Among the players the A’s acquired in today’s Gio Gonzalez trade was Derek Norris, a power hitting catcher with an incredible ability to get on base. I got several good looks at Norris in this year’s Arizona Fall League. Here are my notes and analysis of the big catcher…
There is no question that Norris has two outstanding (and important) skills: power and plate discipline. However, his power can sometimes get the best of him as he seems to try and yank everything out of the yard every time to the plate (or at least every at-bat I saw in this year’s Arizona Fall League). He definitely “steps in the bucket”, meaning that when he strides he takes a step toward the third base line, opening up his front side very early.
While “stepping in the bucket” can work for some hitters, it’s a mechanical issue that coaches try to avoid if at all possible. When a hitter strides toward the baseline rather than toward the pitcher, it opens their front side, which causes a number of possible problems. First, it can easily lead to long swings, which means slower bat speed, which leads to strikeout issues. It also leaves the hitter very susceptible to pitches over the outside part of the plate. To feel the difference, stand with a normal baseball stance, then open up your front leg about six inches to a foot. Now, try swinging as if you were going after a pitch on the outside corner of the plate. You should be able to feel the lack of power behind such a swing. This type of stride tends to lead to a lot of weak pop-ups to the right side of the field and a lot of weak ground balls rolled over to the left side of the field.
However, if Norris gets a pitch over the middle or inside half of the plate, he has his momentum moving in the right direction to yank the pitch with power. That being said, pitchers at the major league level would probably just continue to exploit his lack of coverage and continuously work him away.
You can see see an example of how bad Norris can look on outside pitches in the picture below.
It’s easy to see how his hip has “bailed” causing his base and back shoulder to collapse. This swing came on an offspeed pitch on the outside corner of the plate.
Statistically, Norris has never hit for AVG in the minors, but he has posted outstanding OBPs throughout his minor league career – He has a career AVG of .249, but a career OBP of .403. In fact, Norris walked in a staggering 18.2 percent of his plate appearances this past season at double-A and has posted walk rates of over 20 percent in previous seasons. Some think, however, that Norris can be overly selective at times, taking drivable pitches too often. While having patience and a good eye at the plate are tremendous attributes, it could become an issue for Norris as he advances toward the big leagues and starts to see fewer and fewer mistake pitches.
There are certainly more than a few issues with Norris’s profile and mechanics at the plate, but he has tremendous raw power and rarely swings at bad pitches. He also projects to be a decent catcher with a good arm.
I always tend to pick on the negative things I see with prospects more than the positive. I do this because any little issue can hinder a prospect’s development to the point where they go from a top ten guy to a borderline major leaguer, if that. Norris happens to be a unique player in the sense that he will probably never hit for much AVG in the big leagues, but that might not matter since he has the plate discipline to post well above average walk rates and crush 20-plus home runs per season while being an asset defensively.
At this point, improved numbers at a high level (Double or Triple-A) would go a long way to bringing back some of the momentum Norris gained as a younger prospect. He’s the type of prospect to which there is probably no middle ground. Either he will make the adjustments and become a 20 home run, .350-.375 OBP catcher or he will continue to have strikeout issues at the upper levels and be nothing more than a replacement level major leaguer.