I started off wanting to write about Derek Norris’ bad approach at the plate this season. He is the third worst on the team in both pitches seen per plate appearance (behind Kemp and Ramirez) and walks (behind the same two). But my analysis quickly fell down the rabbit hole and into a very dark place. Turn back now if you don’t want bleak news.
Okay you’ve been warned, so here goes:
Derek Norris is never breaking out of this slump and he will never be the player he was, as recently as the first part of 2015. You can make a strong case he should no longer be the team’s number one catcher and you can make a near-bulletproof case that he should, by no means, be batting second in the order…..Sucks, I know.
First, let’s at least get the original objective of this article out of the way: his approach stinks.
On May 20th, he swung at the first five pitches he saw, making two outs (pop out, strikeout). These first two at bats are made more infuriating because Scott Kazmir was having difficultly with location. In the second inning, Kazmir walked Brett Wallace, hit Alexei Ramirez and failed to put away the opposing pitcher with two strikes on him. After surrendering a 2-run single to the pitcher, Kazmir walked Jon Jay to re-load the bases.
In all, Kazmir worked from behind against five of the first seven batters in the inning. What did Norris do? He swung at the first pitch, and the second and the third before going down on strikes. Ugh.
In his third at bat, Norris laid off his first two pitches (one that almost hit him, so I’m not giving him a whole lot of credit there) and then launched a 400+ foot home run. The crowd cheered and I rolled my eyes. Yes, I like home runs, but it would seem Norris could have done something with the bases loaded in the second inning if he had taken a pitch or two.
So, that’s what the article was going to look like.
Then, I started digging a little deeper and I found out here Norris’ career appears to be headed. Fangraphs published an article before the season about the Padres catcher. Rather than click over, I’ll summarize: pitchers aren’t scared of Norris any longer. He is seeing more and more fastballs in the zone. This is, obviously, a sign the opposing pitcher is perfectly fine with letting Norris swing the bat. This is likely a big reason why he is swinging the bat so frequently.
With that in mind, let’s look at his 2016 so far:
ISOP: .136 (3rd worst on team)
When isolated power drops below .140, you stand a pretty good chance of pitchers challenging you.
G/F: 0.60 (2nd lowest on team)
Norris is hitting darn near everything in the air.
WRC+: 42 (3rd lowest in baseball)
Not creating runs is no bueno.
So, I started searching for the reason.
First, in all honesty, he is getting a little unlucky. His current BABIP is .207, nearly 90 points lower than league average. You’d have to expect that to normalize over the course of the season.
But, secondly, the previously referenced article is exactly right: Derek Norris can’t square-up fastballs in the zone.
I adjusted the fangraphs heat map for fastballs. Derek Norris has made contact on at least 79% of his swings on fastballs in the zone in all but one area, totaling 117 contacts. But he is only consistently hitting pitches down the middle, middle away and up. Pitchers have noticed and have started pounding the lower part of the zone on Norris, throwing nearly 40% of all fastballs in the lower third of the zone.
All of that is really boring but it speaks to one big problem: pitchers know how to get Derek Norris out and, to this point, he hasn’t been able to adjust.
Given Norris has seen a steady rise in the number of fastballs seen and he has not been able to punish opposing pitchers for making those pitches, I don’t think he ever will. This is not ideal for a catcher who is not known for his defense.
Please get healthy soon, Austin Hedges.