June 20, 2014
My Catcher Fetish and Derek Norris
I kind of have a thing for catchers. That’s a weird thing to have to admit, and frankly I didn’t even know this was the case for much of my life. You don’t necessarily know you’re weird until you’re on a podcast with three supposed friends and they call you out for having a catcher fetish. What a shameful moment.
All this is to say, I tend to value catchers more than your average fantasy analyst. There’s not a right or a wrong in this concept, it’s just a different approach. Except when it comes to Derek Norris, in which case it’s a totally correct approach because have you seen his slash line? His .313/.416/.531 line is likely a mirage of sorts, but there’s plenty of supporting evidence as to why Norris, who has previously struggled, is now a monster at the plate.
If we go back to my very first article for BP, I highlighted five post-hype prospects to keep an eye on, including one Derek Norris. I reasoned that:
“There are encouraging signs if you look below the surface. He’s upped his walk rate from 9% to 13% while cutting his strikeout rate an impressive five percentage points from 28% to 23%.”
Even I couldn’t have imagined Norris trimming his strikeout rate down to 15 percent and pushing his walk rate up another three percentage points, though. His eight home runs are one off his career high, and we haven’t reached July. The production is inarguable, but the question is what to expect going forward. Even if the underlying stats say he’s earned what he’s produced, is he going to keep earning that type of production?
Our first look can be at playing time, often an issue for catchers, especially ones that are in a platoon, as Norris is with John Jaso. But is he? Norris has 81 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers and 110 against right-handed pitchers. Now, he’s not an everyday backstop, a la Jonathan Lucroy (another catcher who took his time developing into an all-around force), but that doesn’t mean he’s directly in a platoon, either. Norris has earned and is receiving enough playing time that he should begin to shed the label of platoon bat.
We also want to know if Norris is getting lucky. His BABIP is at a career high .339, but even if that regressed to the league average, he’d be a well-above-average offensive catcher. He’s not the type of speed demon who can support that elevated BABIP, especially since his line-drive rates are just about at his career norms, so we can expect the batting average to drop off a healthy amount but still remain useful.
His HR:FB rate is at a career-high, as you might expect, settling at 16.3 percent. That’s not an ungodly figure, and he’s always boasted power, so while we might expect it to drop a bit based on his previous career numbers, it’s not a certainty. Norris appears to be getting more passive at the plate, as we can see in his swing percentage by season, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:
This doesn’t necessarily denote selectivity so much as a willingness to swing less on the whole. Norris is being selective as well, swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone and making more contact when he swings at pitches in the strike zone. His Z-Contact rate (the percentage of balls he makes contact on when swinging at a pitch inside the strike zone) is just short of 93 percent. That’s an incredible figure for someone who struck out in 28 percent of his at-bats less than two seasons ago.
There’s some anecdotal evidence that catchers take longer to blossom at the major league level than other position players, most likely due to the other demands on them within the game. Norris is one example of that, as are the aforementioned Lucroy and Devin Mesoraco, who seems to be coming out of his offensive shell. Even Yadier Molina didn’t reach league-average offensive production until his sixth season in the majors (using wRC+). That’s worth keeping in mind when evaluating the rough offensive starts from touted prospects like Travis D’Arnaud and Mike Zunino, and trying to decide whether they’re worth the investment. You might even be able to sell high on catching prospects before they reach the majors and buy them back at a cheaper price only to receive all the benefit.