Should We Be Worried About Derek Norris’ Pitch Framing?

To answer that question right away: in the big scheme of things, nah, we probably shouldn’t be. We’d probably be better off worrying about more important things, like trying to find a cure for cancer, or finding a good book to read, or giving the dog that bath we’ve been putting off for weeks.

But in the context of the 2015 San Diego Padres — a team that’s surprisingly allowed the third-most runs per game in the National League, despite calling Petco home — it makes at least a little sense to pay some attention to Derek Norris‘ framing numbers.

First, a quick refresher. The Padres had one of the best pitch framing tandems in baseball last season, as Rene Rivera and Yasmani Grandal helped save a combined 42.3 runs from framing alone. A.J. Preller used both Rivera and Grandal as trade chips in the offseason, sending them to Tampa Bay and Los Angeles respectively, picking up Norris from the A’s along the way to be the new starting catcher.

It was a clear shift away from pitch framing-focused catching, but it wasn’t a crazy set of moves from Preller. Norris, just 26, is a fine offensive catcher who, coming into this season, looked like a league average framer and so-so all-around defensive backstop (save for some issues handling the running game). Rivera, one could argue, was at the height of his value — he’s still a good framer, but don’t look at his 2015 batting line — and Grandal apparently had some issues getting along with the pitching staff.

Norris has been as advertised with the bat, hitting .303/.325/.471 in 123 plate appearances, and his throwing arm has been better than expected. Norris — and Padres’ pitchers — has been run on frequently, but he’s caught 14 of 37 would-be base thieves, which is already more than he’s thrown out in any season in his career.

But the pitch framing — well, it hasn’t been good. Norris, who was essentially tabbed as a league average framer prior to 2015 (per Baseball Prospectus), has cost the Padres 19.6 strikes so far in 2015, ahead of only Carlos Ruiz in pitch framing futility (StatCorner mostly agrees). It’s early in the season, so you’re probably thinking “small sample size,” which is good, but pitch framing statistics stabilize super quickly:

After only 10% of the season (about three weeks) a catcher’s 2014 CSAA sports a .81 correlation to his final number. After 30% of the season (about 2 months), the correlation is over .9. This isn’t just for full-time catchers either: this data set includes catchers like Humberto Quintero, who had a mere 35 framing opportunities last year.[3] CSAA is not only a skill, but one that manifests itself quickly and with effect.

So why has Norris suddenly become a liability receiving pitches? We’ll — big shocker here — I don’t really have any idea, but here are some things I mentioned yesterday when discussing Red Sox’ catcher Ryan Hanigan‘s decline in pitch framing:

  1. Aging — Okay, that doesn’t really apply here. Pitch framing does have, perhaps surprisingly, a pretty steep aging curve, but it doesn’t start until a catcher’s early-to-mid thirties. Norris, at 26, is right around prime pitch framing age.
  2. The league getting better —  Maybe the league’s continued focus on pitch framing has made Norris’ middling framing skills look worse by comparison. Rob Arthur mentioned that theory here when discussing Yadier Molina‘s framing free fall.
  3. Switching teams — Maybe moving from the A’s to the Padres and having to learn how to catch a new pitching staff has affected Norris’ framing numbers. Then again, as I mentioned yesterday, “this year’s pitch framing leaderboard features four team-switchers – Yasmani Grandal, Francisco Cervelli, Russell Martin, and Miguel Montero — among its top 10, so you can probably scratch that theory.”

In any case, Norris’ early season framing struggles pass the eye test — at least to me — when compared to the strikezone Padres’ pitchers were privileged to last season. This year, it seems like the strikezone has noticeably shrunk, with many opposing teams, non-Nick Hundley division, getting the benefit of a larger zone. 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.

Arthur, who I linked to once already, wrote about how good pitch framers force hitters to swing at bad pitches earlier this year. As he notes:

Going back to the example I posed above, the hitter is more likely to swing with a good framer behind him. The swing itself negates the pitch from being counted as a positive outcome for the catcher, but there’s no denying that the catcher influenced the outcome of the at-bat. Specifically, he forced the batter to make a swing he might not otherwise would have, at a pitch that was further from the center of the plate than perhaps the batter would have liked.

and …

That’s important because I have shown before that the closer a pitch is to dead-center, the better the quality of contact the hitter can make. For every inch one travels horizontally from the center of the zone, BABIP and SLG drop dramatically. So, one way in which catchers may be influencing at-bats is by inducing hitters to swing at pitches from the center of the zone, thereby reducing the quality of contact that the batters make.

He went on to find that good framers do indeed force hitters to swing at pitches further from the center of the strikezone, on average, while poor framers have the opposite effect on hitters. The effect is generally small, but when you consider the thousands of pitches a catcher receives in a season, it adds up. Again, it’s possible that’s not what’s happening with Norris and the Padres’ pitching staff — I’m merely presenting it as a potential cause, along with the framing issue in general, for some of the poor pitching we’ve seen this season (particularly the ridiculous home run rate).

Forget the numbers, though — what actually makes Norris a poor pitch framer, if in fact he is one? I looked through some PITCHf/x data and tried to find a few examples of balls that should have been called strikes with Norris behind the plate.

norris1

And here’s the strikezone plot from Brooks Baseball (pitch no .1):

norris_1

This is a first pitch curveball from James Shields. As you can see from the image above, it caught the edge of the plate. Once you consider that the zone against left-handed hitters generally expands to the outside, it almost certainly should have been called a strike. So why didn’t Norris get the call?

1) There’s quite a lot of movement from Norris’ glove. He flashes his target, then sort of drops his glove and then quickly raises it to catch the pitch.

2) He doesn’t actually “frame” the pitch. He catches it, drops his glove, and starts taking the ball out of his glove. He didn’t really give the umpire a great look at it. Watch noted pitch framers Jose Molina and Jonathan Lucroy here, and see both how still they are and how they frame the pitch for a good second or two after they catch it.

3) Who knows. I don’t want to pretend I’m an expert on the mechanics of pitch framing. Further, we’re not considering a bunch of factors that go into strike/ball calls, like the hitter, or the pitch type, or the umpire, etc.

Let’s move on:

norris2

Strikezone plot (pitch no. 4):

norris_2

Notice how much of the plate that pitch caught. Ian Kennedy missed his spot, which was part of the problem, but perhaps Norris was set-up too far outside, making it impossible for him to get close to centering that pitch. Also, as he reaches back across the plate to catch the pitch, his gloves seems to drift further away from the strikezone. He gave up on that pitch, giving him little chance to get the call.

Next:

norris3

Strikezone plot (pitch no. 1):

norris_3

That fastball from Cashner could have been called a strike, as you can see both from the GIF and the image above. Like the first GIF, there’s a lot of glove movement there, as Norris’ glove darts down to catch the pitch and then quickly back up as he takes the ball out of his glove. If anything, he’s not giving the ump a good, clean look at it. Again, you can contrast that with good framers who keep their gloves quieter throughout the process of receiving a pitch.

Here’s one more:

norris4

Strikezone plot (pitch no. 1):

norris_4

There’s a breaking ball from Brandon Morrow that appeared to catch the bottom part of the strikezone. When Norris caught that ball, his glove wasn’t too far off the ground, making it look like less of a strike. He might have got the call if he caught the ball sooner, before it dropped out of the zone.

We’re just cherry picking specific calls here. Norris has the look of an okay framer, but he hasn’t gotten a ton of calls this year. The things he might need to work on appear to be minor, like giving the umpire a better look at the pitch and not worrying so much about taking the ball out of his glove, and being more still with his glove (and body).

With some minor adjustments, hopefully Norris can return to the realm of league average pitch framing, as such an improvement would make him one of the better all-around catchers in the league. With a solid contact bat, doubles power, and a better grasp of the running game than expected, Norris is doing almost everything else right (though he could take a walk every once in a while). For now, though, his value is somewhat limited by lackluster pitch framing numbers, and a struggling Padres’ pitching staff could use a few more borderline calls as the season progresses.

All statistics through Tuesday’s games

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  • SingingFriar

    I’m no expert at this at all, but what strikes me about all four examples is how poorly positioned Norris’ body is to frame the pitch. He’s having to reach an awful lot. I’m wondering if this has to do with staff familiarity and is something that is correctable once Norris gets used to each pitcher’s pitches, better able to provide a reliable target.

    • Jason Sartain

      I’m hoping the Padres pitching staff and coaches realize this as well and are good at working with catchers. I really loved A.J. Hinch when he was with the Padres. Too bad he isn’t still around. I love Buddy Black but Hinch would have made an excellent manager for us as well.

      • No doubt there’s a chance Norris can improve his framing, as you mentioned perhaps by becoming more familiar with the pitching staff or simply by focusing on it more. As Jason mentioned, A.J. Hinch appeared to be part of the pitch framing focus last season (I linked to an article in a comment above); not sure how much Preller and the new staff buy into the pitch framing stuff.

  • Patrick R.

    Fantastic article. Thanks for writing this up!

    Cheers!

  • John Gennaro

    This is a really fantastic breakdown. Well done.

    • Thanks, John — glad you liked it.

  • Geoff Hancock

    I know it was only two starts, but did you happen to check to see if Hedges was getting more borderline calls than Norris? It seems like framing is something that can be taught but is there anyone on the Padres staff who can teach it?

    • According to the numbers, Hedges has been right around league average so far (BP has him slightly below, StatCorner slightly above), but he’s only had 99 framing chances. His minor league framing numbers were off the charts (good) and the scouting reports generally praised his framing-related abilities. My guess is he’ll be good, but time will tell.

      As far as teaching pitch framing, yeah, I think it’s definitely something that can be taught, even though it’s still a skill that’s going to vary to some degree from catcher to catcher, like anything else. The Padres apparently worked hard with Nick Hundley last year, and he suddenly went from a poor framer to an average one. In Colorado this season, he’s reverted back to his below average framing ways.

      It looks like ex-Padre staffer A.J. Hinch was part of that effort. Here’s the article: http://m.padres.mlb.com/news/article/69454498/nick-hundley-padres-catchers-working-on-framing-pitches

  • john virissimo

    Great topic, awesome research. Another thing to add is the fact that Norris sits up rather high. There shouldn’t be that much space from dirt to buttocks. Umpire can’t get the best view on them low pitches. Umps shoe shouldn’t fit in space. I used to umpire some baseball.

    • Thanks. There are a bunch of subtleties to good framing, so thanks for pointing that out. I’ll keep my eye on it.

  • Robby Deming

    In at least some of the examples, it looks like pitchers missing their spots. We’ve seen thus happen quite a few time this season, which is probably contributing to this in a big way. As a whole, the pitching staff just seems to be leaking toward the plate and up a lot this year.

    Either way, I’m not all that concerned. Norris had been a stud and I think he’s done wonders for this team from an attitude perspective.

    And the pitchers seem to like throwing to him, so there’s that, too.

    • Good points, Robby. The second GIF especially is one where Kennedy completely missed his spot, and maybe there wasn’t a whole lot Norris could do to get the strike. And I’m pretty sure I’ve read before that pitchers hitting their spots leads to more strikes, which makes intuitive sense as well. So some of it (the pitch framing issue) is probably on the pitchers.

      Norris will likely be fine, especially if he keeps hitting the way he’s been hitting. Hopefully, he and the pitching staff are able to get more borderline strike calls as the season moves forward.

      • Robby Deming

        Thanks Dustin. And I think you brought up a lot of good points. One thing you hit on that I meant to elaborate on is the effect of wildness on umpires. It’s one of those oft-repeated baseball mantras that pitchers don’t get borderline calls if they’ve been wild in a game. I wonder if that’s having a serious impact here. The broadcasts (and an earlier PP post about Cashner’s struggles) have documented some significant misses by the pitching staff. I wonder if a few badly missed pitches end up biasing an umpire to not give Norris the benefit of the doubt on borderline pitches. Does seeing the catcher lunge across to receive a ball that missed it’s mark make the umpire unfairly judge every movement of the glove thereafter? I don’t have any answers, but this seems like it could definitely be a contributing factor.

      • M guess (just a guess) is that one or two off-target pitches wouldn’t significantly bias an umpire. But, yeah, when a pitcher consistently misses his target, he probably isn’t going to get as many calls, and that’s mostly not on Norris. There’s a lot of different things to consider, which makes it an interesting topic.

      • Robby Deming

        Hah, I think I might have a much more cynical opinion of umpires than you do 🙂

        But yeah, absolutely a fascinating topic. I’d love to know if someone has done any research about the impact of bias on umpiring. Anecdotally, it seems like good hitters always get more favorable ball/strike calls out of deference to their reputation. So it does certainly seem that umpires can develop a prejudice one way or another. The question is just how little time it takes to provoke that reaction from an umpire.

      • I know there’s been some research in that area. Here’s one article, but surely there are plenty more: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/30/opinion/sunday/what-umpires-get-wrong.html?_r=0

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  • Dan

    Dustin, this is a great post! It’s fantastic to see videos and supporting images to support the numbers. I’m curious about the value of this. He’s projecting to “lose” about 80-85 strikes in a full season, right? Are there maybe 20-25K pitches in a season? So it’s in the 0.003-0.004% impact. I’m probably missing something here, but I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around the really large value being attributed to pitch framing and wanted to know your thoughts. Also, would this mean our pitching staff last year was over-rated b/c Rivera & Grandal were so good at getting them strikes? Thanks a bunch.

    • Dan, thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

      Right now, according to BP, Norris is -21 strikes in 1,886 framing chances. Remember, that “framing chances” number isn’t all pitches, as it doesn’t include swinging strikes, foul balls, balls in play, etc — just pitches that can be “framed.” Last season he had almost 6,000 framing chances, so if we extrapolate out to 6,000 this season, that’d put him at -67 strikes, or right around 10 runs below average. Compared to the best framers — guys that save/add 100-200 strikes per season — Norris’ framing could cost the Padres as much as two or three wins.

      And, yes, you could say that pitching staffs with good/great framers are somewhat overrated, because with an average framer they theoretically wouldn’t get as many strikes, would find themselves more often behind in the count, might have to throw to the middle of the strike zone more often, etc. At the same time, there’s some discussion below about pitchers hitting their spots and how that affects pitch framing, so there may be a healthy relationship between good pitching and good framing. In other words, good/poor pitch framing might not always be based solely on the catcher’s abilities.

      Let me know if that answers your questions, or if you have any others.

      • Dan

        Thanks Dustin. That all makes sense, and I appreciate your time with your response. I think where I’m struggling is the value of 67 strikes equating to 10 runs below avg – not sure what avg is but it looks like a spread of 7-10 strikes changed = 1 run. I’ll have to read up more on how they determine the values. Generally, do you rely on Baseball Prospectus & Fangraphs? Any other sites you’d recommend?

      • Baseball Prospectus* has always been at the forefront of the pitch framing research (and a bunch of other stuff), so definitely check them out. FanGraphs is also great. StatCorner is another alternative for pitch framing statistics. Other great saber-related sites include Beyond the Boxscore, Hardball Times, and Tangotiger.com. Grantland and FiveThirtyEight also have some great baseball writing/research.

        Here’s BP’s most recent treatise on pitch framing: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=25514

        If you dig through their archives, there’s plenty of great PITCHf/x and pitch framing research (check Mike Fast, Max Marchi, and Ben Lindbergh, in particular).

        *Full disclosure: I occasionally write for BP.

      • Dan

        Awesome. Thanks Dustin!