keyboard_arrow_uptop

The 2014 San Diego Padres featured one of baseball's most effective catching tandems, as Yasmani Grandal and Rene Rivera combined to smash 26 home runs and post best-in-league pitch framing numbers. A.J. Preller didn't much care. In his first offseason as general manager, Preller fleshed out years' worth of pent-up trade ideas in a three-day span, and both of his catchers were involved: Grandal went to L.A. as the centerpiece of the Matt Kemp trade, Rivera to Tampa Bay as part of a three-teamer that returned Wil Myers.

Preller's solution to the sudden hole created at catcher was, not surprisingly, another trade; he sent right hander Jesse Hahn to Oakland for Derek Norris, a 26-year-old backstop better known for his promising bat than his glovework.

Early in 2015, Preller's catcher upheaval was working—part of it, anyway. Norris' offense sparked the Padres in April, as he slashed .313/.329/.463 with nine doubles. He even quietly solved the throwing issues that had plagued him the previous season, the same ones that were loudly exploited by the Royals in the Wild Card game. However, Norris' pitch framing was even worse than advertised; through May, according to our numbers at Baseball Prospectus, he cost the Padres nearly 25 strikes and was clearly better than only one catcher in baseball, Carlos Ruiz.

The pitching staff was also struggling, having registered a 4.06 ERA and 68 homers allowed through the season's first two months. James Shields and Ian Kennedy combined to surrender a staggering 20 home runs in May alone, and Craig Kimbrel appeared, for the first time since tee-ball, mortal. It wasn't hard to connect the dots, directing at least some blame for the pitching staff's struggles at the Grandal/Rivera-to-Norris framing downgrade. Andrew Cashner, a major beneficiary of framing prowess a year earlier, griped about Norris to Eno Sarris, even admitting to changing his pitching style because he wasn't getting as many close calls in his favor.

A season-long narrative was writing itself: Preller had ignored the little things—pitch framing, lineup construction, outfield defense, et cetera—to hastily assemble a talented but ultimately flawed roster, and Norris' poor framing was a perfect example of the team's shortcomings.

Then, something happened. The rest of the team kept underperforming, sure, but Norris transformed from poor framer to okay framer to one of the best framers in the league, ending the season ninth in Framing Runs at +12.3 (nearly 31 runs better than Ruiz). Here's one look at Norris' progression:

After steadily trending down through April and remaining a framing liability in May, Norris used the rest of the season to pull off his best peak Jose Molina impression. If we were talking about batting average or ERA—or any number of volatile-in-small-sample statistics—a trendline like Norris' wouldn't be surprising, as the vagaries of the game often push and pull players' numbers in various non-meaningful directions. But framing statistics tend to stabilize 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. … CSAA is not only a skill, but one that manifests itself quickly and with effect."

Check out how the worst framers through the end of May performed during the rest of the season:

Catchers

Strikes Added (May 31)

CSAA (May 31)

Strikes Added (Oct. 4)

CSAA (Oct. 4)

Stephen Vogt

-13.7

-.006

-66.4

-.011

Alex Avila

-17.5

-.015

-57.4

-.021

Blake Swihart

-19.8

-.015

-41

-.008

James McCann

-20.2

-.011

-112.7

-.016

A.J. Pierzynski

-20.3

-.011

-64.7

-.010

Kurt Suzuki

-23.7

-.010

-59.9

-.008

Derek Norris

-24.5

-.009

+81.8

+.011

Nick Hundley

-28.3

-.012

-100.7

-.016

Salvador Perez

-29

-.011

-56.2

-.007

Carlos Ruiz

-57.8

-.025

-127.8

-.024

Notice how all of them—except Norris, of course—continued on as framing liabilities through the rest of 2015. If you squint, you might see a slight improvement from Boston's young catcher Blake Swihart, but for the most part, this group was as bad in September as they were in April. Norris stands out as a beacon of hope for any team hoping their catcher can pull off a similar turnaround, but it's important to realize just how rare a season he had.

The following table shows a different look at Norris' in-season progress, as it shows his numbers on all called pitches grouped into buckets based on their individual strike probability:

0-20%

20-40%

40-60%

60-80%

80-100%

April-May

3.9

26.7

47.4

63.2

93.3

June-Oct.

5.2

35.4

58.8

80.1

96

In April and May, for instance, Norris got strike calls 63 percent of the time on pitches grouped in the 60-80 percent bucket. From June through the end of the season, Norris improved nearly 17 percentage points in that genre of pitches, nabbing strike calls 80 percent of the time. In fact, he made notable improvements in all five buckets, turning more should-have-been balls into strikes while simultaneously protecting pitches that actually crossed the plate.

While Norris' development in the realm of pitch framing is interesting enough to observe statistically, perhaps there's more to be gleaned from actually watching him. I grabbed six different pitches from last season, with Norris' early season technique on the left and his post-May adjustments on the right.

Game

Strike Probability

Call

Plot

Left side

4/22, Rockies

80.3 %

Ball

Pitch no. 1

Right side

6/15, A's

13.2 %

Strike

Pitch no. 6

Notice all of that glove movement in the game from April; Norris dips his glove down before Shields delivers, then he moves it back up to catch the pitch. Further, he doesn't frame the pitch at all, quickly flipping the ball to his throwing hand instead of giving the umpire a good look, a trademark of his early season receiving style. Norris' entire body also sways—slightly, I'll concede—as the pitch heads toward his glove. A study from August's Saber Seminar revealed that good framers tend to move less than poor ones, a conclusion anyone familiar with Ben Lindbergh's This Week in Catcher Framing series had probably already drawn.

The example from June 15th offers three notable improvements: There's no pre-pitch glove movement, there's Jonathan Lucroy-like stillness, and there's a welcome pause after the catch. And—voila—there's a strike on a pitch rarely called one.

Game

Strike Probability

Call

Plot

Left side

4/6, Dodgers

70.5 %

Ball

Pitch no. 2

Right side

6/26, D'backs

17.7 %

Strike

Pitch no. 1

Here's a good opportunity to mention that pitch framing is a subtle arm form, and sometimes there's not much more between a strike and ball than the whims of an umpire. Still, note the lack of pre-pitch glove movement in the game from June, and also how both pitches appear similar upon reception despite the fact that they have a 53 percentage point gap between them in strike probability.

Game

Strike Probability

Call

Plot

Left side

5/12, Mariners

95.0 %

Ball

Pitch no. 4

Right side

7/1, Mariners

81.7 %

Strike

Pitch no. 2

Both of these pitches are called strikes a majority of the time, but Norris is set up outside, and in both cases the pitcher severely misses his target while still catching plenty of plate. In the game from May 12th, Norris does little to make the pitch look like a strike to the umpire. He reacts slowly to the inside location and stabs at it, and his glove actually appears to drift further inside after the catch. There's also no pause or attempt to frame the pitch. He gave up on it, essentially.

Norris corrects his form by July 1st, reacting more quickly to the location and sticking his glove on the inside corner, an adjustment he discussed in an article about his framing from September. Even though that pitch is called a strike 82 percent of the time, the missed location likely reduces that percentage by a good chunk, and Norris probably doesn't get that call earlier in the season.

Norris' framing turnaround is still somewhat puzzling. He was around average for his first two years in the majors before his numbers took a big drop in 2014 and continued in that general direction for the first two months of last season. Then he reversed directions and turned into one of the league's best framers. The Padres played a four-game series at the end of May with the Pirates, so maybe Norris had a heart-to-heart with framing connoisseur Francisco Cervelli—that's the best theory I have, anyway.

Whatever happened, it worked, leaving San Diego with one of the game's best young catchers. With 23-year-old defensive specialist Austin Hedges in tow, the Padres again find themselves well positioned at catcher. Let's see what A.J. Preller does this time.

Thanks to Harry Pavlidis for research assistance.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
MikePemulis
12/09
Maybe I'm crazy but there seems to definitely be pre-pitch glove movement in the 'after' example though marked improvements in body movement.
MikePemulis
12/09
Sorry, looking at wrong gif. Redacted!
dutt22
12/10
No worries, thanks for reading!
edman8585
12/09
Hmmmmm... it seems the turnaround began around the time Hedges was called up. Maybe he learned something from being around a defensive whiz every day? Maybe he was motivated by it?
dutt22
12/10
Good point, Eddie. I hadn't really thought of that, but there's certainly a chance that the presence of Hedges pushed Norris to get better.
mentalmeat
12/09
Nice work, the video clips really help
dutt22
12/10
Thanks!
harrypav
12/10
It's interesting how _not_dropping his glove helped him. Some guys (Russell Martin, I believe, is one) like to keep that glove down so there's no target to "miss". But I suspect that requires better pitch reading skills etc....much to think about here. Great work, Dustin!
dutt22
12/10
That's interesting. I know I've read about that/watched some of those catchers before, and I wonder if the turnaround is less about what Norris did before the pitch got to him and more about what he did when the pitch arrived.
portocac
12/10
Great stuff here. And the quote from Norris is something all catchers should etch into their mitts:

"I’ve been starting to think of it as trying to present the ball to the umpire instead of trying to manipulate the pitch..."

Also, as a pitcher, I remember being annoyed when a catcher wasn't ready and had my target perfectly still and waiting for me before I started my windup. I needed to have that target ready so I could just focus on seeing it and hitting it as I went into the windup.

Catchers that did that made me feel more comfortable and I always felt like my control was better. That would be an interesting analysis...
dutt22
12/11
Appreciate the insight; thanks. I think there's probably some interplay between where/how a catcher sets up and a pitcher's accuracy, but it might be hard to study. Something to think about though.
kyledpark
12/14
This is a little mind blowing to me and raises a number of other questions. Is there any evidence of a similar turn around with other catchers the Padres have employed? Perhaps Rene Rivera compared to his time with the Twins would be a good case study since they don't necessarily ascribe to catcher framing. Is framing really a teachable skill as this would seem to suggest and did the Padres get Norris with the assumption they would be able to turn him into a good framer? Would be interesting to talk to the two coaches Norris named in the linked article to get their insight. Fascinating article, thanks.
dutt22
12/16
Whoops, meant to reply to you. See my reply below if you check this.
dutt22
12/16
Hi Kyle, thanks for reading.

One example I can point you to is Nick Hundley. He was well below average as a framer for his first six years with the Padres until, apparently with more emphasis put into his technique, he turned into an above average framer in 2014 (he was dealt to Baltimore in late May). Then he went to Colorado last year and the numbers went south.

Rene Rivera did have his two best framing seasons with the Padres. On the other hand, Yasmani Grandal was good both before and after he was with San Diego.

In short, there might be something here, but there might not be. Definitely room for further investigation though.