As impressive as Derek Norris' 2013 campaign was, he had a glaring weakness: throughout all of last year, Norris simply couldn't hit right-handed pitching. His wRC+ of 177 against lefties was spectacular, no doubt, but that number fell to 33 against righties. The rising star was substantially better than Buster Posey, who the Giants pay $18.5 million dollars annually, against southpaws. Against righties, he could do no right.
The phenomenon was statistically odd — even in Norris' minor-league days, his splits weren't nearly as extreme, if they existed at all. In 2008, OPS'd 1.052 against lefties and .853 against righties, all with the Short-Season, Single-A Vermont Lake Monsters.
Weird sidebar: Norris was with the Nationals organization prior to the trade in which Billy Beane sent Gio Gonzalez to Washington, receiving Brad Peacock, A.J. Cole, and Norris in exchange. The Vermont Lake Monsters, oddly, are now Oakland's Short-Season A affiliate.
Back to Norris. In 2009, he actually OPS'd higher against righties than lefties (.941/.876), switched back to the traditional split in 2010 with High-A Potomac (.809 vs. RHP, .899 vs. LHP), and then switched back again in 2011 (.830/.765). In short, Norris didn't display any true split at all in the minor leagues, a trend that continued through 2012, the year he made his MLB debut.
Even though you can still count the number of games played this year games on two hands, Norris has shown every indication of reversing his drastic 2013 splits, which seem increasingly flukey.
How's this for small sample size? In the eight games he's played in 2014, Norris' wRC+ against right-handers is a whopping 416. Against lefties? -100.
If we're looking at numbers that aren't rendered inherently irrelevant by the sample-size issue nine games into the year, how about these: 6-for-14 vs. righties (it was actually 6-for-10 before Thursday afternoon's game) with two home runs. Norris' ability to be productive (not to mention dominant) against righties is hugely important to Oakland's roster flexibility, as I discussed in this article almost a month ago. In a nutshell, if Norris can't hit righties, John Jaso would get the majority of playing time at catcher against them. The problem there? Jaso can't play defense. The catch-22 is painful; against righties, your catcher is either terrible offensively or terrible defensively.
Norris emerging as a well-rounded hitter capable of putting up a fight regardless of the pitcher's handedness doesn't necessarily hurt Jaso's playing time; his issues with concussions and Bob Melvin's early-season lineup choices suggest that he'll be used mainly as a designated hitter, most commonly against right-handed pitching. Now that Norris is showing himself capable of handling the everyday catcher role, Jaso should be fine to catch once or twice a week and slot in at DH for an additional two or three games.
It's a different story for Stephen Vogt — Norris being productive against right-handers essentially precludes his appearance on the 25-man roster, barring an injury to Norris or Jaso. If Billy Beane can ride Vogt's hot spring and solid numbers at the end of 2013 to a deal that nets the A's a prospect or two and finds Jaso a place to play at the big-league level, it might be the prudent move.
It's unfair to jump to the conclusion that because Norris has been successful in 14 at-bats to begin the season, his issues with right-handed pitching are done. The sample size is small and the trend can reverse itself in the blink of an eye.
But his numbers in 2013 might not have been quite as terrible as they'd seem at first glance. Norris' BABIP against righties was a paltry .218 last year compared to .361 against lefties. Some of that difference is luck, and some of it likely has to do with the root of his difficulties against righties — the proportions are an age-old baseball statistical question that, as far as I know, there's no way to effectively and completely answer.
Another factor influencing the astonishingly low wRC+ of 33 against righties last year is Norris' astonishing lack of power in that context — all nine of his home runs and 12 of his 16 doubles last year came against southpaws. The cause likely has to do with whatever is causing the discrepancy in BABIP, but if there's one thing that Norris has made clear in the first two weeks of 2014, it's this: he's as capable as anybody else of getting into any righty's fastball and sending it a long, long way.
Too long, didn't read? Norris' freakishly low productivity against right-handers last season is quite possibly statistical noise and little else. He seems ready to catch every day, allowing John Jaso to serve principally as a designated hitter and as a backup catcher, meaning that Stephen Vogt won't get a shot this year in Oakland for any reason other than an injury. Moving forward, it's easily to see Norris becoming one of the A's most productive offensive players in all contexts, and given his age and defensive ability, he could be another player the front office looks at locking up long-term.