Derek Norris has some big shoes to fill behind the plate after All-Star Wilson Ramos signed with Tampa Bay to play in the American League. The 27-year-old catcher is familiar with the Nationals organization, having been drafted by them in 2007, but he never made it to the big leagues in D.C. Instead, he bounced around on the West Coast for five years, spending three years in Oakland and two more in San Diego before being traded back to the Nats, who sent Pedro Avila to the Padres. Wilson Ramos provided much needed offense for Washington last season, picking up the slack from struggling players like Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman, and his offensive production will surely be missed. That being said, while Norris has struggled on offense, he could still be a good replacement for Ramos.
In five big league seasons, Norris has a .233 AVG and a .689 OPS. While he has hit 14 home runs in both of the previous two seasons, Norris has seen his offensive production dip in the past few years. Last year, he batted only .186, and had a meager .255 OBP while putting up only 55 wRC+ (100 being league average and 60 according to FanGraphs is “Awful”) and slugging .328. Last year, he was worth a career worst -0.4 fWAR after averaging 2.4 fWAR in the previous three seasons.
Norris’s best year was 2014 in Oakland, where his slash line was an excellent .270/.361/.403. He put up 2.6 fWAR that season, along with an excellent 123 wRC+ in 127 games and 442 innings. He also hit 10 homers that year and drove in 55 runs. So what was the big difference between Norris’s 2014 and 2016?
One thing that immediately jumps out are his K% and BB%. In 2014, Norris put up an excellent 19.5 K%, and an 12.2 BB% (compared to the league average 20.4% for strikeouts and 7.6% for walks.) Norris was better than league average in terms of BB/K ratio in 2013 (0.52 compared to the league average 0.40) and well above average in 2014 (0.63 compared to 0.37) but the past two years have seen a drastic shift in his approach at the plate. His strikeout rate shot way up to 23.5% in 2015, and even more up to 30.3% in 2016. For perspective, Danny Espinosa had a similar 29.8 K% last year. If Norris can get back to his lower strikeout and higher walk rates of 2013 and 2014, his production offensively should increase as well, at least back to respectable levels.
Where Norris could be an improvement is on defense and on the basepaths. While he may have had his two best offensive seasons in 2013 and 2014, Norris has had his best defensive and baserunning seasons in San Diego the last two years. He has an excellent above average arm, and is extremely accurate, and as a result has managed to throw out 40% of would-be base stealers in the last two years, including an incredible 52% in 2015. Of qualified MLB catchers, only 5 had positive DRS last year. Norris saved seven runs on defense last year, putting him in the company of Salvador Perez, Welington Castillo, and Buster Posey. Last year Ramos had -2 DRS, so the Nats should gain 9 net DRS with the addition of Norris.
Norris is also widely seen as an excellent pitch framer, a skill that has been seen as more and more important in recent years. According to Statcorner, Norris’ framing got his pitchers 0.38 extra calls per game. While it might not seem like a lot, Ramos actually lost Nationals pitchers -0.12 calls per game. Norris also framed 7.8% oStr% which is the percentage of pitches, caught outside the strike zone, that were called strikes. Combined with Jose Lobaton (10.6 oStr% and 1.34 calls per game) the Nationals now have two elite framing catchers. How much of an impact could this have on the rotation? It’s no coincidence that a number of playoff teams had excellent oStr% catchers, the Dodgers had Grandal, the Indians had Perez, and the Cubs had Montero and Ross. All three teams were successful in the playoffs and had excellent rotations, and had elite catchers in terms of framing.
Norris also contributed on the basepaths last year with a career high 9 steals while only getting caught 2 times. He brings some speed and skill to baserunning, and he put up 1.8 BsR, FanGraph’s overall baserunning metric, which was the second most of his career. His baserunning is a major improvement over Ramos last year (-6.9 BsR) and his ability to play first base provides additional depth in case of injury.
While Norris has struggled offensively the last few years, he provides significant improvement in terms of baserunning, defense, and pitch framing. Combined with Jose Lobaton, who also ranks highly in terms of framing and defense, the Nationals will have one of the best defensive catcher platoons in the majors. That being said, the emergence of Pedro Severino last year in the regular and postseasons complicate matters, as Severino has impressed in his time in the big leagues, and the trio will have to compete for spots on the major league roster.
With Severino as a more offensive catcher and Lobaton and Norris more defensively focused, the Nationals have flexibility behind the plate. While they might not be able to match Ramos’ 2016 production at the plate, the Nationals will almost certainly be better at framing and running the bases this year. If Norris can get back close to his offensive skills from 2013 and 2014 by reducing his strikeout rates and increasing his walk rates, all while not sacrificing his defensive gains, he will be well worth the $4.2M he is owed this year. He might not be the Buffalo, but he could still be a great addition to the Nationals this year, and he’ll finally get the chance to play for the team that drafted and developed him.