On Derek Norris’ Surprising Strength

Last year Derek Norris didn’t look much like the kind of catcher who was going to stick at the position for a long time. In 2014, among catchers with at least 700 innings behind the dish, Norris’ caught stealing percentage of 16.7 ranked ahead of only Colorado’s Wilin Rosario.

It got so bad — apparently —  that Norris ceded the A’s everyday catcher role to backup Geovany Soto late in the year, as Soto started six of the last eight regular season games (and the wild-card playoff game against the Royals) at catcher despite Norris’ .270/.361/.403 batting line. Soto can’t even be classified as a catch-and-throw specialist, having thrown out 27 percent of would-be base stealers in his career, and the then-31-year-old hadn’t seen regular playing time since 2012.

For Norris, things got even worse. After Soto left the wild-card game in the third inning with an injured thumb, the Royals ran wild on Norris (and A’s pitching), stealing seven bases and winning in dramatic fashion. To casual viewers — and, heck, even to the A’s, it appeared — Norris’ days behind the plate seemed numbered. Then again, in retrospect at least, there were reasons for optimism:

  • Norris posted decent caught stealing rates in the past. In 2012 and 2013, Norris’ caught stealing percentage was 26 percent, right on the league average. In the minor leagues, Norris threw out 39 percent of would-be base thieves — that’s five percentage points higher than Austin Hedges‘ minor league caught stealing rate.
  • Norris was beat up late in the season, missing games due to back, hip, and shoulder issues. Maybe the A’s turned to Soto more because of Norris’ health/fatigue than anything else. (Hint, hint, Pat Murphy: get the guy some rest).
  • Jon Lester, who rarely throws over to first and has become easier to run on in recent years, started the wild-card game. Also, the Royals were the best base stealing team in the league last year, stealing 153 bases at an 81 percent clip. And, if you look, most of the Royals’ steals that night weren’t on Norris, at least not totally. On the Royals’ third and fourth steals of the game, for example, Norris got the ball from his glove to second base (accurately) in well under two seconds, better than the major league average. The Royals were both fast and not being held well, a tough combination for any catcher to overcome.

The Padres gambled on Norris’ defense in the offseason, dealing away Jesse Hahn, clearing out their 2014 catchers, and installing Norris as the everyday backstop, and so far it’s (mostly*) worked out. Norris’ bat has remained a plus — though it’s slowed down recently — as he’s hit .252/.299/.437 with a 107 wRC+, the eighth-highest** mark among (25) catchers with 150-plus plate appearances.

*Obligatory pitch framing aside: Norris’ pitch framing, which we’ve discussed plenty this year, is gradually improving. Per Baseball Prospectus, he’s down to -14.1 strikes, which is much better than where he was in late May

**Obligatory Yasmani Grandal aside: Grandal’s 149 wRC+ ranks second in the majors among catchers, behind only Stephen Vogt. Grandal’s also bumped his caught stealing rate up from 13 percent to 31 percent, and he still leads the world in framing. 

The most interesting aspect of Norris’ season might revolve around the running game, where he leads the majors in both stolen bases allowed and runners caught stealing. That’s, well, something. Teams are running on Norris presumably for a number of reasons:

  1. He couldn’t throw out base runners last year. That famous/infamous seven steal night by the Royals only magnified a season’s worth of struggles. Other teams probably noticed.
  2. The Padres have Tyson Ross, who leads the majors in both SRAA (Swipe Rate Above Average) and TRAA (Takeoff Rate Above Average), two numbers that attempt to judge a pitcher’s effect on stolen bases allowed. Ross is really easy to run on, and research shows that base runners are more likely to steal on specific pitchers than on specific catchers.

Consider that Norris has already allowed 70 stolen base attempts, which is nine more than second-place catcher Francisco Cervelli. Even if you adjust for playing time, Norris remains on top:

Player Steal Attempts Allowed per 9
1)      Derek Norris 1.18
2)      Francisco Cervelli 1.18
3)      Tyler Flowers .99
4)      Miguel Montero .99
5)      Chris Iannetta .98

Teams have kept running against Norris and the Padres, but the catcher has responded, gunning down 25 of those 70 would-be base stealers. That 36 percent caught stealing rate ranks Norris 10th out of 29 catchers with at least 300 innings caught this year, and well above the league average rate of 28 percent.

Eliminate Ross, and Norris looks Yadier Molina-ish:

Pitcher Stolen Bases Caught Stealing
With Ross Pitching 19 5
Without Ross Pitching 26 20

With Ross in the dugout, Norris’ caught stealing rate jumps to 43 percent. That’s impressive, especially for a guy who struggled so much last season.

Here’s the thing: controlling the running game for a catcher isn’t that important. FanGraphs calculates rSB:

rSB: Calculated by The Fielding Bible, Stolen Base Runs Saved measures how many “runs” a catcher contributes to their team by throwing out runners and preventing runners from attempting steals in the first place.

Norris so far this year has only been worth two runs, per rSB, and the worst catcher (with 300+ innings), Tyler Flowers, has only cost his team three runs. Even last year, the spread between Norris and, say, Rene Rivera was 10 runs, or about one win. Not a huge deal, especially when you look at the top and bottom of the pitch framing leaderboards.

Here’s the other thing: At the extreme level, controlling the running game does matter. With just a 17 percent caught stealing percentage last year, Norris was headed in that direction. Imagine if he declined further this year, then had to deal with Ross as a frequent battery mate. Teams would have had a field day.

Instead, Norris has shown great improvement in throwing out base runners. The big payoff isn’t necessarily the value derived from those caught stealings — it’s nice, though. The payoff is that Norris has shown he has enough arm to stick at catcher for a while, where the bat makes him a valuable player. With his pitch framing trending in the right direction — remember, Norris has a better track-record in that area, too — Norris, just 26, could remain the Padres’ catcher through the end of his contract. (That is, of course, unless Hedges has something to say about it.)

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