Pitch framing has lost a bit of its luster of the last few years, simply because everyone knows about it. Whereas a few years ago it was the latest and greatest development in sabermetric thinking, now seemingly every team has a good framing catcher or three. Just as notably, the really bad framers—the Ryan Doumits of the world—have mostly disappeared, either forced out of the game or forced to improve at their craft.

But don’t tell Hector Sanchez.

Here’s the strike zone plot versus left-handed hitters that I pulled from last night’s game around the time Sanchez left after taking a foul ball off the foot:

sanchezmap

Look at those green squares. There are three of them clearly in the rule book strike zone and another couple safely in the area generally called a strike. Part of that’s on the umpire, sure, and part of it’s maybe just small sample whatever. But we already know that Sanchez is not a particularly good framer. Last year, by Baseball Prospectus’ framing metric, Sanchez had the second-worst CSAA (-0.032) in all of baseball among catchers with at least 500 chances, ahead of only then-Reds catcher Ramon Cabrera. That was Sanchez’s worst year by the numbers, but he’s always rated as a well below average framer since debuting with the Giants back in 2011.

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The Padres lost to the Freddie Freemans 5–4 yesterday, but Austin Hedges went 2-for-3 with a walk, a double, and a two-run go-ahead home run in the eighth inning.

That’s a big-league dinger, an opposite field shot off a 98 mile-per-hour outside fastball.

The thing about Hedges’ game is that because it’s so defense-oriented, home runs like the one above are just gravy. Hedges is already considered one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, a reputation he earned in the minor leagues as a sort of generational backstop, proficient in all areas of his craft, from receiving to blocking to controlling the running game to game calling.

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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.

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?

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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.

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