A Major League Maturation of Derek Norris

The Oakland Athletics indirectly piqued the interest of astute fantasy owners – and Mike Podhorzer – with the preseason news that they planned to slot John Jaso at DH regularly in order to help him to maintain his health. Naturally, this carried other implications, the primary of which is that right-handed-hitting catcher Derek Norris appeared to be in line for a spike in playing time.

The A’s seemed to dash hopes of fantasy owners in deep leagues, but only briefly. By the end of spring training, they’d elected to go with Daric Barton at first base and to relegate Brandon Moss to DH. That arrangement meant more time behind the plate for Jaso and less time for Norris, period, initially. Barton failed to impress at the dish after less than a month and a half, so he and his plus mitt were designated for assignment. Thus, the excitement about Norris was on again.

Fantasy owners probably couldn’t have predicted this level of exhilaration, though. Norris has produced a .303/.408/.503 slash line in 185 plate appearances. He has belted seven round-trippers and has stolen a couple of bases in three attempts. He’s five RBIs from setting a career high in the category. It has been quite obviously a breakthrough campaign for the season-to-date top-five fantasy catcher.

Not everyone is sold on the 25-year-old, however. Norris has walked nearly as often as he’s struck out, and he’s hit for a pretty reasonable average on balls in play of .333, with as steady of a line-drive rate as you’ll see in a three-year period, but some aren’t convinced. There’s been enough caution about his risk to fall back into a platoon if his woes against right-handed-pitchers resurface.

But what are we talking about, here? Is it mostly because the level of Norris’ performance is at great risk at any given time? Or is it mostly because there just happens to be at least one left-handed batter on the 25-man roster who can don the tools of ignorance capably? (Perhaps Jaso at face value doesn’t seem like the most appealing designated hitter, either.)

The A’s haven’t restricted Norris to a strict platoon, in spite of a potential temptation to do so when they face righties. And in spite of his exaggerated splits at the major league level thus far. As they headed into 2014, the A’s seemed to be taking an unnecessary gamble on a right-handed batter who’d performed very poorly against righties. Boy, their desire to keep Jaso healthy must’ve been strong!

Season Handedness PA AB HR AVG OBP SLG ISO BB% K%
2012 vs LHP 93 86 2 .209 .269 .349 .140 6.5% 26.9%
vs RHP 139 123 5 .195 .281 .350 .154 10.8% 29.5%
2013 vs LHP 173 150 9 .320 .410 .580 .260 12.7% 19.1%
vs RHP 135 114 0 .149 .261 .184 .035 11.1% 28.1%
2014 vs LHP 81 69 5 .362 .444 .652 .290 13.6% 14.8%
vs RHP 104 86 2 .256 .379 .384 .128 16.3% 16.3%
Total vs LHP 347 305 16 .298 .380 .531 .233 11.2% 20.2%
vs RHP 378 323 7 .195 .301 .300 .105 12.4% 25.4%

Is this a fluke, you may wonder? Norris didn’t dominate right-handed pitchers on the farm, but he more than held his own. His marks against them in the minors featured no exaggeration of the splits that he exhibited in the majors in 2013.Norris has rewarded Oakland’s faith, so far. The improvements in batting average and ISO this year are encouraging. But what stand out, of course, are the incredible upgrades in his walk and strikeout percentages against RHPs. He’s long been lauded for his control of the strike zone, and he’s begun to bring that quality against pitchers of the same handedness.

Season Handedness PA AB HR BA OBP SLG ISO BB% K%
2008 vs LHP 85 58 2 .328 .518 .534 .206 29.4% 15.3%
vs RHP 217 169 8 .260 .415 .438 .178 17.5% 19.8%
2009 vs LHP 125 103 5 .282 .400 .476 .194 15.2% 20.0%
vs RHP 415 334 18 .287 .417 .524 .237 17.1% 21.9%
2010 vs LHP 123 95 4 .253 .415 .484 .231 22.0% 17.1%
vs RHP 276 203 8 .227 .420 .389 .162 22.5% 26.4%
2011 vs LHP 107 89 4 .225 .349 .416 .191 14.0% 17.8%
vs RHP 316 245 16 .204 .373 .457 .253 19.6% 31.0%
2012 vs LHP 75 70 3 .271 .307 .557 .286 5.3% 12.0%
vs RHP 171 148 6 .270 .339 .439 .169 9.9% 18.7%
Total vs LHP 515 415 18 .267 .399 .487 .219 17.5% 16.9%
vs RHP 1395 1099 56 .251 .398 .460 .208 17.9% 24.2%

Norris may quite well continue to do so against right-handers. Based on his track record and progress against them as he rose through the system, there seems to be little reason to doubt the possibility for the long haul. Perhaps he won’t continue to hit them at the pace he’s established, but if anything it’s his pace against left-handed pitching that seems to be where Lady Luck has been kind to him. Judging from Norris’ track record, the A’s had to feel pretty good about his chances once they began to expose him to righties more often. He’s rewarded them – and fantasy owners, who probably had little idea that this kind of production was possible from him, at least so soon.

Norris is a patient man, with a seemingly outstanding knowledge of strike zone. Most of his peripherals against right-handed pitchers have advanced past those of his minor league days. It’s the traditional results that haven’t caught up. Perhaps the too-good-to-be-true strikeout rate of 2014 warns of a correction or the threat of an impending adjustment to the way he’s attacked by the opposition. But his plate discipline has been so good for too long to think that he won’t make his own alteration eventually.

More and more, I’m convinced that Norris has the foundation to be at least a top-15 catcher for the remainder of the season.

(Oh, and just kidding, Mike! Love your work.)

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Nicholas Minnix oversaw baseball content for six years at KFFL, where he held the loose title of Managing Editor for seven and a half before he joined FanGraphs. He played in both Tout Wars and LABR from 2010 through 2014. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasMinnix.

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Tim A
Tim A

He shortened his swing considerably, which has helped without sapping his power.