When the A’s dealt away Gio Gonzalez, one of the team’s most popular players, in the off-season for pitchers Tommy Milone, Brad Peacock, A.J. Cole and catcher Derek Norris, four minor league players most A’s fans had never heard of, some fans were clearly skeptical. But just five months after that trade, while the 20-year-old Cole has been struggling at Class-A, Milone is leading the A’s pitching staff in wins, Peacock is the River Cats’ wins leader, and catcher Derek Norris has been hitting up a storm at Sacramento. The former 4th-round draft pick has been hitting close to .300 for most of the season, currently sports a healthy .503 slugging percentage, and has been looking like he may be the successor to current A’s catcher Kurt Suzuki sooner rather than later.
A’s assistant general manager David Forst recently told me about Norris, “He got raves from the coaching staff from day one on how he handled pitchers and his receiving skills. His throwing numbers have never been in question. He’s always been one of the best guys in the minor leagues as far as throwing out baserunners.” He summed up his impression of the 23-year-old receiver by saying, “We feel very good about Derek.” And A’s fans who’ve been paying attention seem to share that sentiment.
AF: So tell me a little bit about where you grew up and where you went to school.
DN: I was born and raised in Goddard, Kansas. I went to school at Goddard High School – a 6A school in a small town. I grew up playing three sports (baseball, football and basketball), but baseball was always my passion. I played it throughout high school. And then I signed with Washington, five years later I was traded, and here I am.
AF: What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
DN: The Kansas City Royals were always my favorite team when I was growing up. George Brett was always the talk of the town, and I grew up idolizing him.
AF: Well that’s as good a hitter to model yourself after as anyone.
DN: Yeah, I know, right?
AF: Were you always a catcher in high school?
DN: No, I didn’t catch a whole lot till my senior year mostly. I had a couple guys in front of me in my freshman and sophomore years who were Division I prospects, so I played third base and pitcher my first couple years, and then I transitioned to catcher later on.
AF: How did you feel about catching? Was it something that you were eager or reluctant to do?
DN: It wasn’t a huge transition because I had done it before. But it’s obviously going to be a lot more difficult when guys throw harder and their pitches move more and they’re a lot better than what I was used to. It’s definitely a tough transition at first. But it seems like every game that goes by, the more I catch, the better I get. I’ve come a long way from where I was, and I definitely want to keep striving to be where I want to be.
AF: I imagine you were surprised about being traded. How’d you hear about the trade to the A’s and what was your reaction?
DN: I was actually at the gym working out and I got a text message from one of my teammates from last year, Cory VanAllen. And he said, “I just read an article about you and Brad Peacock possibly being in a trade for Gio Gonzalez.” Well, I hadn’t heard anything – I’d just talked to my agent a few days previously. And he said, “We haven’t heard anything, but if something comes up, we’ll definitely be in touch.” And then the next day, I got a phone call from my agent and he goes, “Hey, rumors have been picking up, but they’re just rumors as of now.” And then, I’d probably say within an hour, it was finalized. So it happened very quick. And it was definitely really strange. I’ve never really been through anything like that before. And it was definitely a cool experience though – it was real cool.
AF: Had you ever been in the big league camp with the Nationals before?
DN: Yeah, I was in camp with the Nationals in 2010 and 2011.
AF: Obviously that was in Florida, and I think you’d previously spent all your time playing on the east coast. So how was it different spending your first spring out in Phoenix with the A’s and having a whole new coaching staff to work with this year?
DN: It was great. The coaching staff, from the manager all the way down to the bullpen coach, every coach there treated me well. I had no complaints – everybody was great. And the weather’s obviously a lot better. You don’t have to worry as much about rain or hurricane winds or anything like that. So it was definitely a plus. I liked it a lot.
AF: I guess a lot shorter drives too!
DN: Yeah, definitely. On the east coast, you drive two and a half hours and you take batting practice on the field. Over in Arizona, you take batting practice at your home field and then travel over and just play. So that was definitely different too.
AF: Well since A’s manager Bob Melvin was a catcher too, was he able to speak to you in your own language?
DN: Yeah, definitely. I didn’t get to talk to him a whole lot, because he’s concerned with his big league lineup and trying to figure out things with that. But in the time that I got to speak with him, he was very positive. And I know he’s well-liked in the clubhouse, and I enjoyed every minute that I got to speak with him about the game in general and just everything.
AF: Was there anything in particular you learned or took away from your experience this spring?
DN: Just adapting to a different environment and different players. I went from having Pudge as the starting catcher in Washington with all his knowledge. And then you go from that to Kurt Suzuki, who’s also one of the premiere catchers in the major leagues, so that was definitely a plus as well.
AF: So both those guys were very open and had a lot to share with you?
DN: Oh, definitely. Kurt couldn’t have been any better to me in spring than he was. He was very open. Any question I had, he answered, and he was always there for anything that I needed.
AF: This is your first year in Triple-A and you’ve been hitting well and hitting for power at Sacramento. In the past, your profile was that of a guy who walked a lot and had a high on-base percentage but didn’t really hit for a high average. But it seems like it’s been just the opposite this year. You’ve been hitting right around .300 all year, but I think it took a while before you even got your first walk this season. So I’m curious to know what’s changed in your approach at the plate.
DN: Yeah, I got with my hitting coach this off-season back home. And we pretty much just broke down my last season because I was very upset with the way that it went. We pretty much just started from scratch and weighed the pros and cons of my season and it just came down to the percentages of me hitting were always with two strikes. And anybody who knows baseball knows that if you’re hitting with two strikes a lot, you’re not going to be hitting for a very good average. So being able to know the difference between seeing pitches and getting in good hitters’ counts and seeing pitches and getting in good pitchers’ counts. So we pretty much just broke that down into, if you get a good pitch to hit early in the count, your percentages are way better of getting a hit than later in the count when there’s two strikes. So that was one of the biggest things – just swinging the bat more at good pitches to hit, but not going out of your strike zone to try and get base hits.
AF: So basically it sounds like just finding those good pitches to hit earlier in the count was the key for you.
DN: Right, instead of later in the count – for sure.
AF: So have there been any particular challenges this year that you feel you’ve really had to work on at this level?
DN: I’m a firm believer that if you come out and you just keep playing everyday, you’re going to get better as long as you don’t take anything for granted. The more you play, the better you get. The more pitches you see, the more innings you play, the better you’re going to get. And that’s really my ultimate goal – to just keep getting better everyday.
AF: Well it seems like they’ve had you behind the plate in Sacramento almost everyday as it is!
DN: Yeah, that’s one thing that I really pride myself on is being back there everyday. I want it to be a surprise when I’m not in there.
AF: How do feel about your work behind the plate as a catcher, both defensively and also in terms of game-calling and working with the pitching staff there in Sacramento?
DN: A lot of the guys on this team who I’ve had to work with so far, a lot of us are on the same page, which is pretty hard to do, especially early on in the season because you don’t know a guy’s tendencies and things that they like to throw. As far as game-calling, it’s been pretty smooth thus far, knock on wood. And it’s going pretty well as far as defensively, working with our manager Darren Bush – he stays on me all the time with my work, and it just keeps improving everyday.
AF: How have you enjoyed playing in Sacramento and playing at Raley Field?
DN: Well, it’s been great so far. We’ve had pretty good crowds. And we’ve put together a pretty good team to put out there every night. And our team, they’re just a great group of guys, and we meld together real well, and it’s been a great experience so far.
AF: So who are your best friends on the team? Who do you usually spend your free time hanging out with?
DN: I try to get to know different guys as much as I can. But I actually lived just down the road from Travis Banwart. We went to the same high school and everything – we kind of grew up together. So if I were to pick one guy, it’d probably be him.
AF: That’s right, I forgot he was a Kansan too. So do you have any particular goals for yourself for the rest of the season? Is there anything in particular you’d like to accomplish?
DN: I try not to set myself any particular goals, except for just coming out here and giving 100% everyday and just try to win every ballgame.
AF: And try and get in every ballgame too I guess!
DN: Yeah, try and get in every ballgame I can – that’s right!