Derek Norris, breakout candidate

I, um ... here, take my lunch money. Just please don't hurt me.

Is this the year that De-No turns into De-Yes?

Let us begin with the oldest baseball-writer game in the book, the anonymous player comparison.

vs. RHP vs. LHP
Player A .173/.271/.270 .280/.361/.496
Player B .235/.363/.465 .247/.332/.475

These players couldn't be more different when it comes to platoon splits. Player A mashes lefties but hits like Brendan Ryan against righties. Player B is nearly identical against pitchers of either hand except for a drop in OBP against lefties. Player A should be strictly platooned and face only southpaws, whereas Player B looks like a solid three-true-outcomes hitter no matter who he faces.

As you have surely surmised from the title, Player A is Oakland Athletics catcher Derek Norris. His wildly extreme platoon splits from last year -- 144 OPS+ against lefties, 56 OPS+ against righties -- have been well-documented on this site, and he is likely inked in to the short half of a backstop platoon alongside John Jaso. Based on what we've seen in his major league career, this seems like an obvious decision. It puts Norris in the best position to succeed by playing to his strength and hiding his weakness.

There is a wrinkle in that plan, though. You see, Player B is also Derek Norris, but in the minor leagues (specifically Double-A and Triple-A) from 2011-2013. Before he reached the majors, Norris had no problem hitting against right-handed pitching. In fact, he got on base quite a bit more against hurlers of that ilk. His numbers in the low minors from 2008-10 tell a similar story: .281/.435/.492 vs. lefties, and a comparable .263/.417/.465 vs. righties. Given that his major league career includes only 274 plate appearances against righties, which of these seems more likely: that Norris completely lost all ability to hit right-handers over the last two years, or that his MLB splits have come in sample sizes too small to be reliable?

Is it possible that Norris' platoon splits aren't as bad as we think they are? That maybe he could indeed hold his own against right-handers, and be capable of handling the heavier side of the catching platoon by starting against his split on some days? I can't say for sure, but I'm certainly not willing to completely discard his 1,400 minor league plate appearances worth of quality hitting against righties just because of 274 PA's worth of suck. It's just a lot more likely that his current MLB splits are a statistical fluke than a representation of a complete loss of talent.

What's more, there's a good chance that Norris could get the opportunity to prove himself this year. Although the team is adamant that Jaso will be primarily a catcher this year, it's really hard to imagine that he won't spend at least some time as the designated hitter against right-handers given his defensive ineptitude and his recently injured brain. With the likelihood that Stephen Vogt will start in Triple-A due to a complicated game of musical roster chairs, Norris will be the only catching option if Jaso DH's on a given day. All it takes is one more game per week for a player to pick up an extra 25 games on a season. Norris started 71 contests behind the plate last year, so such an uptick in playing time could allow him to approach 100 starts.

Alright, so there is reason to believe that Norris might start more games this year than he did last year, and that he might be able to hit right-handers better than we thought he could. How does that make him a breakout candidate? Here's Keith Law of ESPN, who chose Norris as one of his 10 breakout players for 2014 in a recent Insider column:

"Norris has one major area where I think he can still improve -- power. He has the swing to drive the ball and had two 20-homer seasons under his belt in the minors before he turned 23. He might be a low-average guy his whole career, but his patience and power should make him a valuable starter for a while."

Look at that picture of Norris again. I'm pretty sure that he trains in the offseason by chopping down mighty oak trees, probably using a baseball bat so that his hands stay accustomed to the feel (an axe handle is just an entirely different shape, more akin to a hockey stick). A baseball is nothing to him. Just by the eye test, you would expect this guy to have some thump.

Oh no, he sees us staring at him. Stop looking, you guys!

Norrisgun_medium

Wait, is he signaling toward us, or that guy behind us? I'm not sure. I think he's out to get somebody, though. Uh-oh, now he's coming over here. Run!

Dn_medium

via http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/1375325/dn.gif

Whew, alright, I think we're safe. Nope, never mind, the umpire says he threw us out. As long as he doesn't beat us up, I'm happy either way.

Alright, where were we? Ah, Norris and power. He had a pair of 20-homer seasons in the minors and has hit 16 in 540 major league PA's, so that's a good baseline from which to start. He's still only 25 years old, and we tend to expect power to continue to develop beyond that age. He raised his rate of fly balls from 38.9 percent in 2012 to 43.3 percent last year, in line with Oakland's apparent shift toward fly-ball hitters. His isolated power mark crept up from .148 in 2012 to .163 as well, which isn't a huge jump but is at least a step in the right direction. And finally, he has the plate discipline required to be the kind of guy who waits selectively for his pitch and then unloads; in fact, that seems to be what he was in the minors before adopting a more aggressive approach when he reached Oakland.

None of these factors is very convincing on its own, but when combined with Law's blessing and multiple GIFs of Norris looking super badass, you can start to build a case that he is a breakout candidate for the upcoming season. What do the projection systems think?

ZiPS .211/.319/.370 12 home runs in 406 PA's
Oliver .231/.313/.405 20 home runs in 600 PA's
Steamer .230/.319/.400 10 home runs in 307 PA's
PECOTA .224/.316/.394 11 home runs in 325 PA's

While those projections all seem fairly conservative, they all represent an improvement over his his career rate of at-bats per home run and they each credit him with an overall career-high in dingers. All but ZiPS give him a career-high in isolated power, as well.

Of course having a breakout year means exceeding the expectations that people had for you and rising to a level beyond what you have yet achieved. So what would Norris have to do in order to break out and step up to the next level? He's not likely to ever hit for a high average, so it would take an increase in power. If he can earn around 100 starts behind the plate and play in up to 120 games overall, that would net him around 400-450 plate appearances. Then, a breakout Norris puts up a batting line resembling .250/.350/.460, with a BB:K rate of 0.50 or better and 20+ home runs. In other words, he becomes Mike Napoli, with just a touch more patience and less power. Putting up an .800+ OPS and home runs in the twenties, or even the high teens, would place Norris among the upper echelon of major league catchers.

Can De-No do it? Sure he can. He just needs to regress back up toward his career norms against right-handed hitters, continue to develop the power that he has already shown and that every projection system thinks he will build on, and hope that his BABIP stays up around .301 like it was last year (it was only .255 in 2012 when he barely broke the Mendoza Line). None of those things are guarantees, but each of them individually seems more likely to happen than not. And if you like spring training stats (which I don't), he's putting up a 1.219 OPS with three long balls and only two strikeouts this spring after posting a 1.235 OPS with five dingers last spring.

So, there you go. You can believe what you want, but Derek Norris is my pick for 2014 Oakland A's breakout player. And I swear that it's not just because he threatened to give me a wedgie if I didn't write nice things about him.

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