During this past offseason the Padres jettisoned two catchers, one coming off a career year, the other a highly coveted young player who’s ceiling had yet to be reached. To replace those losses, the Padres added a slugging catcher from Oakland and a defensive minded, though offensively stunted, catcher from Los Angeles in the Matt Kemp trade. With Derek Norris, Tim Federowicz, Austin Hedges and Wil Nieves, the depth at catching did not appear to be an area of much concern for the Padres.
Of course, that all changed in Spring Training when Federowicz suffered a substantial meniscal tear in his right knee. That injury has kept him out the entire season thus far and will likely keep him out through the All-Star Break. On the bright side, he appears to be progressing in his rehab, catching a bullpen session in Arizona just last week. On the downside, knee injuries to catchers are obviously not ideal.
Despite indications that AJ Preller was trying to fill the catching void from outside the organization, nothing materialized on that front and the Padres opened the season with Wil Nieves as the backup. I don’t need to remind you that Wil Nieves was an unmitigated disaster. Coupled with Norris’ hot start to the season (.313/.329/.463), Nieves was relegated to very spotty spot starts and Norris became the every day catcher. In April, the Padres played 23 games of which Norris started in 19 of them an appeared in 2 more. So 1 day off in the month of April. Admittedly, the Padres had little options at the time.
Mercifully, the Nieves experiment was short lived and Padres Twitter heartthrob Austin Hedges was called up. While not known for his bat, Hedges was having a nice season at AAA El Paso in the admittedly hitter friendly PCL. The bat appeared to be developing but the Padres didn’t have time to wait much longer. They needed a competent catcher who could give Norris days off that he desperately needed.
Except that’s not what has happened. Since being called up on May 4th, Hedges has started 11 games. That’s 11 games out of 48. Even in situations where the Padres could have kept Norris’ bat in the lineup but also kept him from behind the plate during interleague games, more often than not the choose not to. At this point, the Padres are running Derek Norris into the ground and the results will not be pretty. Frankly, they already are not very pretty.
Norris has seen a precipitous drop since April culminating in a disastrous June to this point. So far in June Norris’ slash line is .165/.233/.380. Some of that is bad luck, sure (BABIP .167), but much of that is self-induced. In his last 13 ABs, Norris has 8 SOs. And while his caught stealing stats remain on point, it is clear that Norris’ bat has slowed to a fizzle. The previous months argument that the Padres couldn’t afford NOT to play Norris is no longer valid.
One need only look at last season for two prime examples of the effects of overworking a catcher. Last season, no one started more games overall than Jonathon Lucroy (153 games; 22 games non-catcher).
Lucroy 1st Half: .315/.385/.494
Lucroy 2nd Half: .282/.355/.424
But perhaps there is no better example of this situation than Salvador Perez. Perez played 150 games in 2014 for the Royals and played catcher in all but 6 of those games. Perez, like Norris, was off to a fast start.
Perez 1st Half: .283/.329/.437
Perez 2nd Half: .229/.236/.360
That’s a dramatic drop. And it’s one that carried over into the post-season.
Perez Post-Season: .207/.233/.276
By the time Perez was in the batters box in Game 7, bottom of the 9th, vs Bumgarner with the tying one on 3rd, he was on his 165th game. He had no chance.
Even looking at Norris in past years shows a similar drop in not nearly as many games. In 2014 Norris posted a .294/.402/.477 only to watch it drop to .245/.314/.324 in the 2nd half. That was in only 135 games of which 107 came at catcher.
Derek Norris is a tremendous offensive threat for the Padres. But he’s only a threat with fresh legs under him. While some could look at the June Norris is putting up and simply write it off as a slump, at this pace, it’s a slump he won’t be coming out of any time soon.
Hedges needs more at bats. Norris needs a break. But right now, neither is happening. To the both short-term and long-term detriment of the team.