Derek Norris is a work in progress.
And at all of 24 years old that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Now don’t me get me wrong, without a doubt the burly catcher deserves all the credit in the world for the job his did last season. Even before taking over behind the plate officially after the trade of Kurt Suzuki, Norris won A’s fans over for all of eternity with his a dramatic walk-off home run saving Oakland from a sweep at the hands of the Giants in his just his fourth day on the big league roster. A game in which I consider to be one the major turning points of the 2012 season.
When Billy Beane made the decision to ship Suzuki to the Nationals last August, the move was met with a degree of confusion and second guessing. With Oakland in the midst of their first Pennant Race since 2006, it was a risky move to trade the longtime Athletic. Despite an obvious offensive decline that began around the same time he signed a four-year extension in 2010; Suzuki was beloved by the pitching staff for game calling and meticulous preparation behind the plate. With a fledgeling pitching staff pitching meaningful games in the dog days of August, it seemed only natural that Suzuki would still retain value during the season’s final two months. Yet, the Athletics management had faith in Norris whom at one point earlier had won 13 out of 14 decisions as a team with him as a starter. Suzuki was discarded. Norris was given the keys behind home plate, and performed admirably. He had some big hits, and threw some runners out. The A’s won the west, and all’s well that ends well. End of story, Right?
Well, sort of.
A deeper look at the time spent behind the plate, revealed some glaring issues regarding the Kansas native. First the positives. Under Norris, A’s pitchers didn’t miss a beat as far as their effectiveness. With Norris registering a 3.05 Catchers ERA, this put him at the top of the class amongst backstops who played in at least 50 games. No small feat. There were no complaints, nor whispers of concern amongst the staff like there were when Jason Kendall was given the boot in favor of Suzuki in 2007. Granted it was a similar situation, but completely different team and agenda.
Behind the plate, Norris threw out 12 of 46 attempted base stealers for a 26% caught stealing rate; leaving him on par with the 25% league average. In 58 games at catcher, he allowed 4 passed balls a statistic I found surprising because at times last season it seemed like an abnormal number of balls were finding there way to the backstop. I was right, as further analysis revealed that there were 15 wild pitches under Norris’s watch. Now the very title of “wild pitch” absolves the blame from the catcher on such a play, and puts the fault on the pitcher. However, in the case of Norris I believe there are valid reasons for concern regarding his ability to effectively block balls. Case in point in Game 5 of the ALDS, when he had difficulty handling balls in the dirt with Jarrod Parker on the mound in the penultimate game. On two separation occasions Norris was unsuccessful in his attempt to block a pair of wicked pitches from Parker in the third inning of the game, and as a result they contributed to two runs scoring that put the Tigers in the drivers seat, never to look back.
Offensively his .201/.276/.349 slash line wasn’t exactly anything to write home about, but it really only tells part of the story. Heralded in the minor league for his patience at the plate, he routinely eclipsed a 16 % walk percentage in the Nationals organization. Last season he fell to a 9.1% rate in Oakland, while striking out 28.4 % of the time and was routinely over matched by quality pitchers. Hinting at a degree of power potential he slugged 7 homers in 232 play appearances, and showed a surprising amount of speed by nabbing 5 bases in 6 attempts. His average was weighed down by a considerable slump to end the season, hitting .190 in his final 30 games.
Now set to platoon with John Jaso behind the plate, Norris projects to see most his starting time against left-handed pitchers whom he hit .209/.269/.349 off of last season. The question remains: Would Derek Norris be better off playing everyday in Triple-A and continuing to develop? Hypothetically the A’s could go with minor league veteran Luke Montz who clubbed 29 homers in Triple-A last season as the backup catcher. Or they could comb the market for a veteran backup such as Miguel Olivo or Rod Barajas.
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