The roster of NationalsProspects.com writers expands with MM, a 20-year-old student at George Mason University. Without further ado…
Catcher Derek Norris is not only one of the Nationals’ best position-player prospects; he is one of the best in all of baseball. Drafted in the 4th round of the 2007 MLB Draft out of a Kansas high school in Kansas, the 20-year-old Norris dazzled fans and scouts with a show of power that is rarely seen by catchers. His 23 HR on the season not only led all minor-league catchers. In fact, Joe Mauer was the only professional catcher to have more HR’s on the season (28 HR).
Derek Norris compares favorably to the minor league numbers from current catchers in the big leagues at the age of 20:
* Average age of the debut season for the C’s selected; 8 of the 29 qualified C were not in professional baseball at the age of 20
Norris’s age ranks him in the middle of the pack. Only 4 out of 21 players played all season in Low- A as Norris did. Twelve of these players played at Low-A or lower during their age-20 season. Thirteen of the players played at a higher level than Low-A during their age-20 season. Only one player, Ivan Rodriguez, was in the big leagues for his full age-20 season. Dioner Navarro was the only other catcher in this sample to appear in the big leagues at age 20.
The average age of debut is 23, though it’s a little skewed because a few of these catchers barely appeared in their big league debut. Norris will turn 21 this Sunday. He should be able to appear in the big leagues at 23 at the latest and possibly as soon as he’s 22.
Here is the Percentile Rank of where Norris ranks among the catchers in the sample:
Norris has the best numbers in five of these categories and is ranked in the top third in all seven. Norris beat out 14 out of 21 catchers in batting average and 19 of the catchers in slugging pct. It’s rare to see a catcher who put up prolific numbers like Norris did even if it was at a low level.
Norris’s best skill is his power. He ranks #1 in all the power indicators (HR, HR/PA%, SLG, ISO). Where Norris lags behind is his defense. There are questions about whether Norris can stay at catcher for the long-term. Norris had 18 errors and 28 passed balls in Hagerstown. But, Norris does have a strong arm. He threw out 36% of the base runners who attempted to steal on him. Only 14 of the catchers in the sample have CS% data in the minors, but Norris beats out nine of them.
There really isn’t a valid comparison for Norris in this sample. Only three of the catchers were within 50 OPS points of Norris. One of them, Bengie Molina, had a .892 OPS season with a .398 OBP. Ironically, Molina is now known for having terrible plate discipline and not taking a walk (13 in 520 PA in ’09).
One comparison I found is Carlos Santana, who hasn’t reached the big leagues yet. Here are the numbers that Santana put up last year in his age-23 season in AA, compared to Norris’s numbers:
Norris and Santana had the same or almost-identical numbers in every category. Both of them had similar batting eyes as they each had 90 BB on the season. Where Santana has the advantage is that he had better plate discipline. Santana had 86 strikeouts for a 15.5 K%, while Norris had 116 strikeouts for a 21.5 K%. They even had similar batted ball profiles. Santana had 37% of his balls in play on the ground and 19% for line drives, while Norris had a 36% GB% and 20% LD%.
While Santana accomplished this two levels higher than Norris, you can’t discount the three-year age gap between the two. At age 20, Santana split time between rookie ball and Low-A with an .815 OPS. At 21, he had a disappointing .688 OPS in Low-A. Santana broke out in 2008 at the age of 22. Santana had a .999 OPS in High-A while split between the Dodgers and Indians High-A affiliates. Santana has consistently been ranked higher than Norris in all prospect publications because he is at a higher level and because he has the potential to become a good defender.
Norris is a good bet to become an elite offensive catcher. Very few have had success like Norris has. But, Norris will lose a lot of his value if he has to move to 1B. Norris would go from a great prospect to just a good one. His OPS would rank in the 65th percentile of age-20 minor-league seasons from qualifying big-league 1B. That would still make him a solid player, but not elite. Carlos Santana’s career will be an interesting case to watch in terms of how Norris may perform in the big leagues. At age 24, Santana should be able to reach the major leagues by the end of 2010.