For two or three days, I’ve been sitting around, waiting for the Nationals to make a big trade. This isn’t the one I was expecting, but, the hell with it, as long as I’m here anyway, the Nationals have picked up Derek Norris from the Padres, at the cost of Pedro Avila. Avila is as 19 as any other 19-year-old, and last year he was fine as a low-level starting pitcher. You know the rest of this. Intriguing stuff, many years away. I will not be discussing Avila again in this post.
Norris is the more interesting of the two. The Nationals wanted a catcher to pair with Jose Lobaton, and Norris can slide right in for cheap. The Nationals will have him for two years if they want, and this year he’ll cost about $4 million. Not much. But, the thing I didn’t expect: Norris was baseball’s worst hitter last season.
That is, if you go by results, and if you set a minimum of 400 plate appearances. The minimum is arbitrary, so, you might say someone else was worse. But Norris did the least with the most playing time. I’m not sure how that escaped my attention as it was playing out, but actually, yes, I am sure how, because Norris played for the Padres, and why would I have been paying attention to them? Norris was dreadful, as you can see in this table.
He finished 203rd out of 203. It was an extremely brutal offensive season, and, related to that, Norris had a career-worst strikeout rate. Yet, it wasn’t all terrible. Fancy yourself an optimist? I like to subtract soft-hit rate from hard-hit rate. Here is a selection from that leaderboard, with the same 400-PA minimum.
No one’s impressed by being close to Marwin Gonzalez, but, Anthony Rizzo? Robinson Cano? Carlos Santana? Wilson Ramos was actually right after Cano. By this measure alone, Norris’ contact was just like Ramos’ contact. The point being, Norris didn’t fall completely apart. He can still sting the baseball, and his career wRC+ is almost league-average. The Nationals assume there’ll be a bounceback, just as Ramos’ three-year wRC+ marks went from 93 to 63 to 124. Like Norris, the bad, 2015 version of Ramos had a career-high strikeout rate. Last year he was one of the Nationals’ more valuable players.
And Baseball Prospectus also considers Norris something of a defensive plus. While he’s not much for throwing out runners, Norris has put together two strong years of receiving, and it stands to reason that should continue into Washington. Acknowledging that we have no idea if Norris actually calls a good game — he seems above-average defensively, and at the plate, he’s been above-average before. This is a pretty painless buy-low, even if it seemingly removes the Nationals from the justifiably perplexing Ramos free-agent sweepstakes. His tale is a sad one, but the Nationals had to move on.
From the Padres’ perspective, easy space has been cleared for Austin Hedges, who deserves this opportunity. And for Norris, while he still won’t be a full-time catcher, at least now his 2017 job share will come with a contender instead of with a rebuilder. That’s not bad news to take a man into a weekend.