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On Plate Discipline, OBP And Washington Nationals' Prospect Derek Norris.

Michael Lewis writes early in  "Moneyball" that a key quality in the sort of player A's General Manager Billy Beane and assistant to the GM Paul DePodesta were looking for and felt was undervalued by the rest of the league in the amateur draft was, "... the ability to control the strike zone," which they saw as, "... the greatest indicator of future success." The two Oakland executives, according to Mr. Lewis, also expressed the belief that in their view, "...plate discipline might be an innate trait, rather than a something a free-swinging amateur can be taught in the pros."

When you think of 22-year-old Goddard, Kansas-born Washington Nationals' catching prospect Derek Norris, his reputation for having tremendous plate discipline is probably the first thing that comes to mind. In describing the Nats' top catching prospect,'s Keith Law, who had Norris ranked 33rd overall on his Top 50 prospects list last winter, wrote that defensively he was "fine" in spite of a bad rep, and noted that the right-handed hitting and throwing backstop had an "above average arm", and was, "... agile enough to block balls and be at least an average receiver."

But more important than that, Mr. Law wrote, "Norris can hit," has "outstanding plate discipline", and shows, "excellent rotation and upper-body strength," which should result in the Nats' '07 4th Round pick having, "above-average or better power down the road." Norris himself told's Jonathan Mayo in a Winter '09 article about the Nationals' prospect being named the Class-A Hitter of the Year for the 2009 season, that the plate discipline and ability to make contact have always come naturally: 

"'Ever since I was little, my mom said I always had great vision, the hand-eye coordination,' said Norris...'I developed the ability to pick up things right out of the pitcher's hand. I don't have to do a whole lot of thinking about it. It's kind of another instinct for me.'" 

With Class-A Hagerstown in '09, a then-20-year-old Norris, in his third pro season after being drafted as an 18-year-old out of high school, had a .286/.413/.513 slash with 30 doubles and 23 HR's in 126 games and 540 plate appearances. When opposing pitchers started to feed Norris a steady diet of offspeed pitches, he originally got frustrated and started taking swings he shouldn't have, as he told's Jonathan Mayo, but, "It finally got to a point,'" Norris is quoted explaining, that, "'I just took what they were giving to me. If they weren't giving it to me, I'd take the free base and let the other guys drive me in.'"

In the two season's since, Norris' batting average and power numbers have fallen some as he's struggled with injuries and a broken hamate bone which is known to sap power for a significant time, but he's maintained an ability to get on base walking 89 times and posting a .419 OPB in 399 plate appearances in 2010 at Class-A Potomac and finishing the 2011 season with a .367 OBP at Double-A Harrisburg to leave the catcher with a .403 OBP in five seasons in the Nationals' system. 

Scott Hatteberg is held up as an example of the sort of "bad defensive player with an ability to get on base" that the A's were looking for in "Moneyball." Hatteberg, Michael Lewis wrote, "... had the same dull virtues," as the other free agents Oakland had sought that season, "plate discipline and an ability to get on base." How efficient had hitters been with their plate appearances? That's what Paul DePodesta wanted to know at the end each season.

Derek Norris hit just .210 this season as a 22-year-old at Double-A, but he was third in the Eastern League in walks with 77, finished 14th overall in OBP (.367), with the highest on base percentage amongst catchers in the league, and his 75 runs scored, the most among Eastern League catchers, were good for ninth overall in the EL, ahead of former Phillies' 1st Round pick Travis D'Arnaud, one of the prospects dealt to Toronto in the deal that brought Roy Halladay to Philadelphia.

Will Norris repeat a season at Double-A in 2011? Move to Triple-A next year? The next step for Norris is another trip to the Arizona Fall League. One way or another the virtues which attracted Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta in "Moneyball" are going to get him to the majors at some point in the near-future