Washington Nationals’ pitching coach Mike Maddux saw plenty of Derek Norris when he was still with the Texas Rangers and Norris was behind the plate with the Oakland A’s.
“They were an over-achieving team,” Maddux said. “I’m a pretty big believer that your catcher is such an important piece of what’s going on, because he’s involved in every play and I watched Derek Norris lead some pitchers to successful games against a pretty good-hitting ballclub that we had. Always seemed to put down the right digits.
“Like I said, they over-achieved. He’s a dangerous offensive player, got a lot of pop in his bat, draws walks, he was just a pain in the butt, really, offensively, but I liked how he handled the pitchers. Like I said, he led an over-achieving team.”
Norris, an ‘07 Nationals’ 4th Round pick, was acquired by the Athletics in 2011 and then traded to the San Diego in 2014. This winter he returned to the Nationals’ organization in a trade that sent minor league right-hander Pedro Avila to the Padres.
Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo, who was an Assistant General Manager in D.C. when Norris was drafted, talked after the deal about what the now-27-year-old brings to the nation’s capital. He told reporters at the Winter Meetings he was confident Norris would be able to bounce back from down year offensively with the Padres.
Norris finished his fifth major league campaign with a .186/.255/.328 line, 17 doubles and 14 home runs in a -0.4 fWAR season.
“The skill set, when evaluated, the skill set is still there,” Rizzo said.
“We like his approach at the plate. He’s got a simple hitting approach that we feel that we’ve dealt with before, we’ve got a history with him. We know what makes him tick.
“We know what motivated him and helped him in the past. Rick Schu has helped, dealt with him before, Bobby Henley, had him grow up in the minor league system for us.
“We know the kid well and he’s a guy that is going to leave it all on the field and is a positive for us.”
“Good pitch caller, he’s become a really good pitch framer and a guy that we believe is going to have a good bounce-back season.”
Norris talked this past weekend, at Nationals’ Winterfest, about the history with Schu and Henley when both were in the minors, describing the relationship with the two as being, “extremely strong.”
“Bob Henley was like a second dad to me when I first got drafted. He was our catching coordinator and my rookie ball manager, so I’ve already spoken on the phone with him, I’m looking forward to getting to work with him. Schu was my hitting coordinator for a couple years so we’re real familiar.”
Norris has big shoes to fill behind the plate, coming in after Wilson Ramos departed as a free agent, but he was clear that he knows it won’t be easy to match the production Ramos provided on the offensive end.
“Obviously Wilson had a great year,” he said. “His hitting numbers were up there with some of the best in the last ten years of catchers, so I’m not looking to come in here and say I’m going to hit .320 with 20 HRs and drive in 100, who knows, it could happen, I’m not saying it is or is not going to happen.
“But the type of player I am, I’m a high-energy guy, I love the game of baseball, I look forward to taking this pitching staff to the highest level and working with them and getting to know them and driving in some runs and getting on base and win some ballgames, and that’s ultimately my goal and I think we share that in common.”
“I think we’ll get familiar very quick,” Maddux said, when asked about the difficulty of transitioning a pitching staff from one everyday catcher to another.
“I don’t think that will be a tough one. We’re not talking about a guy that’s coming up to the big leagues for the first time. We’re talking about a guy that’s got [five] years in. He’s caught a lot of reps back there. He’s caught some very good pitchers, and he’s caught some pitchers that maybe weren’t as good or weren’t as talented, but he got a lot out of them, so I’ve always respected that about Derek.”
Two of the pitchers atop the Nationals’ rotation talked this past weekend about what they know about Norris.
“Talked to some guys in San Diego who talked about how hard he worked behind the plate and he’s a good guy to throw to and he knows how to call ballgame,” 2016 NL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer told reporters.
“Those are the reviews that I heard.”
“The biggest thing you want is someone who can frame the low pitch. Somebody with soft hands that can frame the low pitch, and also, it doesn’t hurt to have a short little fat body on them,” Scherzer joked.
“I feel like that helps, get you a few calls, gives you a nice little bullseye to throw to.”
“He’s great back there,” Stephen Strasburg told reporters.
“He works really hard. He cares about catching. He’s obviously got some pop in his bat too, to help out there. I think it’s going to be fun, because playing against him too when he was in San Diego and then when he was in Oakland, you just kind of see that presence that he has and how he kind of commands the pitching staff and how he receives pitches, how he talks to the umpire and stuff, his energy is something that really stuck out for me when we were facing them.”
Strasburg said the goal with a new catcher is to get on the same page so that you trust one another when the going gets rough.
“A lot of times you get in a situation where you’re kind of unsure on a pitch that you want to throw and you’re maybe second-guessing yourself, and then you just have that little bit of assurance back there that he’s seeing what you’re seeing.
“That’s the biggest thing is just commitment to every pitch and if he can help you with committing to it, even when you have that little thought in your head, ‘Should I be throwing this pitch?’ I think it helps.”
“I think ultimately you’ve got to establish: What are their strengths and try to apply them to game-calling and try to get on the same page and try to develop the best relationship you can with those guys,” Norris said.
“That way you don’t have that adjustment period where they’re second-guessing you a little bit when maybe they might not throw it just because they don’t quite know you.”
Norris told reporters he was hoping to bounce back with the bat and get closer to the kind of numbers he put up in previous seasons.
How did he evaluate his 2016 campaign at the plate?
“Awful,” Norris joked. “No, on a serious note, it was a scuffle. I got off to a bad start and I’m not big into the excuses, so I’m not going to say this and that, this and that, but it was just — I got buried early and I tried to get four hits every single time and before I knew it, it was June and by the time June comes not a whole lot you can do about it. Last year is last year. That’s not what I’m about. I think everybody knows that’s not the type of offensive player I am and I’m out to show that this year.”
His goals, as far as improving on the offensive end?
“Just doing the things that I know that I’m good at, which is hitting line drives. I got into phases last year where I got to be trying to do too much, you know, 0 for 3, I can hit a three-run home run here to save the game and I end up striking out instead of sticking to my strengths which are being a line drive hitter, left-center-right field and just using all fields and being a high on-base guy and a guy that hits a lot of line drives.”