The 2010 season has been a speed bump for Derek Norris. The 21-year-old catcher came into the campaign ranked by Kevin Goldstein as the No. 2 prospect in the Nationals organization, but a pair of injuries have contributed to a subpar offensive showing. Norris is hitting just .233/.409/.372 with five home runs at High-A Potomac, after a .286/.413/.513, 23 home-run showing last summer with Low-A Hagerstown. Despite his struggles, the Goddard, Kansas native still projects as an offensive force behind the dish and a big part of the Nats’ future. Norris talked about his development, and his experiences catching Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, and Jordan Zimmermann when Potomac visited Boston for the Futures at Fenway minor-league doubleheader earlier this month.
David Laurila: Where are you developmentally right now?
Derek Norris: I’m getting better. Obviously, some people have some questions about my defensive ability, so I took the offseason and spring training and worked real hard. I had a chance to work with Ivan Rodriguez in spring training, and he really put into perspective for me how important it is to be defensively sound behind the plate. He showed me some tricks here and there to make me more well-rounded, and it has really paid off.
DL: What were some of the things he showed you?
DN: Just positioning and holding the glove, getting to pitches, learning to stick lower pitches, receiving higher pitches deeper—trying to get more strikes called when they could potentially be called balls.
DL: Was any of that new, or was he mostly reinforcing things you had already learned?
DN: I guess that he was just rewording it to a point where you can correlate with a player more than a coach can correlate with a player. Sometimes coaches teach the right things but they don’t know how to translate it to a player. He’s [playing] right now and just does a really good job of that.
DL: “Keep it simple” is a commonly-heard phrase in baseball. Does that apply to the catching position?
DN: That’s really what they teach. They try to teach that you should keep it 1930s; that’s what our catching coordinator, Bob Henley, tells me. He says to just keep it simple. He says, “Catch it, block it, throw it; hit it; just keep it as simple as possible.” For most people, that’s the best way, and it is for me.
DL: Are there any specific pitchers that you’ve been learning from?
DN: I don’t really get a lot of time to talk to the pitchers. They kind of do their own thing as far as spring training goes, but I did have an opportunity to catch Drew Storen last year, and I caught Stephen Strasburg a little bit in instructs and again in spring training. But as far as [learning] goes, not so much as far as game calling. That’s just something I have to keep developing.
DL: Is Strasburg’s stuff as good as people say it is?
DN: Absolutely, and it may be even better than people say it is. And he has an ability to pinpoint every single pitch that he has, where he wants it, for the most part. With the movement he has, that’s just unbelievable.
DL: When it comes to working with Strasburg, is he a listener or does he have his own way of doing things and that‘s that?
DN: You could say that it’s a little of both. Everybody has their certain way they do things and most of us have played the game long enough to where we know what we need to do to stay mentally and physically sound. But he’s a really laid-back guy and a really great person to be around. He’s great in the clubhouse, too.
DL: What about Drew Storen?
DN: Same way. He’s got his own way. He’s max effort every time that he comes in. He’s got that one-inning, maybe two-inning role where he comes in and throws everything that he’s got and then he’s done. He’s also a great guy who is fun to be around. He’s got a great personality.
DL: Have you caught Jordan Zimmermann in any of his rehab starts?
DN: Yes, I did. I caught him in his first rehab start and he looked very good. He looked even better in his second rehab start in Frederick this past weekend. He looks really good—electric stuff.
DL: As a catcher, do you work any differently with a pitcher making a rehab start as opposed to a normal outing?
DN: A little bit. Usually, when the rehab guys come they only throw about two or three innings, maybe four, so you try to maybe work in some more off-speed early in the count so they get a feel for it. That’s more than a regular starter who throws maybe seven or eight innings and you want to try to command the fastball early and then work in the off-speed later.
DL: Your reputation is as an offensive-minded catcher. Is that something you’re working to change?
DN: Absolutely. I’ve worked very hard at changing my defense and trying to make it a little more even, and I really think it’s been taking a positive angle towards things. I’ve been getting a lot better in every aspect—game calling, receiving, blocking. They’ve told me that I’ve gotten a lot better.
DL: Has your offense been compromised at all by focusing so much on your defensive game?
DN: You know, not so much. I’ve been battling injuries; I’ve had a few injuries this season and that has kind of kept me on and off, on and off, and made it hard for me to get into a good groove. Right now I think I’m just finally starting to get into that groove and hopefully I can finish strong the last two months.
DL: What have the injuries been this season?
DN: I had a wrist injury in spring training and that kept me out the first month. Then I got hit in the head by a 97 mph fastball when we were playing in Salem, in May. A right-handed pitcher smoked me right in the head and knocked me unconscious for a couple of minutes, and off to the hospital, and the whole deal.
DL: How does something like that affect a hitter?
DN: They try to tell you, “How many years have you played baseball, and how many times have you been hit in the head?” But once you get back in there, you’re definitely a little timid, especially on curveballs and sliders, and whatnot, that come a little closer in. After a few at-bats, that slowly starts deteriorating in your head and you‘re fine.
DL: Has the wrist injury impacted your power this year?
DN: No. I think that a lot of people look at the at-bats that I’ve had and… I think that they’re fairly similar as far as the power numbers. I just need the at-bats to show people that I’ve still got it.
DL: Any final thoughts?
DN: Just that my defense is improving. I think that a lot of people have taken recognition of that and I’m going to keep working on it and striving to get better.
Potomac manager Gary Cathcart on Norris: “Unfortunately for Derek, he had an injury right at the end of spring training that set him back. He didn’t get started until about a month and a half into the season. Then he came back and started to get into a groove, but he got hit in the head with a 96 mph fastball when we played Salem. He’s been healthy for a couple of weeks, but it was kind of like the first half was about injuries, and it didn’t really look like he had a chance to settle into a groove, so as far as progress goes, it’s been a tough year for him. Hopefully his second half will go better.
“To his credit, he’s taken ownership of how important the catcher position is. I think that he’s made great strides this year, really paying attention to the details of the way he receives the ball, blocks the ball, and how he calls a game. I think that, finally, Derek realizes that to be a frontline catcher in the major leagues is a pretty rare commodity, so I give him a lot of credit for really working hard on his defense.”
Potomac hitting coach Matt Nokes on Norris: “Looking at Derek Norris, and working with him every day, he’s a young hitter that… there isn’t anything in his swing that you’d want to say, “Well, I think you should do this or that”. He’s polished. He’s literally a polished, mechanically sound hitter. His head is in the zone; his head is in the action. For this kid, it’s going to be a matter of… and he has an eye that’s way too good for this league. His eye is too good for this league and basically it’s going to help him as he gets older and gets to the higher levels where the umpires are calling the games with a little bit tighter zones. For him, it comes down to pitch selection, and I don’t mean strikes and balls, I mean hitting fastballs and not always just hitting the hanging pitches. Once he starts to get some momentum, he’s just going to tear it up.”