What Happened to Derek Norris?

Derek Norris was drafted as the 18th catcher off the board last spring and wound up eighth by season’s end. It’s pretty hard to label that anything other than a success, and yet it still feels a bit underwhelming when you look at the full line: .250/.305/.404 with 14 HR, 62 RBI, 65 R, and even 4 SB in 557 PA. Perhaps the line leaves me wanting more because the driving force behind his top-10 ranking was the playing time as opposed to any skills improvement.

His 557 PA were second-most at the position (Posey, 623) and really helped cover a cratering of his once-great walk rate. He had an 18% BB rate in 2075 minor league PA and still held an 11% mark through his first 982 PA as a major leaguer, including 12% in his first full season (442 PA). He was down to just 6% this year.

It wasn’t just one factor behind the sharp drop. Immediately you might think he was seeing fewer total pitches, but his 3.99 P/PA is virtually identical to last year’s 3.98 P/PA. The makeup of those pitches is where his decline starts to crystalize.

I don’t know if it was the new league or maybe just a bigger book being out on him after last year, but Norris saw a lot more strikes in 2015 whether you’re talking raw volume or just strikes in the zone. His 64% strike rate last year was the highest of his career and well above the 59% rates he put up in each of the last two seasons. While he was still right on the league average this year, it’s a far cry from having the 14th-lowest rate (min. 440 PA) as he did in 2014. He was 105th of 181 players (same PA threshold) in 2015.

Regarding the book possibly expanding on him, Norris started seeing more pitches in the zone during the second half last year (54%) and it seemed to carry over into 2015 as his full season rate matched that second half mark of 54%. Getting more pitches in the zone isn’t a bad reason for your walk rate to drop, but it can’t explain the drop alone. Even with the increase of strikes seen in the zone during the latter half of 2014, he still had a solid 9% BB rate in 207 PA.

The bigger issue might be pitches out of the zone.

Norris came out of the gate swinging for his team. He saw just 3.51 P/PA in April, but he had an 82% contact right by swinging at 48% of them and generating results (.313/.329/.463, but just 2% BB). While he was seeing a lot more pitches in the zone during April (59%), he was also expanding his zone more than we’d seen since his 2012 debut with a 25% chase rate.

His chase rates by season since ’12 are 24%, 19%, 19%, and 24%. As the season progressed, he continued his aggressive (for him) swinging both in and out of the zone, but saw a lot fewer strikes in the zone. In 2013-14, he had just one month with a 25% or higher chase rate: a 28 PA August in 2013 that saw him chasing 28% of the time (.913 OPS). In 2015, four months were at 25%+, another at 24%, and just one month below 20% (Sept. 19%).

I mentioned that he started seeing more pitches in the zone during 2014’s second half and that might be a huge part of this equation because it really altered his approach and the results weren’t there for him. Compare those two halves with his 2015 full season in SD:

Period PA AVG OBP SLG K% BB% Swing% SwStr% Zone% Chase%
2014-1H 235 0.294 0.402 0.477 17% 15% 37% 7% 50% 18%
2014-2H 207 0.245 0.314 0.324 22% 9% 43% 9% 54% 21%
2015 557 0.250 0.305 0.404 24% 6% 45% 10% 54% 24%

He traded some of the walks for a return in power from the ’14 2H to ’15 but otherwise those lines are very similar. One of the concerns with his gaudy BB rate from the minors was that it was more passive than patient at times. The league has put that to the test over the last year and a half with favorable results. He’s not a big enough power scare to be as cautious as pitches used to be against him.

In fact, if we break each of the last two years down by half, we see that he started to regain some of his old approach which yielded a much better AVG/OBP, but the power was severely lacking and he was still striking out a lot (for him):

Period PA AVG OBP SLG K% BB% Swing% SwStr% Zone% Chase%
2014-1H 235 0.294 0.402 0.477 17% 15% 37% 7% 50% 18%
2014-2H 207 0.245 0.314 0.324 22% 9% 43% 9% 54% 21%
2015-1H 337 0.233 0.279 0.407 24% 5% 46% 10% 55% 26%
2015-2H 220 0.278 0.345 0.399 23% 8% 43% 9% 53% 23%

Pitchers just didn’t seem too afraid of Norris as a Padre. In 2014, he walked on 48% of his 113 three-ball counts. In 2015, he was down to 33% in 107 PA. He had six fewer three-ball counts despite 115 more total PA. In 2014, 25% of his PA ended with the pitcher ahead. In 2015, it jumped to 31% and it all came from his PA when ahead as his PA ending with the count even stayed at 34%.

Despite the negatives I’ve outlined here in his approach during 2015, it’s still hard to be too down on him. This new approach, while worse, still generated a passable 98 wRC+ and finished top 10 in fantasy. That’s the beauty of being a catcher, the bar just isn’t that high for success.

Meanwhile, Austin Hedges didn’t really do anything to suggest he deserves anything more than a backup role so the playing time should be strong for Norris again. Even if Hedges did take some steps forward, the Padres could slot Norris at 1B as they did 17 times in 2015.

Double-digit pop, plenty of playing time, a spot not in the bottom third of the lineup, and some chip-in speed (4 SB/yr.) keep Norris valuable. He is still worth boosting in OBP leagues. He dropped to 11th (min. 400 PA) with this year’s .305, but he doesn’t even need a full recovery of the walk rate to get around .340 which would’ve been good for a top 5 finish this year.

Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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Funny how everything about Norris seems to be implied as a ceiling. He is still pretty young.

I think it is worth noting that his season went from MVP-caliber to counting-stats-caliber upon the Hedges promotion. I don’t think he responded very well to that. I have no idea what Norris’ ceiling is next year, but I get the feeling that he is capable of more than all but a few catchers offensively. He can hit for some average, he has power, he has shown on-base skills. Who else checks those boxes without an extensive injury history? Do I want him, no? But he is undervalued.