Derek Norris has flourished since he left the Nationals organization, but not as much as his hair. His unkempt beard stretches to the “Oakland” across his uniform. His woolly mane spills halfway down his back.
“It’s just more relaxed,” Norris said. “With Washington, they manage more things. Pants up, cut the facial hair, don’t lengthen hair. Things are very strictly structured throughout the organization. When I went over to Oakland, it was just kind of like, ‘Be who you want to be. Play however most comfortable you are, whether it’s with a beard, a mullet, whatever it is.’
Three years after the Nationals traded Norris and three other prospects for Gio Gonzalez, Norris made his first all-star game. He traveled to Minnesota as part of the Athletics’ seven-player contingent, which included newly acquired Jeff Samardzija. Norris reached the majors in 2012, made it back last season and entrenched himself this year. So far, he’s hitting .294/.402/.477 with eight homers.
While Gonzalez has become one of the game’s best left-handed starters, the trade has been just as fruitful for Oakland. Tommy Milone has been solid for them, but Samardzija’s arrival pushed him back to Class AAA. They used Brad Peacock in a trade to acquire Jed Lowrie, and they used A.J. Cole – who returned to the Nationals – to deal for John Jaso.
For the A’s, Norris has been the biggest remaining prize of the Gonzalez trade. And for Norris, the trade was personally beneficial.
“They let you be who you want to be and express yourself in different ways. I think that’s the No. 1 thing. If you’re comfortable in your own skin, you’re going to play the best you can possibly play.”
During his time in Oakland, Norris has changed himself as a hitter. He was an on-base machine in the Nationals’ system, focusing on walks and power. In his last two seasons, he hit .235 at Class A Potomac and .210 at Class AA Harrisburg with .419 and .367 on-base percentages. The A’s liked his ability to reach base, but once he arrived there, he realized he needed to change.
“Being able to walk and get on-base, that gave me the opportunity to go over to Oakland,” Norris said. “Ever since I’ve been there, I’ve changed my approach. I’ve kind of developed myself into being an all-around hitter. It was just a part of growing up and getting older, just maturing as a ballplayer.
“Coming up through, being a young kind, you want to try to hit home runs, home runs, home runs. As I kind of got older and start to know my body more, I have zero power compared to some of these guys. [Josh] Donaldson and [Yoenis] Cespedes and all these guys, they embarrass me in batting practice. It gets to the point where, you’re a line drive hitter. That’s what you need to be. It took me a while to make that adjustment, but once I did, I became more comfortable with myself.”