You Actually Will Believe Who Signed Derek Norris

Earlier this offseason, the Rays signed the player who served as last year’s starting catcher for the Washington Nationals, Wilson Ramos. Ramos & Co. produced 4.4 WAR from the catcher spot last season for the Nats, the position’s second-most production.

Over the weekend, the Rays reportedly agreed to terms with Derek Norris, a player with whom the Nationals recently cut ties for an arguably inferior catcherMatt Wieters. (Wieters projects to produce 0.7 bWARP — a metric that includes framing value — in 2017, Norris 1.1 bWARP.) As to why Washington might make such a curious decision, there are a number of theories. One possible explanation, however, is the relative chumminess of Wieters’ agent with Nationals ownership.

So, in summary, the Rays now have the Nationals’ starting catcher from a year ago, and one of Nats’ top replacement options for Ramos as recently as a month ago.

The Rays’ interest in Norris was one of the more seemingly inevitable news items in recent weeks, as the devoutly analytical club otherwise appeared ready to enter the season with only inexperienced catchers — a combination of Curt Casali, Luke Maile and Jesus Sucre — from which to choose as they patiently wait for Ramos to return from the torn ACL he suffered last September.

Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reports that the one-year deal is worth “less than $2 million.”

Writes Topkin:

Signing Norris gives the Rays a more experienced option behind the plate …. Norris has made 446 big-league starts for Oakland and San Diego, Casali has made 116, Sucre 77 and Maile 43.

He chose the Rays over several other teams based on the opportunity for more playing time.

Perhaps the signing also speaks to the team becoming more conservative — or pessimistic, perhaps — regarding Ramos’s timetable to return behind the plate. MLB.com reported last month that Ramos might not be able to catch until August.

But the Rays are also undoubtedly intrigued by Norris due to his framing. Norris ranked 10th in framing runs last season, according to Baseball Prospectus, and ninth in 2015.

But if we drill a little deeper, what’s interesting about Norris’ framing ability is he seems to be as adept framing elevated pitches as lower ones. Here’s Norris getting a call well above the zone against Brandon Belt last season:

Of interest to the author is that Norris ranked eighth in baseball last season in called strikes that were outside the zone and above the belt, according to Statcast data. While pitches down in the zone are easier and more often successfully framed, Norris turned 317 should-have-been balls into strikes that were elevated pitches above the zone last season.

Why does this matter? Because of Tampa Bay’s Cult of the High Fastball.

No team threw more elevated fastballs than the Rays did a year ago, which should position the club ahead of the curve as more and more batters are countering the trend of the sinking, low-in-the zone fastballs about which Jeff Sullivan wrote earlier this spring. One problem with the philosophy — beyond the possibility of allowing more home runs — is that elevated pitches are more difficult to frame. But Norris should help allow more of those pitches be called as strikes.

Casali rated as a below-average framer in a small sample of work last season, as did Sucre. Maile rated slightly above average.

We don’t know if Norris will hit. He’s coming off a dreadful offensive season during which he posted a 55 wRC+. His once keen batting eye eroded, leading to something nearer a league-average walk rate, while his strikeout rate spiked to a career-worst 30.3% mark, leading to an unsightly .186 batting average. Norris was, in fact, baseball’s worst hitter. Norris was significantly worse as a hitter than Freddy Galvis and Jason Heyward last season. So he’s probably not some sort of two-way impact savior behind the plate. If you’re looking for reasons to believe that there’s some rebound imminent, Norris posted a wRC+ of 123 as recently as 2014 and a 97 mark in 2015. His career wRC+ is 93. He’s a fly-ball hitter with a 10.3% HR/FB ratio for his career, so he should benefit from a move to the AL East.

We don’t know if he will hit — and, by that, I mean we don’t if he’ll hit at all. We don’t know yet how the Rays plan to divide playing time among Norris and their other internal options until Ramos is ready. While Norris would perhaps fit better as a reserve at this point in his career, the Rays are simply looking for a placeholder until Ramos is ready.

What we do know is the glove will play, and the glove at catcher is one of the more important tools in the game. We do know Norris’s glove stands to give the Rays an edge at the margins, which they’re always seeking. What we do know his glove should fit quite well into the team’s high-fastball preference and philosophy. What we do know is that, if any team was going to look at Norris as a potential value-adding fit, it was the Rays.





A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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HappyFunBallmember
5 years ago

Worst clickbait title ever

Luy
5 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Why is this getting downvotes? The title is clearly a parody of “You’ll never believe…” clickbait.

It really seems like it is intentionally (and humorously) the worst clickbait title ever.