Padres Editorial: Is Derek Norris a Bust?

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Mandatory Credit: UT San Diego
Mandatory Credit: UT San Diego

It was December 19th, 2014 and A.J. Preller was a busy man. Directly following the completions of trades that sent the Padres top two catchers, Yasmani Grandal, to the Dodgers for Matt Kemp, and Rene Rivera, to the Tampa Bay Rays as part of a bigger package for Wil Myers, Preller shipped out one of the Padres rising stars, pitcher Jesse Hahn, to Oakland in return for a 2014 all-star catcher Derek Norris.

Despite the youth of Yasmani Grandal, the catcher had clearly worn out his welcome with the Padres pitching staff and the time for a change was here. With Austin Hedges still developing in the minors surrounded by question marks about his inability to hit enough, Norris was picked as the catcher of the future.

Over the first two months of the season, Norris met everyone’s expectations and put up nearly as strong numbers as Grandal was putting up with the Dodgers early on. In April and May, Norris had a slash line of .283/.320/.451 with a wRC+ of 114 that put him near the top of the conversation to be an all-star for a second straight year. For comparison over the first two months of the 2014 season, Norris had a slash line of .283/.396/.475 with a wRC+ of 153. This shows that even with a good first half in 2015, Norris still was not at the same offensive level that he was at in 2014.

So far in the second half of the 2015 season, Derek Norris has had the same problem offensively that he had in the second half of the 2014 season. Following an enormous first half that earned Norris his first all-star appearance, he absolutely cratered in the second half and played a role in the Athletics large collapse. Derek Norris finished the second half last year with a slash line of .245/.314/.324 with a wRC+ of 86 compared to a first half wRC+ of 155. 2015 has been better for Norris in this regard but not by much.

While Norris decline began earlier in 2015, with a first half wRC+ of only 90 compared to 155 last year, his second half has been slightly stronger in 2015 than in 2014. Up to this point, Norris has a second half slash line of .263/.310/.383 with a wRC+ of 94 compared to last year’s 86. Norris has seen a similar decline in 2015 that he saw in 2014 although the gap is not as great this year given his below average first half. The thing that is evident this year is that Norris is walking less than he ever has before while striking out more than ever before. What these numbers show is that over the last year and a half, Norris has been a below average player at the catcher position.

Mandatory Credit: AP Photo
Mandatory Credit: AP Photo

Despite this sudden and steep decline in his offensive numbers, Norris has improved tremendously behind the plate on defense. Compared to negative defensive runs saved in 2014, Norris has actually been positive in 2015. Norris has also been rated better this year in terms of UZR as well as in more advanced pitch framing metrics such as plus calls and RAA. Beyond that Norris currently leads the league in runners caught stealing and has far exceeded his career high number set last year. Even with a large decline in offensive output, Norris has been able to compensate through a more polished defensive approach.

This situation creates a problem for the Padres for a multitude of reasons. The Padres brought in Norris to be an offensive force at the catcher position for years to come. The Padres already had a catcher who put defense first with poor performance on offense in Austin Hedges. Now it seems the Padres now have two below average offensive catchers that both play well defensively. It is becoming harder and harder to justify playing Norris over Hedges on a daily basis given Hedges superior defensive play and a closing gap between the two in terms of offensive output.

One thing is for certain for the 2016 Padres: the Austin Hedges/Derek Norris problem must be solved before opening day. The Padres either need to find a way to get both guys in the lineup, perhaps by moving Norris to first base more regularly, or they need to trade away one of the two players in order to ensure the other more playing time. After the first month or two of the season it looked like Derek Norris would be the catcher for the Padres for years. Sitting here four months later it is starting to seem like Derek Norris could just be another bust for the Padres.

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