throwing, as we discussed mid-season, gunning down 34 percent of would-be base stealers. With improved all-around work behind the dish, Norris is suddenly a well-rounded backstop who doesn’t turn 27 until February 14th. This, too, is good news.

In part two, we’ll try to identify some examples of how Norris improved his pitch framing so dramatically.

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