He came out of nowhere.
Nationals' fans were so elated with the team's 2007 first round pick of pitcher Ross Detwiler that the other players taken that day ended up being little more than names on a page.
Oh sure, second-round pick Jake Smolinksi and third rounder Steven Souza were known commodities, but when you get to the fourth round, you typically find organizational type players who fill holes in the minor league system until someone better comes along.
From 1999 through 2004, after all, he best players drafted in the fourth round were pitchers John Papelbon and Cliff Lee. The rest of the players were marginal, fourth-outfielder types and starting pitchers who ended up in the bullpen.
Only one out of four players drafted in the fourth round in those years made it to the major leagues, and less than four percent became everyday players.
So it's no wonder then that no one took notice of Derek Norris when he was selected as the 130th player in the 2007 amateur draft.
He was just another high school catcher with little chance to make it in the majors.
He just may prove us all wrong.
Norris grew up in Goddard, Kansas, a Wichita bedroom community. He was named to the 2007 Louisville Slugger All-American team and was selected as Gatorade's Baseball Player of the Year for the state of Kansas.
He had committed to play for baseball powerhouse Wichita State, and when he was drafted in the fourth round by the Nationals, he began to prepare for his first semester in college.
Norris believed he was a second-round baseball player, and expected second-round money, something he was unlikely to get from the Washington Nationals.
Then one night, assistant general manager Bob Boone showed up at the Norris' door. A fellow catcher, Boone painted pictures of his days in the major leagues, talked about his seven gold gloves, and flashed enough of the Lerner family's money to convince him to sign with the Nationals.
Did the Nationals give him the second round money he wanted? "Well, I got what I think I need," said the young catcher when the signing was announced.
He spent his first season with the Gulf Coast Nationals, which more resembles a baseball academy than a professional minor league. There are wake up calls, bed checks, and games played before a few dozen fans during the hottest part of Florida's day.
I guess you can add rookie baseball players to the old saying that "Only mad dogs and Englishman go out in the noon day sun."
The 18 year old didn't do terribly well during his first professional campaign, batting just .203-4-15 in 123 at-bats. While that works out to .203-16-60 over a full season, his .344 on base and .382 slugging percent weren't very good. He struck out 30 percent of the time while walking just 17 percent. His BB/Walk ration was a horrid 0.66 (.66 walks for every strikeout)
However, he showed good defense behind the plate and he was promoted to the short-season New York Penn League's Vermont Lake Monsters in 2008.
His offensive production changed like the seasons in New England.
In just 227 at-bats, Norris batted 278-10-38 with 11 stolen bases. He walked 63 times (an all time Lake Monster's record) while striking out just 56 times. He had a .463 SLG percent and his .444 OBP led the league. He raised his walk percentage from 16 in 2007 to 22 in 2008 while dropping his strikeout rate from 31 to 24. His BB/K rate jumped to 1.16.
Look at his stats when expanded out to a 500 at-bat season, the best way to contrast and compare with other players: .278-23-85, 24 stolen bases, 144 walks, and 128 strikeouts.
A total of 144 walks? That's Barry Bonds' territory.
Those statistics fit perfectly with his scouting report numbers from thebaseballcube.com (these are based on 100 possible points): Power: 90, Speed: 61, Contact: 26, Patience: 100.
And he was a 19 year old hitting against mostly 21 and 22 year olds who have three or four years of college experience.
He was recently named to the Topps Rookie league all-star team and Baseball America tapped him as the team's No. 6 prospect. He was also designated as having the best plate discipline of all Nationals' prospects.
Norris' defense is solid as well. He led the New York-Penn league in throwing out base runners with a 47 percent efficiency rate. That compares favorably former National Brian Schneider, considered one the premier defensive catchers in baseball, who threw out 50 percent of base stealer's last year. Current Nationals' catcher Jesus Flores, considered a solid defender, threw out just 36 percent of would-be base runners in 2008.
Interestingly, the Nationals aren't sure they are going to keep him as a catcher. He has shown great speed (for a catcher, good speed for an infielder) and there is talk of perhaps moving him to first or a corner outfield position.
If Jesus Flores continues to improve, Norris will have to move to another position if he stays with the organization. If Flores doesn't make it, look for Norris to be given a chance sometime in the future.
I'm sure that Norris will be playing at 'A-' Hagerstown in 2009, which will give Nationals' fans a chance to watch him play.
Derek Norris looks good. The kid has the talent to break that fourth round trend of fading into obscurity.
All he needs now is a little luck and a lot of desire.
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