Out of the frying pan, into the fire. We just got done reviewing a couple controversial names from last season in Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester, and now we've got two of the big figures of the tumultuous winter coming up next. We'll start with No. 36, catcher Derek Norris.
Name: Derek Norris, aka D-No, Lumberjack
Stats: .270/.361/.403, 442 PAs, 10 HR, 55 RBI, 54 BB, 86 Ks, 17% CS*
WAR: 2.9 bWAR, 2.5 fWAR
How he got here: Acquired from Washington Nationals prior to 2012
2014 Salary: $505,000
2015 Status: Traded to San Diego Padres on Dec. 18
2015 Salary: Estimated $510,000 (pre-arbitration)
* caught 17% of runners stealing, 12-for-72
When you acquire a prospect who is untested at the MLB level, you never know how he's going to pan out. Will he make the jump, or will the highest competition prove to be too much? You can envision the star that he might become at his best, but the possibility that he might wash out completely is always lurking in the background. With Derek Norris, the Oakland Athletics got something resembling a best-case scenario last year.
After a solid 2013 campaign that established him as a legitimate Major League hitter, Norris entered the 2014 season in a catching platoon with John Jaso. The arrangement made sense. Jaso crushed right-handed pitching but was useless against lefties, while the previous year Norris had displayed some of the wildest splits in recent memory -- a mammoth .990 OPS against lefties, and a dismal .445 against righties. All nine of his homers had come against southpaws, despite facing right-handers in 43 percent of his plate appearances. With both hitters turning into Dr. Jekyll against different halves of the pitching demographic, the hope was that they could leave their weaker Hyde sides on the bench and become Melvenstein's Monster, mashing every day.
The plan more or less worked, at least for a while. Norris posted a 1.023 OPS in the first month of the season, and Jaso followed his lead with a 1.079 mark in May. However, Norris' hot start also made it apparent that he was more than a platoon player. His extreme splits hadn't existed in the minors, and that made many suspicious of the small-sample data from 2013; indeed, it was clearly time to get Norris in the lineup as much as possible, regardless of who was pitching. After playing in 20 games in April, he appeared in 26 in May, and on June 1 Stephen Vogt was brought up to give the A's added flexibility behind the plate.
With Vogt on board, the A's had the option of using Norris or Jaso as the starting DH while still keeping an extra catcher available on the bench. When Vogt started hitting too, things got even better. The rigors of catching began to wear on Norris' body, between getting hit by backswings and foul balls, and he missed a handful of games in June. However, when he was in the lineup he did nothing but hit, with a 1.056 OPS for the month, and when he needed a break there were two other bodies available to don the gear.
By the end of the first half, Norris had a line of .294/.402/.477 with eight homers and had emerged as one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball. Matt Wieters led the AL All-Star voting, but when he went down with a season-ending injury the competition for the starting and reserve spots opened up. Salvador Perez of the Royals deservedly got the starting nod, but Norris landed a reserve role alongside former teammate Kurt Suzuki. Along with Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, and Yoenis Cespedes, he became the first A's position player to make the squad since catcher Ramon Hernandez in 2003.
All six A's All-Stars got to play in the game, but Norris probably had the biggest impact. He entered in the fifth in a tie game, and in his first at-bat he rapped a ground-ball single to left off of former batterymate Pat Neshek. He moved to second on a single by Alexei Ramirez of the White Sox, and then Mike Trout doubled him in with the go-ahead run. It eventually turned out to be the winning run, as the AL won 5-3. (He later struck out against Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel, but that's okay; it happens to lots of guys.)
Now that Norris is in the NL, he should get a couple of re-matches against his natural enemy in Atlanta. Last time, he hit a chopper for a double.
Between Norris' breakout, Vogt's hot streak, and Jaso's reliable OBP skills, the A's had too many strong hitters to contain in just one position. An Oakland lineup featuring two catchers became commonplace, and on 17 occasions throughout the season all three of them started in the same game.
However, the good times did not last long enough. Vogt developed a foot problem that ultimately required offseason surgery, and it prevented him from playing behind the plate for the rest of the year; he was still available at other positions, but the first catching domino had fallen. In August, Jaso suffered a season-ending concussion for the second straight year. Norris dealt with back, hip and shoulder issues over the final couple months, not to mention the beating his head took all year from wayward bats and balls. Despite possessing three quality backstops in June, Billy Beane had to go out and pick up a cheap backup (Geovany Soto) for the final month of the season just to keep the lineup card filled in. It was yet another lesson that you can never fully protect yourself against injuries, because no matter how deep you are at a given position it can all come crashing down in a heap of broken body parts.
Fortunately, Soto played well for the A's, and Norris only needed to start 14 of the final 26 games of the season. The long campaign had taken its toll, though, and in the second half his hitting took a nosedive:
Norris 2014, 1st half: .294/.402/.477, 8 HR, 0.88 BB/K
Norris 2014, 2nd half: .245/.314/.324, 2 HR, 0.40 BB/K
The best way to illustrate the collapse of the A's catching situation is that Soto was their starter for the Wild Card game. Oakland's catchers posted a .783 OPS in 2014, second only to their third basemen, who were led by MVP candidate Donaldson. That OPS mark ranked fourth among all MLB catching tandems, behind Milwaukee (Jonathan Lucroy, 4th in NL MVP voting), Colorado (Mike McKenry's hot streak), and Pittsburgh (Russell Martin, $82 million man). And yet, in the biggest game of the season, they were forced to turn to a guy they'd picked up off the scrap heap in late August who had hit one home run all year.
Of course, Norris didn't get passed over because he was hurt. The Royals were a team built around speed, and they led the Majors in stolen bases with 153 (at an 81 percent success rate, no less). Norris caught only 17 percent of runners who attempted to steal against him, among the worst rates in baseball. Seeing a clear mismatch, Bob Melvin opted to strengthen his defense with Soto's solid arm in an attempt to slow down Kansas City's running game.
The good news is that Melvin totally made the right call to start Soto. The bad news is that we only know that because we saw far too much of the alternative. Soto hurt his thumb on a routine play early on and had to be replaced in the third inning, which meant Norris would be catching for the rest of the night. Things started out well enough, as Jon Lester generally kept the Royals off the bases entirely from the fourth through the seventh. During Oakland's big sixth-inning rally, Norris notched an RBI single off of Kelvin Herrera and later scored on a hit by Coco, and it looked like he had panned out as a positive contributor rather than a weakness to be exploited. The A's led 7-3.
Then came the eighth inning, the stuff of nightmares. With their backs against the wall, the Royals ran their way right back into the game. Single, steal, groundout, single, one run in. Another steal, another single, and that's two runs. Another steal, and a run-scoring wild pitch by a battery preoccupied with pesky runners. A fourth steal in the frame was thankfully squandered, but in the ninth a single, a sac bunt, and a steal put a runner on third in front of the game-tying sac fly. The Royals rode their legs from the jaws of defeat to the Russian roulette of extra innings.
After sac bunts in the 10th and 11th didn't yield dividends, Kansas City once again got the winning run on first base in the 12th in the form of Christian Colon. With two outs, Jason Hammel threw a pitchout to Norris with Colon breaking for second:
Perhaps Colon would have made it even if Norris had gotten off a clean throw, but the play summed up Oakland's complete inability to stop the Royals on the bases. Colon ended up scoring the winning run on Sal Perez's hit up the left-field line, though he may have scored from first just as easily, and the cruel joke was complete. The position that had helped carry the A's to the playoffs, one of the biggest strengths of their lineup, had ultimately been their undoing.
Despite the Wild Card dud, though, Norris had a fantastic season. While he still showed platoon splits, they were much less pronounced (.863 vs. LHP, .699 vs. RHP), suggesting that he can likely survive as an everyday player rather than just a part-time specialist. He reached double-digit homers for the first time and would have been a good bet for 15 if he hadn't been so banged up in the second half. He also showed amazing plate discipline in the first half, and while he may never reach the 25-homer Mike Napoli comp that many of us once envisioned for him, he could settle into the Russell Martin mold of mid-level power and a .400 OBP.
Frankly, I wonder how much longer Norris should continue catching. He's passable defensively but not particularly good, having ranked 10th in passed balls, 12th in errors, and toward the bottom in caught stealing percentage last year. I'm curious if getting out from behind the plate would allow his bat to flourish, especially by allowing him to stay healthy enough to swing it. Perhaps he could put up John Olerud stats as a first baseman, making him worth more as a pure hitter than the total package of a bat-first catcher. But that's just fiction for now, and either way it won't be up to the A's to find out.
In December, with Donaldson, Moss and Samardzija already out the door, and Vogt and newcomer Josh Phegley creating a catching logjam, Norris was the next chip to be spent. He would have fit in well as a part of Oakland's youth movement, entering his age-26 season with a pre-arbitration salary and team control through 2018, but trading him also made sense. He had made a name for himself as an All-Star, but he had also shown flaws with his porous defense and lack of durability. Norris demonstrated a lot of toughness in gutting through his bangs and bruises for three years in Oakland, but all of those dings will add up over time. He's a good bet to maintain strong value as a catcher for a few more years, but there's a decent chance that he'll never get better than he was in 2014, so Beane followed his winter theme by selling too early rather than too late.
Norris ended up landing with the Padres along with pitching prospect Seth Streich, and the A's got back a young starting pitcher (Jesse Hahn) and a young reliever (R.J. Alvarez), both MLB-ready and with big upside. The return was good, and the decision to sell high on him was made easier by the fact that the A's already had a new catching platoon ready to step in, but it was another bittersweet departure by a fan favorite. Like so many of his teammates, his 2014 season was a tale of woe and disappointment, of dreams dashed and heroes fallen. But Norris had some big moments in his three years in Oakland and was an integral part of some of the A's most enjoyable teams and memorable highlights.
2014 season grade, relative to expectations: B ... I expected an above-average hitter, and I got one even a half-notch better than that (118 OPS+). He deserved his All-Star nod, but his second half was so bad that his overall numbers don't reflect how good he was at his best. He could have gotten an A by being at least average down the stretch and finishing in the 4 WAR range.
2014 season grade, overall: B ... An offense-first catcher who ranked 11th among MLB backstops in fWAR? That's not a superstar, but it's a quality player.
Norris got off to a hot start. In the eighth game of the season, he broke an 11th-inning tie against the Twins with a clutch three-run homer to earn a tough win. (He'd also homered in Minnesota the previous day.)
On May 11, Norris faced Gio Gonzalez for the first time. This was significant because Gio was the star the A's had dealt to Washington in return for the bushel of prospects that included Norris. It was a heads-to-head matchup of two players who had been traded for each other, and Norris finished on top by the widest margin imaginable. He came up in the first with two on and two out and worked a 3-0 count; Gio grooved a fastball trying to steal a strike, and Norris destroyed it for a three-run bomb to take an early lead. He came up again in the second, again with two on and two out; he drew another 3-0 count, Gio grooved another fastball, and Norris swatted another three-run dinger. It was deja vu all over again. The A's won 9-1 behind Norris' six RBI.
He hit a grand slam against Detroit.
He also had a walk-off hit against the Rays on August 4.
His single in the All-Star Game.
His RBI single in the Wild Card game, his second career postseason hit and first RBI.
On defense, Norris was involved in one of the strangest plays of the year. The A's were in the 10th inning in Baltimore, with two outs and the winning run on third base in the form of Nelson Cruz. Fernando Abad was pitching to Chris Davis, and on the 2-2 offering Cruz inexplicably broke for home. Cruz isn't particularly fast, and even though no one had been holding him on at third he was thrown out easily to end the rally. Perhaps it was indeed a better percentage play than Davis hitting against a lefty with a two-strike count, but it sure didn't work. The A's won in the 11th thanks to pinch-hits by Jaso and Vogt.
This was some nifty handiwork.
And a bit of mobility underneath all that gear. I don't know where else to include this fact, but Norris has surprising speed for a catcher. He notched 16 infield hits last year, second among all catchers (behind Russell Martin's 17) and 41st among all hitters.
Catching ain't easy, though. Norris was shaken up by a lot of hard contact behind the plate, including a hit to the knee by Alexei Ramirez's bat, a shot to the head by Erick Aybar's swing, a foul ball off the forearm by Brock Holt, another headshot by Jonathan Herrera, and countless rogue pitches and sharp foul balls. The hits he took from Manny Machado were the most infamous, though, due to the team's standing feud with the Orioles star as well as his failure to apologize for his errant lumber (a common professional courtesy).
On the bright side, Norris' role as a human bullseye did provide one of the funnier moments of the season, with Jaso and Vogt racing to get their catcher's gear on the fastest after Norris took a backswing by Yangervis Solarte off of his glove hand.
Sometimes your prospects pan out, and sometimes they don't. Norris turned out to be one of the good ones, and the A's squeezed three productive seasons out of him before exchanging him for two quality pitchers. His bat belongs in the Majors, he has a great attitude and work ethic, and he's got a penchant for dramatic clutch hits. He's the Lumberjack, and he's okay.