“Get up. Get down. Get up again. Get down. Come up throwing. Take the chest protector off. Take the shin guards off. Hit. Put them back on. Go back behind the plate and repeat the process. Catching just breaks a man down, inning by inning, game by game, year by year.” – Reggie Jackson
“As much rest as I can get my everyday catcher, the better off we all will be in August and September.” – Joe Torre
The San Diego Padres have a bit of a history with catchers who’ve carried exhaustive workloads over the course of seasons past.
Benito Santiago, for example, caught 152 games for the Padres in 1991.
Brad Ausmus, who had his major league debut with the Friars in 1993 and played with them through ’96, caught 150 games for the Detroit Tigers in the 2000 season, and then returned as the Padres’ Special Assistant to Baseball Operations from 2010-2013.
Which brings us to the subject of Derek Norris, currently a Top 5 All Star vote-getter and a triumphant deviation from “Nichols’ Law of Catcher Defense” which states that a catcher’s defensive reputation is inversely proportional to his offensive abilities.
Derek not only leads the majors in throwing runners out this year with 23, he leads the NL in doubles with 18 and has 61 hits to date. So by every measure, he’s been everything A.J. Preller envisioned he’d be – and then some – when he came over from the Oakland A’s.
But here’s the rub: Of the 64 games that the Padres have played thus far, he’s played in 60 of them – and been behind the plate for 56. And we’re basically just a third of the way into the season.
A first-blush look at his numbers reveals clutch hits, home runs, and even a walk-off grand slam to burnish his All Star-worthy credentials. But a deeper inspection shows a pretty steep 33-point drop in his batting average over the past three weeks, along with an increase in strikeouts.
That’s consistent with trends observed in Salvador Perez of the Kansas City Royals who caught 150 games in 2014 prior to the playoffs, and whose declining offensive production is chronicled in a a great piece called “Catcher Fatigue: Did the Royals Break Salvador Perez?” by Matt Jackson of “Beyond the Box Score” (http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2015/1/20/7852233/royals-catcher-salvador-perez-breaks-down-catcher-fatigue).
Jackson referenced a 2013 Vanderbilt University study that showed how MLB hitters chase pitches outside the strike zone with far greater frequency in the last month of the season than they do in the first month. He went on to illustrate how Perez made less contact on pitches outside the zone, lost distance on fly balls, and increased his rate of infield fly balls.
Another great article on this topic (and where the opening quotes came from) is “Catcher Fatigue – The Cost of Donning the Tools of Ignorance” from Baseball Prospective (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=8706). Written by Ben Lindbergh (now with Grantland) the piece reveals some very similar findings – even though the article’s from 2009. Ben references numbers from statistician Bil Burke, who analyzed OPS+ data over the course of consecutive days caught from Day 1 through 8.
Now, let’s relate all of this back to Norris. According to MLB.com, he hit .313 in April, .260 in May, and is hitting .220 in June. As of Saturday night’s win over the Dodgers (thank you, Justin Upton!), Derek has 6 BB and 9 SO over 41 ABs in the last 10 games. And for the record, has only one double, but three home runs and 7 RBIs.
Therein lies the conundrum for Buddy Black: despite the decline, Derek’s become a crucial, proven stalwart both behind and at the plate.
Yet his invaluableness to the lineup each day is the very thing that could hasten his vulnerability to a further falloff in production, to fatigue issues, and to the grueling physical demands of a position which inspired Bob Brenly of the San Francisco Giants to say: ”By the end of the season, I feel like a used car.”
That, fellow Padres fan, is the last thing we want to see and hear from Derek Norris if this team is fortunate enough to still be in contention at the end of the season.