Derek Norris, the Washington Nationals come-from-nowhere prospect, followed up an impressive rookie-league season in 2008 with a breakout year for the Hagerstown Suns and has won the “MiLBY” Award for being the best hitter in all of Class-A baseball.
Norris, 20, batted .286-23-84 in 437 at-bats for Low-A Hagerstown. Translated into a 550 at-bat major league season, his stats look even better: 160 hits, 38 doubles, 30 home runs, and 107 RBI along with a .413 on-base percentage and a .513 slugging percent.
Norris was on pace for a .320-40-120 finish in early July but South Atlantic League pitchers stopped pitching to him. He would go days without seeing a fastball. By August, he stopped chasing bad pitches and took what the pitchers gave him, which was a whole lot of walks.
And he did all that while catching 126 games, almost twice his career high.
Johnny Bench, perhaps the greatest hitting catcher of all time, batted .259-27-80 with a .301 on-base percent at the same age. No, he’s not Johnny Bench, but his minor league statistics do compare favorably.
Before the start of the 2009 season, Nationals’ fans were enthralled with the team’s bevy of first-round picks, players like first baseman Chris Marrero and pitcher Ross Detwiler.
Unless you were a total baseball geek, you never heard of Derek Norris.
But most everyday major leaguers aren’t taken in the first round of the amateur draft. So while we watch and wait for our “name” prospects like Detwiler and Marrero and Drew Storen and Stephen Strasburg to make it to Washington, we miss those late round picks that come from nowhere to integral parts of the team.
John Lannan was an 11th round selection in 2005. Craig Stammen was selected a round later in the same draft. Josh Willingham was a 17th round selection by the Marlins in 2000 and Nyjer Morgan was a 33rd round afterthought by the Pirates two years later.
Is it no wonder then that many Nationals’ fans were wondering where in the world Derek Norris came from last season.
The Washington faithful were so elated with the team's 2007 first-round selection of pitcher Ross Detwiler that the other players taken that day ended up being little more than blurry afterthoughts.
Oh sure, second-round pick Jake Smolinksi and third rounder Steven Souza were known commodities, but by the fourth round you often find organizational-type players who fill holes in the minor league system until someone better comes along.
From 1999 through 2004, the best players drafted in the fourth round were pitchers Jonathan Papelbon and Cliff Lee. The rest were mostly marginal fourth-outfielder types and starting pitchers who ended up in the bullpen, if they even made it to the major leagues at all.
Only one out of four players drafted in the fourth round from 1999-2004 made it to the major leagues, and less than four percent became everyday players. It’s no wonder 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 hope of a major league career.
Or so we all thought.
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 nearby powerhouse Wichita State, and when he was drafted by the Nationals, he began to prepare for his first semester in college. Norris didn't think he would ever sign with Washington and wasn’t sure he really wanted to.
He believed he was a second-round baseball player, and expected second-round money, something he was unlikely to get from the then tightfisted front office.
But one night, Nationals’ representative Bob Boone showed up at the Norris family’s front 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 Derek 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.
Being diplomatic goes a long way in Washington.
He spent his first season with the Gulf Coast Nationals, which better resembles a baseball academy than a professional minor league club. 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 Englishmen go out in the noon-day sun."
The 18-year-old didn't do terribly well during his first professional campaign, hitting just .203-4-15 in 123 at-bats. His .344 on-base and .382 slugging percentages weren't very good either. He struck out 30 percent of the time while walking just 17 percent.
However, he showed good defense behind the plate, and he was promoted to the New York Penn League's Vermont Lake Monsters in 2008. And there, his offensive production changed like the New England seasons.
In just 227 at-bats, Norris batted .278-10-38, and had 11 stolen bases. He walked 63 times (an all-time Lake Monsters record) while striking out just 56 times.
He had a .463 slugging percentage and his .444 on-base percentage led the league. He raised his walk rate from 16 percent of his appearances in 2007 to 22 percent in 2008, while dropping his strikeouts from 31 to just 24 percent.
Now 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 HR—85 RBI, 24 stolen bases, 144 walks, and 128 strikeouts.
Wait a minute: 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, and Patience: 100.
Wowsers. And he was a 19-year-old hitting against mostly 21 and 22-year-olds that had three or four years of college experience.
He was named that season to the Topps Rookie League All-Star Team, and Baseball America tapped him as Washington's No. 6 prospect. He was also designated as having the best plate discipline of all Nationals' prospects.
Norris' defense is getting better. He led the New York-Penn league in throwing out base runners with a 47 percent efficiency rate. That compares favorably with former National Brian Schneider, considered one the premier defensive catchers in baseball, who threw out 50 percent of base stealers that year.
Note that current Nationals’ catcher Jesus Flores, considered a solid defender, threw out just 36 percent of would-be base runners in 2008 and 42 percent last season.
Norris, however, acknowledges that his glove lags behind his bat. That makes sense, though, when you consider that he had never caught before his senior year in high school.
“My weakness is just catching the ball—simply just catching the ball," Norris said. "I'm not too worried about the passed balls (28 in 2009) or stuff like that; I've always done pretty well keeping in front of the ball. Mainly [I need to improve on] catching the ball and just staying focused."
Norris impressed team management last spring and was named the starting catcher for the Hagerstown Suns. There was a lot of pressure on the young man; it would be very difficult to duplicate his 2008 season, but if he didn't, he might find himself lingering in the low minors for quite some time.
Not to worry.
At the end of last season, South Atlantic League managers, general managers, sportswriters, and broadcasters selected him as the “Most Outstanding Major League Prospect” in the 16-team league.
Norris will begin 2010 with the High-A Carolina League’s Potomac Nationals, but he should reach Double-A Harrisburg by the end of the season. If he continues to have success, a year at Triple-A Syracuse should have him being at least close-to-ready for the Nationals in 2011.
Will he compete with Jesus Flores and Ivan Rodriguez in Washington in a couple of years?
Interestingly, the Nationals aren't sure they are going to keep Norris as a catcher. He has shown great speed for a catcher (decent speed for an infielder) and there is talk of perhaps moving him to first base or a corner outfield position. He was a third baseman before moving behind the plate.
But Norris isn't thinking that way. "No, I'm not looking to change any positions. I know my numbers look a little shaky at times, as far as passed balls and errors but I think that if I keep progressing from year to year I'll achieve what I want to achieve."
It all depends on whether Jesus Flores can remain healthy.
Derek Norris looks like the real deal. His manager at Hagerstown, former Nationals' catcher Matt LeCroy, sees him as a "Russell Martin" type. And that's pretty good considering Martin, in just four seasons, has been to an All Star game and has garnered both a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger award.
And LeCroy thinks he'll be an even better hitter.