Derek Norris received high praise this week from manager Jim Riggleman, who has been impressed with the way camp has started for the Nationals' top catching prospect.
Norris feels completely healthy after battling through injuries last season. His 2010 campaign was slowed by a broken bone in his hand before the season began. In May, he was hit by a pitch in his head and suffered a concussion. Norris now has a clean bill of health and that has helped him at the plate. In four games this spring training, he is hitting .400 with two hits, one home run and two walks.
"I feel more comfortable every day, a lot more than last year," Norris said. "A lot of the guys know who I am now. I don't have to introduce myself. I am familiar with the scheduling and everything is smoother. It is definitely better to be 100 percent healthy and not have to worry about injuries like I did last season."
Norris is also feeling really good at the plate, maybe the best of his young career.
"It is hard to compare with when I was healthy two years ago in Hagerstown," Norris said. "But I feel good at the plate and that is a reflection of how serious I took the to the off season workouts. I came into camp in great shape and I am just trying to get better."
Most of the talk about Norris is not about his offense. Scouts believe he has the tools at the plate to get the job done. But what about behind the plate? Norris said that is where he has concentrated on getting better and now it is paying dividends.
"I am just trying to find a way to feel comfortable and efficient in my set up," Norris said. "At times last year, I was comfortable but not efficient or I was efficient but not comfortable. But I think my improved flexibility has contributed to how efficient I am now. I have found a receiving position that works behind the plate."
Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs manager Randy Knorr said Norris would have to find the best defensive set-up position on his own. Norris feels like he has done that.
"A lot of coaches have helped me and I have gotten a lot of good advice from Pat Corrales, Bob Boone and others," Norris said. "I take little bits and pieces from each person I talk to and roll in all into one. I would watch game film of my set-up. I loosened up my hips and groin and got my knees out of the way for sinking pitches or pitches down low to my glove side. Now I feel really balanced in my set-up. My footwork is better. My throws to first on bunts are better. I am more explosive out of my set-up. That makes me much more confident in my ability."
But Norris also said there is no substitute to watching and learning from big league catchers in Nats spring training.
"Camp has been great because I can watch Ivan Rodriguez, Jesus Flores and Wilson Ramos," Norris said. "I look at the way they set up. I learn so much from watching a future Hall of Famer like Pudge. I don't ask them too many questions because I don't want to be that guy, but I do study their set-ups. Ramos lives up to his reputation and a solid receiver. Just to be around these guys day in and day out makes it a pleasure to go out and play."
So does it bother Norris with talk about transitioning him to another position so he can accelerate to the major leagues quicker? Norris doesn't worry about that talk.
"Whatever the club decides to do is their business," Norris said. "My personal opinion is, I am taking strides in the right direction. This process is getting me where I need to be."
The Houston Astros were looking at Jesus Flores so Norris was limited to one at bat yesterday, but thinks he might be back in the lineup some time later in the week.
Besides his offense, Norris has enjoyed catching for a few of the veterans and the team's top prospects alike during early preseason play.
"Livan Hernandez was so on that I never had to move my mitt," Norris said. "Ryan Mattheus had electric stuff. Adam Carr and Cole Kimball looked very good."
Norris said the start of camp has been invaluable to his progress and he appreciates the opportunity to showcase his skills.
"It is definitely nice to be a part of the big league spring training," Norris said. "You kind of get an idea of what it would be like in the regular season. It is going well. I think I could get used to this."