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Derek Norris adds defensive depth at catcher

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From a baseball standpoint, Norris provides usable depth at catcher.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Detroit Tigers
Derek Norris contimplates switching beard oil brands.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers added some depth to their catching corps when they signed veteran backstop Derek Norris to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training. Moral issues aside, this is a buy-low depth move to add a serviceable and experienced receiver to the Tigers catching ranks that consists of incumbent starter James McCann, surprising call-up John Hicks, and a host of unproven recent draftees, led by Grayson Greiner who will likely begin his season in Triple-A Toledo.

Norris, who will turn 29 in February, has five years of MLB service time under his belt with several organizations. A fourth round draft pick by the Washington Nationals in 2007, he was traded to the Oakland Athletics in 2011 as part of a package for Gio Gonzalez. After working his way to the majors thanks to a breakout in 2013, Norris served as the primary catcher in Oakland in 2014 and made the AL All-Star team. He was then traded to the San Diego Padres in 2015 in their push to contention that also saw them bring in former Tiger Justin Upton.

However, Norris was unable to replicate the offensive outburst that made him so desirable, culminating in a disastrous .186/.255/.328 line over 458 plate appearances in 2016. He was traded back to Washington after the 2016 season. After a poor start and a late signing of Matt Weiters, the Nationals released Norris during spring training in 2017. He was scooped up by the Tampa Bay Rays a week later. He was unable to put together any kind of consistent offense, though, and he hit just .201/.258/.389 in nearly 200 plate appearances before being released again in late June.

Leading up to and including his All-Star year, Norris had a fantastic eye for the strike zone. He averaged a 12 percent walk rate, with an average strikeout rate of around 22 percent in his first three years in the big leagues. After he left Oakland, he began walking less and striking out more, perhaps in an attempt to generate more power. His walk rate dropped to seven percent and his strikeouts jumped to over 25 percent, but he only had a slight uptick in isolated power (ISO) over his All-Star year. In 2017, he managed to slug nine home runs in his 198 plate appearances in Tampa, so he still has plenty of pop, but struggles to connect consistently.

Defensively, Norris has graded out as an above-average receiver behind the dish. While he doesn’t throw out the number of runners McCann does, he’s not terrible in that regard, and is a much better pitch framer. They draw even in blocking grades.

It should be noted that the numbers in the chart below for Norris in 2017 are a partial season, so small sample size rules are a factor. But based on career averages, Norris should be a solid receiver.

Defensive catching metrics comparison

Caught Stealing % Framing runs Blocking Runs
Caught Stealing % Framing runs Blocking Runs
McCann 2016 45% 0.1 1.1
Norris 2016 21% 8.9 0.2
McCann 2017 30% -15 -2.8
Norris 2017 20% -0.4 -1.5
McCann Career 37% -10.3 -0.28
Norris Career 25% 3.1 -0.27
Data provided by Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Reference

Offensively, given Norris’ track record, hoping for a return to glory is a long shot here. At best, he will provide some offensive pop here and there should he make the team out of spring training. There’s a decent chance he will, as his primary competition is John Hicks. Hicks burst onto the scene last year thanks to a McCann injury and held his own. Hicks split his time between catcher and first base, thanks to nagging injuries to Cabrera and a hot season from Alex Avila. Hicks played so little at catcher that his metrics aren’t worth studying. He bears much of the same numbers as Norris in terms of plate discipline and power, but his overall line is better thanks to a lofty .342 BABIP. This is probably unsustainable, especially since he hit 50 percent of his balls in play on the ground. Norris is very much a fly ball hitter, possibly due to trying to hit for power. Neither player is likely to supplant McCann as the everyday catcher, barring a trade.

Hicks is out of minor league options, so if he doesn’t make the team out of spring training, he will have to go through waivers to be sent down. This could mean the decision on Norris making the team could go down to the final weeks of camp. Should he make the team, he should provide a nice receiving option to pair with a young pitching staff. This is a depth move and he will have to earn his keep, in more ways than one.