Finally healthy, Derek Norris takes on the Arizona Fall League
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; 1:41 PM
When Nationals catching prospect Derek Norris arrived in the Florida Instructional League last month, he was amazed when he took his first few swings. Norris, the Nationals' top position player prospect before they drafted Bryce Harper, felt no pain in his left hand. His hand ached all season this year, and he had forgotten what it felt to swing without it hurting. "I really did," Norris said. "It's nice to swing a bat and not feel any pain." In a very small sample size so far in the Arizona Fall League, the difference shows. Norris, while facing mostly pitchers who played this year at Class AA, is 5 for 13 with four walks, a home run, a triple, a double and six strikeouts. On Tuesday night, he roped a triple to left-center in his first at-bat with his quick, powerful swing. It's been a refreshing start for Norris, who never felt 100 percent at Class A Potomac this season after a string of unfortunate events. Shortly after turning 21, Norris began spring training in major league camp. The Nationals realize now that may have been a mistake. Norris probably was not ready, and he did not get enough at-bats to find a rhythm. The start was not ideal, and Norris's season just got worse. At the end of spring training, he injured his left hand, which in the offseason had required surgery to remove a hamate bone. There was no correlation - "just a freak deal sliding into second," Norris said. But Norris, who missed several games, feels he rushed back, and the symptoms from the hamate surgery never fully went away until he arrived in the Instructional League. The scariest moment came in May, when a fastball struck Norris in the head and knocked him out. He was rushed to the hospital and suffered a concussion. He missed another week-plus of games, and he played only 94 total. "I mean, things happen," Norris said. "It's just how you bounce back. Obviously, people struggle. I did. I did a lot. Now that it's passed, I feel like I'm back where I need to be. I feel like I'm in a good place as far as physical concerns." Even for a down year, Norris did not lose his best asset at the plate: his batting eye. Despite hit .235 average, Norris walked 89 times in 399 plate appearances and punched up a .419 on-base percentage, the best in the Carolina League by 22 points. Norris's advanced, patient approach at the plate is his most valuable attribute. Norris's low batting average happened largely because of his 94 strikeouts. Many of those were actually a byproduct of his strike-zone discipline. To keep Norris from getting frustrated, they told him not to expand his strike zone: They believe that he was a better judge of the strike zone than many of the umpires in the Carolina League. "Honestly, I would much rather him ring me up on strike three than start swinging at it knowing it's going to be a ball down the road, anyway," Norris said. "I just kind of go about my business the way I'm comfortable. It's just kind of how I go about it. "From all the years of playing, for me, 99 percent of the time, whenever I see a pitch, I know whether it's a ball or strike. If we had the Quiz Tec or whatever it is that does the pitches, I feel like if we had that in A ball, I could go back and look at it and be about 99 percent right." At the end of the year, Norris didn't mind what the approach made some of his stats look like. Norris, unlike many young players, grasps that on-base percentage is a far more meaningful measure than batting average. "Ultimately, in the team end, as far as the team aspect of things, it's good for somebody to have a high on-base percentage," Norris said. "I'm not really a huge numbers guy, stats and all that. It's good to have a high average. Home runs and RBIs, those are all good. Virtually, those are numbers that are going to get you arbitration money. That's pretty much all they are. But in the end, in the team aspect - slugging, on-base, scoring a lot of runs." Now that he's healthy, Norris will likely improve all his other numbers, too. Scouts rave about his compact swing. But then, the Nationals, even after his batting average dipped this year, have never worried about his offense. "He's always hit the ball," Scottsdale/Class AA Harrisburg Manager Randy Knorr said. The thing Norris is focused on most in Arizona is his catching defense. He has made improvements over his career, but some scouts wonder if he has the footwork to become a major league catcher. He was "shaky" in his first game catching, Knorr said, "but he made some improvement catching already." On Tuesday night, he allowed a stolen base on a throw well wide of second and let a curveball trickle through his legs. Norris is determined to prove he can and will be a catcher in the majors. His primary mission in the fall league is "just to keep proving the doubters," Norris said. "There's always been doubts about my defense. Can he be durable behind the plate? I feel like I can. I'm out here just to prove to everybody that I can do that. Just trying to give everybody a good look at all the tools I worked so hard to accomplish." If Norris remains a catcher, he faces a challenging path to the majors. The Nationals traded for Wilson Ramos, a defensive stud with potential for power, and installed him as their likely catcher of the future. Jesus Flores, after missing an entire season with complications from a shoulder injury, encouragingly turned heads in the Instructional League. Norris is not concerned about any of that. "Everybody has got competition throughout the organization," Norris said. "Starting pitchers with Strasburg, closing pitchers with Storen. You can go on and on and on. Everybody has competition you have to beat out and out-perform. That's just the way I'm going to go about it, just play the game the right way. I think if you just continue to play the right way, play hard, I think everything should work for itself." For now, Norris is happy to be healthy and to be here in Arizona, surrounded by some of the sport's most promising prospects. At 21, Norris is one of the younger players in the league. He knows, even after a challenging season, that he belongs. "The level of play - the way I've always been is, rise to the occasion," Norris said. "The best is on the mound, so I perform the best. This crew around here really suits me. I'm real comfortable around the clubhouse. It's real nice."