What Happened to Derek Norris in 2016
3/24/17 update – Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports reporting the Rays are signing a deal with Derek Norris.
The Rays have rarely had what you would call a starting-caliber catcher throughout the nearly twenty years of franchise history. There have been some guys that have had good halves like Dioner Navarro in 2008 or guys that have been pretty good overall with drastic splits between defensive and offensive value like the first two years of the Jose Molina era. Gregg Zaun had a fun two month run. The rest of the time the team has tried to stretch a backup with some nice underlying peripherals into a starter only to watch that player breakdown from the extended playing time.
Every single team covets a starting catcher simply because the supply of guys that can hold up over the grind while supplying production both offensively and defensively can be counted on one hand. There’s a few more guys that can play that often while giving enough of one to offset the other, but the rest of the pool involves massive tradeoffs between all three components. The team has stated that finding a catcher will be one of their largest priorities this winter. There are several options that run the gamut of this spectrum of players that will be available in free agency this year, and Collette and I hope to profile each of them as time allows, but we want to kick off this miniseries by looking at a potential trade candidate.
Year after year the Rays they have no problem conducting business with whoever is in charge of the San Diego Padres. San Diego is a team that should have a good idea of where they sit on the win curve. Coming off another year that sees them probing the depths of the barrel, while spinning off multiple current players in the effort to add those that can help someday down the line, the team is clearly in “win later” mode. They just so happen to have a particular player that looks like a potential buy-low for the Rays at a position where there is a couple of different younger options that should be given some burn during what should be another year of non-contention for the Padres in 2017.
Derek Norris has a few things going for him. He usually pairs a good eye with a raft of power. Additionally, he profiles as a solid framer throughout his career, which is a skill that the Rays pioneered long before most teams even knew how to mine the data. The reason that he could be a nice buy-low is that his bat absolutely fell apart this year after being an average or better hitter for a catcher during the rest of his career. Perhaps the Padres will be eager to move this commodity without pressing for a large return due to the down offensive year. In that scenario the Rays should be willing to drop rocks down the well to see how deep it might go. If they can get Norris for very little I would anticipate a lot of interest, but the second necessity is that the bat must rebound for the player to have any value, whatsoever.
In that vein, let’s take a deep dive into Derek Norris to see if we can isolate where his issues stemmed from and if there is any likelihood that he will be more like his normal self in the 2017 season. It helps to start with who he has been over his career. For that I like to use run values as established by Ian Malinowski:
(Data courtesy of the excellent Baseball Savant)
Outside of a huge spike earlier in his career he has mostly oscillated around being a league average hitter with more good than bad. Until the second half of this past season, that is. You can see a huge falloff in his production, and interestingly enough it comes with a downturn in the number of rulebook strikes that he was seeing. He even managed to adjust, mostly, by decreasing his swing rate, but were there specific areas where things noticeably changed? Let’s look at a few things courtesy of Fangraphs:
Here we can see that he was pulling the ball more and still hitting it hard at pretty strong rates. Even with the most recent downturns for both you can see that he was doing the kinds of things that you like to see from a power bat. The thing about pulling the ball, though, is that you want to be putting those in the air as pulled grounders are usually into the teeth of good defenders no matter how hard you hit them:
Well it certainly looks like he’s hitting a ton of fly balls, which you would think would be a good thing, but you can see that despite the preponderance of flies very few were of the big variety as his homers per flyball really hit the skids. The thing about flyballs is that when they don’t leave the yard they’re very often caught for little to no gain.
Predictably his BABIP cratered over much of the year, but especially towards the end of 2016. Add in that his strikeout rate increased wildly and you can start to see why he became an unproductive hitter. Strikeouts and cans of corn make everybody feel like a nobody, but the interesting thing is that while his swinging strike rate was elevated his walk rate was mostly pretty good. So far we have mostly confirmed that he wasn’t worth much at the plate, and we’re even seeing a bit of a reason why. The question remains whether or not the balls staying in the yard and the increased strikeout rate have a justification or was it merely a trick of small samples. Again, it’s interesting to see his walk rate mostly maintain despite all those extra strikeouts so it can be beneficial to look at whether or not that is a function of being more selective:
To that end we can look at the pitches he didn’t swing at and notice that he was seeing an increased rate of balls, but for those that were strikes we can see the big uptick in those that were of his own volition and not left up to the whims of an umpire. This seems less like a function of his strikezone judgement and more to do with an inability to square up the baseball. When I see something like this it makes me think that a guy is hiding an injury, and the thing about that is that it probably shows up more when on the faster pitches than the slower ones:
In his career he has feasted on pitches that came in less than 92 MPH with incredible pretty recent success, which did level off closer to career norms during his rough slump. On faster stuff he has never been dynamite, but you can see just how much dud he provided over this most recent term. Having less success on faster stuff certainly seems to play into the idea of him hiding an injury, but perhaps it was due to seeing more of the slower stuff and being surprised by the faster stuff:
We can see an uptick in fastballs as pitchers started to realize he was having trouble with the pitch, and most of that increase came at the expense of the breaking ball that he had just started to see at an elevated rate. Also, of interest is the continuous decline in the changeup usage, which could be another indicator that pitchers were sensing a slower bat. This might further that narrative:
You can see that on the slower stuff that his batting average on contact and isolated power were mostly the same, but when it came to the faster pitchers you will notice just how very much both of those rates cratered, including the shelf that his run values fell off of. Seeing a guy struggle with velocity like this after having a good bit of success over his career leads me to believe, again, that something wasn’t right with his body. Let’s check out his exit velocity and distance on flyballs:
Well that certainly feels like what Lester Freamon would call a headshot. seeing both rates fall off this much leads me to believe that Norris wasn’t just bitten by bad luck affecting his balls in play. I cannot help, but feel that some sort of injury, your guess is as good as mine as to what, led to a guy gutting through discomfort in an effort to help his team on the field. While that is nice to see, you can see the profound effect this proposed malady had on his production. Increased swinging strikes, and despite an ideal batted ball profile for a power hitter, less success within that framework screams of a guy playing through an injury.
Now there are plenty of smart folks working in San Diego’s front office, but with two years of arbitration control remaining I think Derek Norris might be an excellent guy to seek out if the cost of doing business is lower than it should be. I have no idea what the Padres would consider fair, but if it’s a fringe prospect that allows them to get their own on the field more often then this could be exactly the type of guy the Rays should be seeking to acquire. Lord willing the Rays will be able to give up little in order to fill a vacuum that even Dyson hasn’t been able to sell for close to twenty years.