In 2014, the Padres pitching staff had a combined ERA of 3.55, a FIP of 3.65, and an xFIP of 3.65. Tyson Ross (2.81), Andrew Cashner (2.55), Ian Kennedy (3.63), Jesse Hahn (2.96), and Odrisamer Despaigne (3.36) all had fantastic seasons and provided a strong and deep starting pitching staff for the Padres all season long.
In contrast to this, in 2015 the Padres pitching staff has a combined ERA of 4.07, a FIP of 3.98, and an xFIP of 3.57 a little over half way through the season. The xFIP number is actually better than last year but both the FIP and ERA scores are significantly worse so far. James Shields ( On top of that a lot of the peripheral numbers like home runs, hits, and runs given up are all not only worse than last year but worse than expected. Given a staff that is largely similar to last year, with a bona fide ace in James Shield added as well, why has the Padres staff had such different results this season?
The only clear difference between last year, other than the Padres overall worse defense, is the guy doing the catching: Derek Norris. In terms of pitch framing and advanced defensive metrics for catchers Norris does not rank quite as high as last years backstops Grandal/Rivera. In 2014, while Grandal and Rivera were doing great things for the Padres pitching staff in San Diego, Derek Norris was struggling to have similar results in Oakland.
In terms of RAA and plus calls, Norris was actually two runs below average and had minus 16 plus calls. This is in comparison to Grandal (12.8 RAA with 96 plus calls) and Rivera (18.3 RAA with 138 plus calls). While both Grandal and Rivera were top ten in every pitch framing category, Norris was near the bottom half of the league in every category. This shows what a great divide there was between the three catchers in 2014.
To be fair to Norris, he has actually substantially improved his pitch framing numbers this year with the Padres when compared to his final year in Oakland. Compared to his -2.2 RAA and his -16 plus calls in 2014, so far in half a season this year, Norris has an RAA of 5.1 in about half the sample size with a positive number of plus calls with 38 this year. While he was in the bottom half of much of the league last year, Norris is now ranked 14th in the league in RAA and plus calls. He has also improved both his zBall% and oStr% from last years numbers.
While Norris has been substantially improved behind the plate he has still failed to compare to the seasons Grandal and Rivera had last year or the season of Grandal this year. In comparison to Rivera this year, Norris is barely behind in RAA (.1 behind) and only has one less plus call than Rivera. On the other hand, when compared to Grandal, Norris faces a more substantial deficit. Grandal is second in the league with a RAA of 12.3 which nearly matches his total from last year and on top of that he already has 92 plus calls which is nearly three times as many as either Norris or Rivera.
For a little comparison to someone closer to home, let’s also compare Norris’ pitch framing numbers last year and this year to the results so far for Padres prospect, and now backup catcher to Norris, Austin Hedges. So far this season, in nearly one-sixth of the playing time as Derek Norris, Austin Hedges is actually slightly above Norris with an RAA of 5.3, when compared to the 5.1 of Norris, and 40 plus calls to the 38 of Norris. If we extrapolated Hedges numbers out to that of a full time catcher he would be far away the best defensive catcher in the league with an RAA well above that of the league leaders of Francisco Cervelli, Yasmani Grandal, and Buster Posey. What has really held Hedges back is his lack of offensive output. If he was producing at the same level as Norris on offense, or even somewhere close to Norris, you would have to think the Padres would seriously consider making him the starting catcher, or at least finding him more frequent playing time given his far superior defensive skill.
With all these numbers in mind it is now critical to ask ourselves what this all means. How important is pitch framing? Based on the numbers, the Padres poor pitching performance so far this season can not really be blamed on Derek Norris and the switch from Grandal/Rivera to Norris. However, Norris is a bit of a step down from Grandal and Rivera as a pitch framer and it is very possible that the pitching staff’s numbers reflect this difference in some quantifiable way. Norris has improved a lot over the last year and could even improve more in the future but it remains to be seen if his defense will be enough to match his offense.
With youngster Austin Hedges waiting in the wings, with the reverse problem of Norris (lack of offense but stellar defense), Norris will definitely feel the pressure should he not further advance in his pitch framing skills. It makes you wonder whether the Padres front office or coaching staff has considered moving Norris to a different position to make the most out of Hedges stellar defensive performance and give him more playing time to help the pitching staff. While pitch framing is still a relatively new statistic it already has a great level of importance and can be make or break for many catchers roles on their respective teams as it could be in San Diego in the near future.