Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin loves his platoons. He should, too, because he's good at them and they increase his lineup's production. Getting the platoon advantage usually works in your favor ... unless the hitter in question is so good that he can start every day against pitchers of either hand. That would be your Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes, and switch-hitters like Jed Lowrie and Coco Crisp. I believed before the season that Derek Norris would vault into that class this year, and I think that he is well on his way to doing so. His splits so far, with the number of plate appearances in parentheses:
Derek Norris, 2014 vs. LHP (33): .367/.424/.500, 0 homers, 4 doubles, 3 walks, 3 K's
Derek Norris, 2014 vs. RHP (30): .407/.467/.667, 2 homers, 1 double, 3 walks, 5 K's
It's only a few plate appearances. But man, Norris sure looks good against right-handed pitching. He looks nothing like the guy who hit .149/.261/.184 against righties last year. He's still mashing lefties, but the early returns suggest that he may not be limited by the preferred arm of the opposing pitcher.
Not only are Norris' platoon splits evening out, he is starting to look like a legitimate star hitter. He was billed as a power-and-patience, three-true-outcomes hitter when he was acquired from the Washington Nationals in the Gio Gonzalez trade, in the mold of Mike Napoli. However, he is becoming much more than that. The Three True Outcomes hitter waits for his pitch, swings really hard, and either misses or hits it over the fence. Norris fits part of that description; he swings at a below-average rate (and is doing so even less so far this year), and he chases out of the strike zone less than average as well (also improved even further this year). However, his swinging-strike rate dipped below-league average last year and has continued to drop. That, combined with the solid contact he usually makes and surprising speed which has let him beat out four infield hits already, could help him keep his batting average higher than was originally expected. Granted, his .426 BABIP will come down, but this career .243 hitter is a good bet to set a personal best in average.
The biggest surprise with Norris is the fact that he's not striking out. In his first two seasons, he whiffed in a quarter of his plate appearances. So far this year, he's done so only eight times in 63 PA's, which is about half as often as before. That rate will likely come up a bit as he faces a higher percentage of non-Astros pitchers, but even if he can keep it under 20 percent he will have made a serious improvement in his game.
So, if Norris isn't a Three True Outcomes hitter, then what is he? He's a patient hitter with excellent plate discipline who makes a lot of contact, and who doesn't swing for the fences but has enough power to clear them on occasion anyway. He's not Mike Napoli, he's Brian McCann.
Now, it isn't as simple as saying that Norris should play every day. First, he's a catcher, so I don't want him in there for more than 120 games or so. Second, he probably really is better against left-handers than right-handers, even if the difference is almost certainly not as pronounced as it looked last year. Third, he still has a hell of a platoon-mate in John Jaso. Don't be fooled by Jaso's .241/.348/.328 line to start the year; just as Norris' gaudy stats will come down a bit, Jaso's OBP will creep back up toward .400 and he'll start hitting the gaps for some doubles. He's good enough that the catcher's spot is still an offensive strength when he starts against right-handed pitching, but I don't know that he'll be so much better than Norris as to justify the defensive downgrade on a regular basis. A good set-up could have Norris getting 110 games behind the plate, with Jaso picking up another few dozen starts as the DH against right-handers when Alberto Callaspo's early-season heater is far enough in the rear-view mirror that he doesn't need to be in the lineup every day.
Using Jaso as the DH does mean that there is no backup catcher available on the bench. However, that would be a rare occurrence, and since Norris doesn't really need a pinch-hitter in a late-inning matchup against a righty, the negative effect would be slightly reduced. Or, one of the two of them could learn to play first base (with Brandon Moss as the DH) so that he could shift behind the plate in case of emergency without giving up the designated hitter spot. If Callaspo can learn it on the fly, I don't see why Norris and/or Jaso can't.
Derek Norris is not a platoon player. He is a legitimate hitter who can start the majority of his team's games, and he's in the early stages of what will be his breakout season. His bat needs to be in the lineup as often as possible, because he could turn out to be one of the better hitters on the team. It's time to free Derek Norris.