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Diagnosing Derek Norris' Slow Start

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If you are like many others, you drafted Derek Norris as a clear top-12 catcher. Instead, he's been one of the worst catchers around. Is there any hope for improvement here?

Derek Norris has been simply awful in 2016. How much hope for a turnaround is there?
Derek Norris has been simply awful in 2016. How much hope for a turnaround is there?
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Derek Norris has been a fantasy catcher mainstay for two years now. He has stayed mostly healthy and put up solid power numbers, with 10 and 14 home runs in 2014 and 2015. He often bats in the middle of the order and put up respectable run and RBI totals for the position. He racked up a huge 557 PA last year, which was second only to Posey. He had the sixth best wRC+ among qualified catchers last year.

Sure, he has limited upside, but the 7-15 range of the catcher rankings is a wasteland, so he seemed like a nice safe option within that group. Here's how 2016 has gone for him so far:

AVG OBP SLG GB% FB% LD% K% BB% SwStr% wRC+ Hard %
0.154 0.203 0.262 44.70% 36.20% 19.10% 26.10% 5.80% 9.90% 21 38.30%

Oof.

He has simply been one of the worst hitters in baseball. Third worst, actually, ahead of only Aaron Hill and Erick Aybar. Not good company. Here's the good news: his hard hit rate is actually excellent, his batted ball profile hasn't really changed, he's not swinging at more pitches outside the zone, his swinging strike rate, while the worst of his career, his only 0.7% worse than last year and still about league average, and his 0.196 BABIP is sure to move up.

Unfortunately, it's mostly bad news and that's the end of the good stuff. His HR+FB distance of 272 feet is 157th in baseball. His strikeout rate is up and his walk rate is down. Obviously, his power is down. I am skeptical of the hard hit % this early in the season with so many other indicators saying his power has disappeared.

Are pitchers further exploiting one of his weaknesses?

Let's use some heat maps to find out.

This one is from 2015 and shows where pitchers threw to him the most.

norris heat map 2015

This one is from this season.

norris heat map 2016

It's hard to tell, but it seems like the red has moved even farther down and away. I didn't want to clutter things up, but if you look at the heat map for Norris' contact %, he hits the ball best up and in, which shouldn't be a surprise with this heat map. Pitchers know that's where he likes it, so they give him heavy doses of low and away pitches. He has receive a few more low and away pitches this year than last. However, that alone probably isn't enough to explain his awful start.

Here's my theory, putting all the evidence together: a low BABIP, small erosions in plate discipline, and pitchers pitching him more low and away are all secondary factors in his terrible 2016. The primary culprit is a drop in power. I'm not sure what is causing it, but it seems like a pretty big drop. I do not expect him to continue to be this bad all season. The BABIP will improve and he might improve his plate discipline a little bit, but I don't expect more than 9 homers and a slugging percentage over 0.400 anymore, like I did before the season started.

If you can still grab a Wellington Castillo, Miguel Montero, Wilson Ramos, Yan Gomes, or similar, you should drop Norris to get them. Tschus!