Norris Working Hard At The Plate And Behind It

GREENSBORO, N.C.—Greensboro righthander Johnny Dorn knew the scouting report on Hagerstown catcher Derek Norris when the two faced each other in mid-July. Norris was a patient hitter with a short stroke that produced power to all fields. Norris had just hit six homers in a four-game stretch to claim the home run and RBI lead in the South Atlantic League, and he was batting over .300. He was the only dangerous hitter in the Suns' lineup.

So Dorn proceeded with caution when the catcher came to bat in the first inning. He fed Norris a steady diet of breaking balls, almost all of them on the outer part of the plate. Norris calmly took them all for balls. But with the count 3-0, Dorn caught too much of the outside half of the plate. Norris went with the pitch and served a dribbler into the hole between the first and second basemen for a single.

"That was impressive," said a scout for an  American League club who could barely conceal his admiration for the young catcher. "Kids his age usually come out of their shoes when they finally get a good pitch to hit, but he kept his swing under control and didn't try to do too much with it."

The scout—and everyone else in the ballpark— was even more impressed with Norris' second at-bat. Emboldened after striking out the side in the second inning, Dorn faced Norris in the third and tried to sneak a fastball by him. Norris deposited the pitch onto the berm in left-center field for a two-run homer. When Norris came up again in the fourth inning with two outs and a runner on second base, he was intentionally walked.

Such is life for the best hitter in the Nationals' minor league system. Ever since a huge month of May, in which Norris hit .370, slugged eight homers and drove in 29 runs, opposing pitchers have been stingy with strikes.

"At the beginning of the year, (pitchers) would start out with a fastball on the outer half, then maybe throw an offspeed pitch and come back with another fastball," Norris said. "Now, they start off with a slider or offspeed pitch that isn't a strike or is a borderline strike. Then they'll come up and in to move me off the plate for the next pitch, a slider or curveball on the outer half. I don't get any fastballs down the middle anymore."

Norris credits his hitting coach in Hagerstown, former big leaguer Tony Tarasco, for keeping him focused and patient.

"The main goal is to get a good pitch to hit and not trying to make things happen," Norris said. "You need to let the ball come to you and just let the game take over."

Playing Catch Up

Norris is more inexperienced than most of his peers in the South Atlantic League. Not only is he just 20 years old, but he was drafted out of high school in Goddard, Kan., where the weather keeps baseball seasons short. Regardless, his game has few holes. The only knock against him has been his catching, which has lagged behind his bat ever since the Nationals made him a fourth-round pick in 2007.

Nationals minor league catching instructor Bobby Henley said that's mostly because his bat is so advanced. Norris proved to the Nationals he had the chops to catch in the big leagues when he reported to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

"He had the opportunity to catch 14 games in the Gulf Coast League, which isn't a lot but enough to let us see all the tools," Henley said. "Derek is athletic, smart, has a strong body and a good enough arm to play at the big league level one day. We knew there were a lot of good ingredients there to be a catcher."

Norris showed it last season, throwing out 47 percent of basestealers, the best percentage in the short-season New York-Penn League. His manager Matt LeCroy, an ex-big league catcher, has spent most of this season trying to get Norris to commit more to the position.

"He's such a special hitter that if he can learn to catch, and be good at it, he's going to play a long time in the big leagues," LeCroy said. "He's starting to catch onto that. He comes into my office and talks to me about pitches and things that happened during a game. To me, that shows he's starting to realize there's more to baseball than just hitting."

Knowing The Game

Both Henley and LeCroy agree that Norris simply needs more experience to improve behind the plate. Simple things frustrate him now. He has struggled with receiving the ball, letting pitches pop out of his mitt from time to time. LeCroy said Norris also worked on his footwork to help him get rid of the ball quicker on basestealing and pick-off attempts. But Norris already has shown he has the intangibles and instincts the position demands.

"He's got a good sense of the game," LeCroy said. "He knows when to talk to pitchers, which is amazing because that's one of the hardest things to learn. The more you move up, the more that becomes part of your job. You have to know all 12 pitchers forwards and backwards. You have to know when to chew them out and when to pat them on the back and when to slow the game down for the pitcher. He's done that so many times this year"

Now the challenge for Norris will be maintaining his high-level performance in the final months of the season. He's never come close to playing a 140-game season, and he plays the most physically demanding position on the field. LeCroy, however, is confident the 6-foot, 210 pound Norris can handle it.

"He's been pretty resilient all year," LeCroy said. "He's got a good build and he's a strong kid, so I don't think it'll be a problem. This is a good time of the season for him because he's going to have to learn to handle the grind of playing every day. Every day in the big leagues means every day."

And every day for Norris means another opportunity to get better behind the plate and, maybe, get a pitch or two he can drive.

Chris Gigley is a freelance baseball writer based in Greensboro, N.C.