WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - With a new staff to learn about and only a few weeks to forge those relationships, you’d expect catcher Derek Norris to be working the Nationals clubhouse like a lobbyist works a D.C. fundraiser, making sure he spends a few minutes with every pitcher in camp to get a read on who they are, how they approach the game and how he can mesh his talents with theirs.
But Norris, reacquired by the Nationals in December to be the starting catcher, isn’t daunted by the 34 pitchers he could be paired with at some point this spring or this season. In fact, since he’s been traded three times, he knows a thing or two about learning a new staff on the fly. And Norris, who has three times been traded, says getting to know the Nationals again after three years with the A’s and two seasons with the Padres isn’t really as hard as you’d think.
“This is probably going to be the easiest adjustment to me,” said Norris, a fourth-round pick by the Nats out of Kansas high school in 2007. “Whether it’s because I’ve played against them or played with some of them, for the most part, I’ve got a general idea of what most will have and what they like to do. So my adjustment period will be just communication and going from there.”
Besides, the 28-year-old says working with pitchers - even a few he hasn’t seen much of - is as simple as getting to know his batterymate. A little relationship building, he believes, goes a long way. Chances are, you’ve done it in an office or classroom setting yourself.
“You develop (a relationship) with a new colleague who works with you,” he said. “You’re developing a relationship where you can work the best together. Same thing with us. Whether it’s going out on the golf course and playing 18 holes and getting them out of their element, going to dinner or just talking in the clubhouse after workouts. It’s little things, nothing that extensive. It’s ... picking their brains, finding out what works best for them, find out what works for you, mixing it together and trying to win ballgames.”
Norris has no illusion who holds the power in the pitcher/catcher relationship. And that’s OK with him.
“They’re going to have to adjust to me, but not nearly as much as we have to adjust to them,” he said. “They’re the jockeys, we’re the thoroughbreds. We ride them; they’re not riding us. Just develop that trust. Take a little from what I know and something that they know and try to combine it. Maybe something they haven’t done before, maybe something I haven’t done before. ... There’s always a curveball thrown in there, and you’ve got to adjust. I think I’ve got a personality that’s pretty well-rounded, so it shouldn’t be much of an ordeal.”
The fact that spring training is only seven weeks long can work to his advantage, especially when it comes to covering all his bases and wisely utilizing his time.
“It makes sure that you’re doing everything the right way,” he said. “You can’t waste any time. ... You got to make the most of your time, be efficient in what you’re doing, not spacing out and paying attention to what they’re doing. Really, once Day One starts, you got to get going. There’s urgency there, but it’s a good thing. It keeps you locked in and keeps you focused.”
And each pitcher potentially brings a unique challenge.
“Different pitcher, different personality, different mechanics, different stuff,” Norris said. “You can have two guys with virtually the same repertoire, but they use it in different ways. Just mixing and matching, using their strengths against the hitters’ weakness and try to come up with a game plan that works.”
And just in case he needs some help, Norris has guys like catchers José Lobaton, who has been with the Nats since 2014, or Jhonatan Solano, a farmhand whose tenure in the organization dates to 2006, to fall back on. Bobby Henley, a former major league catcher who now coaches third base, has a history with the Nationals that goes back 24 years to their days in Montreal.
“For the most part, I kind of like to build my own textbook on guys,” Norris said. “As much as I’d like to hear what other guys think about some guys, it’s kind of nice to develop your own opinion on them and develop your own relationships. If I’ve got any questions about someone, sure. We’ve got a lot of resources around here and I’m sure (Lobaton or others would) be glad to help.”
While Norris tries to strike new relationships, he’ll also be focused on maintaining his reputation as one of baseball’s better pitch framers. Stealing strikes is nothing new, but pitch framing has become the new darling of the game’s stats geeks.
In this recap, Norris ranks 15th among major league catchers, two spots above Lobaton and well ahead of Wilson Ramos, the catcher Norris is replacing. It’ll be nearly impossible for Norris to replace Ramos’ offensive production from last year - a .307/.354/.496 slash line with 22 homers and 80 RBIs - but if he can continue to successfully frame pitches and play solid defense, Norris can impact games from behind the plate.
Norris admits to being biased on the subject - perhaps because he worked hard to make himself into a credible framer - but he believes there’s something behind the incessant chatter about the benefits of adept framers.
“I think there’s a lot that goes into the numbers of pitch framing,” he said. “There’s guys on the mound, there’s who’s behind the plate umpiring. Some of the most average receivers are higher up on the scale than some of the better receivers, in my opinion. And rightfully so - it happens. You get borderline strike calls. If a Cy Young winner is on the mound, an average receiver is going to be an above-average receiver. There’s a lot of variables that go into it. But at the end of the day, there could be an average receiver finish at the top one year.
“Ultimately, year in and year out, there’s a couple names that are always in the top 10. And I think that’s what I take more away from than Guy A being No. 1 one year and No. 17 the next, then he’s No. 7 the next year and No. 25 the next year. If you look at the top 10, you see a couple of guys there year in and year out. That’s what tells me the most.”