The Padres had an eventful offseason. They acquired some power (Upton), some more power (Kemp) and some raw power (Myers).  These acquisitions certainly upgrade last year’s outfield of a bad Will Venable and a hurt Cameron Maybin, though Seth Smith was surprisingly excellent. Ownership also acquired the feral Derek Norris and a “Big Game” pitcher to throw to him. I’ll skip the minor acquisitions so we can proceed. The Padres acquired a lot of talent and kept a lot of young talent. They added some depth in areas where they had been minimal. They have a near replacement level infield, which they did not improve at all (sorry Will Middlebrooks). But most of all, they really do not have a prototypical leadoff hitter.

Firstly, let’s observe who the team used in the leadoff spot last year. Using the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index, the following table highlights who, in fact, hit in the leadoff spot during the season. For simplicity purposes, pinch hitting appearances were included, though the nature of those would not be enough to dilute the final results.

Rank Player Split Year GS PA 2014 OPS+
1 Everth Cabrera Batting 1st 2014 58 257 67
2 Yangervis Solarte Batting 1st 2014 29 127 103
3 Will Venable Batting 1st 2014 26 111 79
4 Chris Denorfia Batting 1st 2014 21 94 79
5 Seth Smith Batting 1st 2014 10 47 135
6 Cory Spangenberg Batting 1st 2014 8 35 120
7 Alexi Amarista Batting 1st 2014 6 29 76
8 Abraham Almonte Batting 1st 2014 4 16 98

 

Last year, the Friars’ leadoff options were fairly dreadful. Everth Cabrera was one of the worst hitters in the league last year, even after adjusting for park and league factors. Solarte, who truly came out of nowhere, was fine, but I am not gambling on him repeating much from last season. He has been mentioned as a leadoff candidate, but his bat is realistically suited for lower down in the order. We also know how horrid Will Venable was last season, and as a result he is out of a starting job. Oddly enough, so is Seth Smith, who probably deserved one more than the rest of the pack, though with him currently not in a everyday role, his leadoff candidacy cannot be fully considered.

Despite how bad most of these guys were last year, they likely are who you would expect to be thrust into the leadoff spot. Why? It is our psyche telling us that the fast and weak players hit first, and the slow and strong players drive them in. The principle of this isn’t completely wrong, and a somewhat common rule of thumb to determine a good leadoff hitter is to evaluate by OBP – ISO (Isolated Power). This weeds out the low on-base characters and saves the power hitters for middle-of-the-order slots. One caveat: Thanks to BABIP, OBP tends to fluctuate year to year, especially for a lot of these volatile Padres hitters. What fluctuates less than BABIP is Walk rate (BB%). Essentially, what I am implying is that ideally, we want a high-walker without big power. Meet Derek Norris.

Norris owns a carer 11.4% walk rate, a figure that has increased since he arrived on the scene in 2012. He has a good eye at the plate, which is what you would expect for an ex-Oakland Athletic. Moreover, despite his big stocky frame (6’0″, 210 lbs), he owns barely above average power (.146 ISO), albeit in pitcher-friendly parks. Nevertheless, this is hardly a hamper to his leadoff candidacy, as he also demonstrates solid and improving plate discipline (23% chase rate in 2014). In short, he gets on base (.361 OBP in 2014) and he has less power than the Padres’ only competent hitters, the outfielders. And guess what, Derek Norris was an All-Star last year!

The next element I have left out is speed. Most catchers do not possess great speed, and Norris’ is nothing different. However, he has the ability to be a league average base runner, and is projected (by Steamer) to have a roughly nil effect on the base paths in 2015. This is to say that his base running will not hurt his team in any way. In fact, Norris’ minor league resume includes two double digit stolen base campaigns.

It took me awhile to get past the other piece of irregularity. Derek Norris is a catcher. Catchers are fat, slow, and should be slotted in the 6th spot in the batting order or lower. Subsequently, that made me wonder which catchers have hit leadoff in their careers, and which catchers have had success doing so. Here are the catchers, since 1965, who have a) started at catcher, and b) started in the leadoff spot in the same game. The slash lines represent only the plate appearances in the 1-hole.

Rank Player GS PA BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Jason Kendall 453 2110 0.292 0.371 0.354 0.725
2 John Jaso 60 261 0.265 0.346 0.391 0.737
3 Butch Wynegar 48 223 0.297 0.377 0.411 0.789
4 Russell Martin 38 177 0.233 0.362 0.342 0.704
5 Craig Biggio 35 168 0.250 0.357 0.386 0.743
6 Paul Lo Duca 33 154 0.376 0.416 0.667 1.082
7 Kurt Suzuki 25 121 0.204 0.256 0.265 0.522
8 Ivan Rodriguez 22 107 0.269 0.290 0.413 0.703
9 Charlie Moore 22 106 0.271 0.317 0.313 0.630

 

If this was a competition (which it is) then Kendall is the clear winner. Almost a quarter of his career plate appearances came at the top of the order. While he was simply a good-hitting catcher for most of his career, he had the “high-OBP low-power” package, with nice speed for a catcher. Butch Wynegar has 65 career home runs in 5000 plate appearances and consequently also fits the mold. Craig Biggio is interesting, because he transitioned off catcher very quickly into his career, though he did in fact lead off 35 times at catcher. Kurt Suzuki is a funny name to come across; he has a career 89 OPS+ and 14.1 bWAR (excluding the worst pitch framing baseball has seen).

The Padres remain in the spotlight as we roll into the spring. The rotation has been analyzed, their management has been scrutinized, so with no surprise their lineup has received due attention. Subsequently, the leadoff question mark has continued to float around. With position battles and timeshares at 3rd base, shortstop and possibly 1st base, it is hard to designate a part-time player to the role. Nevertheless, Solarte has seemingly received a slight edge in recent days. Perhaps he is the front runner, perhaps not, but the infield playing time queries certainly help Norris’ case. In a vacuum, it looks odd to have a catcher hit atop the order. Yet for the Padres, it is probably the right thing to do.

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3 Responses to “Derek Norris: Leadoff Hitter?”

  1. Mick Reinhard

    Having watched Norris the entire 2011 MiLB season, I can tell you Norris is a patient batter (sometimes to a fault).

    I’d be interested to see how many pitches he sees per plate appearance especially compared to Solarte (who always struck me a bit of a free swinger).

    Reply
  2. Ben Suissa

    He was at 3.98 last year, which is in the top 25 of qualified guys (on ESPN). Solarte was 3.80. Both are decent at it.

    Reply

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