Prospect of the Day: Derek Norris, C, Oakland Athletics
The Oakland Athletics promoted catching prospect Derek Norris to the majors last week, and he's off to a solid start so far, 10-for-30 (.333) with two homers. Obviously it is time to name him Prospect of the Day.
Norris was drafted by the Washington Nationals in the fourth round in 2007, from high school in Goddard, Kansas. He was considered a promising power hitter with raw defensive tools. He hit just .203 in rookie ball, but showed some patience and power potential, posting a .344 OBP and a .382 SLG. Moved up to the New York-Penn League for 2008, he took a huge step forward by hitting .278/.444/.463 with an incredible 63 walks in 70 games.
Bumped up to Low-A Hagerstown for 2009, he hit .286/.413/.513 with 23 homers and 90 walks in 437 at-bats, with 116 strikeouts. Scouting reports were oddly mixed; some scouts really loved his power and patience, but some felt his swing was too long. Same thing with his defense: some felt he was going to turn into a solid receiver, others felt he was destined for first base.
At High-A Potomac in 2010, Norris hit .235/.419/.419 in 94 games, hampered by a broken hamate and a beaning. The batting average and isolated power drops were disappointing, but he also drew 89 walks. He continued to struggle with the batting average in 2011, hitting just .210 in 104 games in Double-A, but he also hit 20 homers and 77 walks, for a .367 OBP/.446 SLG, while making further progress with his defense.
Traded to Oakland in the Gio Gonzalez deal, he was hitting .273/.331/.474 in 55 games for Triple-A Sacramento before his promotion.
Norris is a 6-0, 220 pound right-handed hitter and thrower, born February 14, 1989 in Goddard. Despite his size, he is a good athlete and runs well for a catcher. He's a good baserunner and can swipe a base if the defense gets lazy; he's 18-for-22 with steals over his last 159 minor league games. His athleticism helps on defense, where he features a strong throwing arm and has caught 39% of runners trying to steal on him in the minors.
He was very raw early in his career, but his footwork and reliability have all improved. He still needs some work with blocking, but it is better than it used to be, and his error rates have gone way down: his fielding percentages have improved in a steady manner (.953 in '07, .976 in '08, .979 in '09, .988 in '10, .991 in '11, .996 in '12). This linear progression perfectly matches the scouting reports of better reliability and greater situational awareness. His passed ball rates haven't improved as quickly, but overall there is little doubt that Norris will remain behind the plate and be a positive defensive asset. His leadership and field generalship skills are respected.
Norris has two big assets as a hitter: patience and power. His swing has not looked long in games I have seen; it is actually fairly compact. He can be fooled by breaking stuff and changeups at times, and for all of his patience, he can be overaggressive on occasion. He swings and misses a lot and will always be prone to strikeouts. Don't expect Norris to hit for average, but he is dangerous on any sort of mistake pitch, and his ability to coax walks helps him keep his OBP at reasonable levels even if he's in a basehit drought.
Norris reminds me of two catchers from Oakland's past: Gene Tenace and Mickey Tettleton, who leveraged similar skill sets into long careers.