Going back to 2005 through the first half of 2007, Jason Kendall was Oakland’s iron man behind the plate, rarely getting a day off because of his durability and rapport with a strong pitching staff. Kendall made a combined 288 of 324 possible starts in 2005 and 2006, finishing first and second in the American League, respectively.
Whether there was a correlation with wear and tear or not, Kendall saw a considerable drop in his production the following season in 2007, with his slash line falling to .226/.261/.281 in the season’s first 80 games after having an OPS more than 150 points higher the previous season.
With Kurt Suzuki – a former second-round pick in 2004 - progressing through the A’s system in each of his first three years in the minor leagues, it was becoming clear Oakland had their next catcher with Kendall’s decline becoming more and more apparent. The A's went on to trade Kendall to the Cubs on July 16, 2007 for Jerry Blevins and catcher Rob Bowen.
Fast forward to 2012. Kurt Suzuki - now 28-years-old - is coming off two seasons of finishing third in the AL in starts behind the plate and has seen a similar drop in numbers. After peaking with a 734 OPS with 15 home runs in 2009, his numbers have fallen in each year since.
Like any catcher, Suzuki has dealt with the typical bumps and bruises associated with the position. But his left hand has taken more of a beating than usual this year, which could explain the more significant fall in numbers. Suzuki is hitting a dismal .215/.256/.524 with his guide hand hampered with bruises that haven’t had much time to heal throughout the year. Pair his Kendall-like decline with an $8.5 million option for 2013, it doesn’t appear likely Suzuki is long for the job as A’s backstop.
Whether he gets traded or the A’s decide not to pick up his option in the offseason, all signs point to a coming change.
Insert Derek Norris, who made his major league debut in Thursday’s A's win over the Los Angeles Dodgers, owners of the best record in baseball. He immediately made an impact by calling a great eight innings for starter Travis Blackley, who hadn’t lasted longer than six in any of his previous starts.
“I think (Norris) has a chance to be a real good player and I think he showed it with the maturity that he had yesterday – stepping in, catching his first game, facing a guy like Kershaw and catching Blackley, a guy he’s never seen before,” A's manager Bob Melvin said before Friday’s game.
“If you didn’t know that was his first game, you certainly wouldn’t have thought that. He’s mature beyond his years.”
Norris was able to show off his arm in the when he threw out speedster Dee Gordon at second to preserve the ninth-inning tie. A half-inning later, Yoenis Cespedes hit a three-run, walk-off homer to give the A’s the series sweep of the Dodgers.
It was easily Norris’ best throw of the day, especially after airmailing his first warm up toss to second base before the top of the first inning. When asked if the errant throw was caused by typical nervousness from a major league debut, Norris had a calculated response.
“I did it on purpose to get it out of the way. Anytime I’m in a nervous situation I try to get it out of the way just so I don’t have to worry about it. A lot of people probably don’t believe it,” he said.
“If I made a good throw there I might have airmailed the one in the ninth. Just getting it out of the way and getting that off my chest.”
Whether it was on purpose or not, Norris made the throw that counted and helped keep a run off the board late in the game.
A part of the trade that brought over Brad Peacock, A.J. Cole and Tom Milone from Washington in exchange for Gio Gonzalez, Norris represents the best catching prospect Oakland has had since drafting Suzuki.
Oddly enough, it was the catcher that was drafted in the first round of Suzuki’s draft, Landon Powell, who originally appeared to be the next option. But Powell was rarely given the opportunity to contribute with Suzuki’s ability to catch every day. He was the A's primary backup for two and half seasons from 2009 to 2011, but never received more than 155 plate appearances during his time with the A’s.
Last year, Powell bounced up and down between Sacramento and Oakland in order to give Anthony Recker a look in the big leagues. There was a clear disconnect between the decision makers and Powell, who believed he had done enough to stay on the team as a permanent backup. His numbers said otherwise to the front office. The switch-hitter managed a .171/.246/.225 line in a small 36-game sample before the organization decided to go a different direction. He was released in March and is now catching for Triple-A Oklahoma City in the Astros’ organization.
The A's had seen Recker and Josh Donaldson enough in the minor leagues to believe that their next everyday catcher wasn’t in the system. It’s unlikely the team would have made the trade with the Nationals if Norris were not involved.
When Oakland landed Norris, the A's believed they were getting a strong defensive catcher with a knack for getting on base and hitting for power. With Double-A Harrisburg last year, Norris' slash line of .210/.367/.446 indicated as much. But after two and a half months with Triple-A Sacramento, Norris embodied a much more complete threat at the plate.
He improved his average 63 points while increasing his slugging percentage thanks to 24 extra-base hits in 55 games. He had 38 in 104 games with Harrisburg. His OPS stayed relatively stagnant because his decreased walk rate, but his new approach meant swinging at better pitches earlier in the count.
“I was looking for the one fastball that was right in my wheelhouse. In reality, you might get that once a week. That’s definitely not going to pan out in your favor,” Norris said.
His approach changed from looking for a specific pitch in a specific location, to looking for any pitch in a certain area in the strike zone. It’s led to an improved BABIP of .292 from .251. He also decreased his strikeout rate from 27.7 percent to 16.5.
“I knew he was ready to hit,” former River Cat teammate and current Oakland teammate Brandon Moss said. “He’s got extremely quick hands and he’s got a really good approach.
“Up here, if you have a good approach and quick you can be successful and he definitely has both of those. He’s not going to get beat by any fastballs. You saw that yesterday against Kershaw. He had really good at-bats against the guy and that’s the best left-hander in the game. He’s definitely not going to be overmatched here.”
But where Norris has really made his strides has been on the defensive end. Coming into the season, it was clear he had plenty of room to improve behind the plate to pair with his solid throwing arm.
Norris credited a lot of the work he did with Sacramento’s manager Darren Bush, a former catcher himself. Bush mentioned the pride his pupil took in watching film and doing all the necessary preparation that goes into playing the position every day. The work showed in his big league debut, as Norris took to pitching coach Curt Young’s game plan quickly and executed it without a hiccup.
“I think the thing that impressed me the most was he looked like he had caught the guy several times before,” Melvin said.
“He never got hard-handed, he never boxed a couple balls. He was very aware of when balls were going to be in the dirt, breaking balls and so-fourth, so I think his composure back there probably impressed me more than anything yesterday.”
Melvin said the team hasn’t committed on the way it plans to split time between Norris and Suzuki. But it’s clear Norris will get a good share of starts initially. He’ll be back in the starting lineup Saturday for the second time in three games since his promotion. Norris’ time in the starting lineup will allow him to get at-bats and give the incumbent Suzuki rest at the same time.