The Troubling Derek Norris Trend

The San Diego Padres were the most active team in baseball last winter, as newly-minted general manager A.J. Preller put his mark on the franchise with a mind-numbing mass of moves that aimed to quickly turn the Padres into a contender, mostly by injecting a bevy of ever-coveted right-handed power bats into a previously punchless lineup.

The plan didn’t work, for a host of reasons neither here nor there, and now a new plan has emerged. Justin Upton walked to free agency, Craig Kimbrel was shipped off to Boston, Wil Myers got out of center field, and Preller might not be done jettisoning the very players he acquired last year, the ones who were supposed to form The Next Good Padres Team.

Last week, Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News reported that the Texas Rangers continue to covet an upgrade at catcher, though their top target may not be Milwaukee’s Jonathan Lucroy, as previously expected, but rather Padres’ backstop Derek Norris. The Rangers like Norris because he’s cheaper than Lucroy, he’s got an extra year on his contract, and the Padres have more pieces that could be packaged together with Norris to make for a potential blockbuster deal.

While Norris may not be the same caliber player as a healthy Lucroy, he would presumably offer an upgrade over Texas incumbent Robinson Chirinos, both behind the plate and with the bat, while also providing much-needed depth. But the glove has only been a plus for one year — Norris graded as a well below-average pitch-framer before last season — and the deeper you look into the bat, the less promising it becomes. And evidently, pitchers around the league agree.

The way pitchers choose to attack hitters can tell us quite a bit about their opposition in the batter’s box. By simply looking at how often pitchers work in the zone against particular batters, we could’ve seen the Chris Davis breakout coming from a mile away. As the 2012 season went on — long before Davis was an imposing 50-homer threat — pitchers saw something in Davis that struck fear in their heart, and they responded to that fear by placing their pitches further and further away from the strike zone’s heart. On the flip side of that coin, two of the four batters with the largest increase in percentage of pitches seen in the zone last year were Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval — perhaps the two biggest disappointments in baseball. Ramirez dealt with injuries for much of the year, while Sandoval’s struggles were more confounding. No matter the cause, pitchers took notice, and they pounced.

What’s concerning, as it relates to Norris, is the company he’s kept in that regard. No, it’s not Chris Davis; the player sandwiched between Ramirez and Sandoval on last year’s zone rate increase leaderboard was Norris, who’s quietly coming off a rather substantial offensive decline himself.

Largest zone% increase, 2014-15 (min. 400 PA)

  1. Gerardo Parra, +2.7%
  2. Hanley Ramirez, +2.5%
  3. Derek Norris, +2.5%
  4. Pablo Sandoval, +2.2%
  5. Freddie Freeman, +2.0%

Not only did pitchers start pounding the zone against Norris without hesitation, but they did so without the help of their secondary pitches:

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 10.09.22 AM

That’s Norris’ rate of fastballs seen, by month, over the last two years. In 2014, when Norris was mashing, things remained steady all year. In 2015, pitchers picked back up where they left off, except the more they saw of Norris, the more willing they were to give him the heat, and without feeling the need to work outside of the zone. Norris’ increase in fastball rate was the 10th-largest from 2014-15. His increase in zone rate was the third-largest. By the end of the year, Norris was seeing as many fastballs as Dee Gordon and DJ LeMahieu. As many pitches in the zone as Ben Revere and Brock Holt. In the eyes of the pitchers, Norris had been relegated to slap-hitter status — or a least that’s how they attacked him.

Perhaps more troubling is that Norris was seemingly healthy all year. Not that the Rangers and their fans would prefer their trade target to be one coming off an injury-plagued season, but they might be brought comfort by an explanation for the league’s sudden nonchalance when Norris came to bat. Nobody saw a greater increase in fastballs last year than Victor Martinez, and perhaps nobody in baseball was more obviously affected on the field by injuries than Martinez. Martinez clearly wasn’t himself, and so he didn’t get pitched like himself. A healthy Martinez doesn’t get pitched like last year’s version, so there’s reason to expect a return to the norm, given the injuries are in the past.

With Norris, that expectation doesn’t exist, because we’ve little reason to believe Norris is any different now than he was in September of last year. Aside from the typical assortment of maladies that cause every player to miss a game here and there throughout the course of a season, there’s nothing of note to be found on Norris’ RotoWorld news log from last year, physically speaking. He never hit the disabled list, and appeared in 147 games.

So what sparked the change? Well, Norris’s slugging percentage against fastballs dropped 60 points, but that’s to be expected, given what we know about the changes in approach against him. What might be more telling is looking at what he did when he put those fastballs in play, or rather, where he put them. Norris does his damage to the pull field, and this was no less true last year. His 210 wRC+ to the pull field in 2015 was right in line with his career average of 208. What Norris doesn’t do is damage to the opposite field — career 69 wRC+. In order to be successful, Norris needs to get around on the ball, and with that in mind, here’s an image comparing fastballs put in the air from 2014 to 2015:

NorrisVsFastballs

You can see the authority on the left. Look at the line drives in the corner and in the power alley from 2014, and then the weak opposite-field fly balls and pop ups in 2015. Could just be a decline in bat speed or overall comfort, which could be the effect of any number of causes upon which I couldn’t begin to speculate.

I don’t know why the book on Norris became what it is, but the book’s print is bold faced with giant letters. Norris’ offensive decline was due almost entirely to a once-elite walk rate that was nearly chopped in half, and it wasn’t because he was chasing more (although he was), it was because pitchers were seemingly unafraid to put fastballs over the plate and challenge Norris to try and beat them. Against Norris, pitchers worked comfortably.

As for the Rangers, I’m not sure how much of an upgrade Norris actually provides behind the plate, which is part of the reason why it makes sense for Texas to make this deal about Tyson Ross instead of just about Norris, as Dave Cameron suggested, if they choose to go down this route at all. Like Chirinos, Norris shows a pretty substantial platoon split, so they’d just be adding another right-handed catcher who struggles against right-handed pitchers, and one with a pretty terrifying trend in how he’s being pitched. Norris would provide a safety net of depth, and perhaps a defensive upgrade, but I’m not sold this would actually move the needle. The original plan was Jonathan Lucroy. Lucroy comes with his own concerns, and comes with a more substantial cost, but even at the price, I’d feel more confident going back to Plan A.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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wilkel
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wilkel

So you’re saying that because pitchers aren’t afraid of Norris, his drop in production last season is more likely to be sustainable? Not sure that just because pitchers think he’s bad means he actually is. Interesting trends though