A’s catcher Derek Norris traces his fast start with the bat this season – he entered Tuesday with the highest batting average of any American League player with at least 70 plate appearances – back to the middle of last year: June 29, 2013, to be exact.
Norris remembers the date because the A’s were facing St. Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, Norris “hadn’t played in about four days, and I was really scuffling.” After batting .164 in May, Norris was deep into a June that saw him hit .160. Shortly before the game, he was in the O.co Coliseum batting cage, working with A’s hitting coach Chili Davis.
“I’m like, ‘You know what, just do something crazy just to maybe spark something, spark a feeling,’ Norris recalled. “So I was like, ‘I’m going to do a leg kick today. Screw it.’
“(Davis) goes, ‘I used to do the same thing when I played – I’d feel terrible, lost at the plate, and I’d do something out of the ordinary just to spark a feel.’ So I did it that day and it felt pretty good.”
Norris got two hits off Wainwright in that game. From July 1 until the end of the season, he batted .337 with six of his nine home runs. And that success at the plate has bled into 2014, as Norris began Tuesday’s game against the Seattle Mariners hitting .371, including a .400 mark against right-handers despite the A’s catching platoon limiting the number of at-bats he gets against righties.
The June 29 game, Norris said, “will always stick out in my mind, because that was the first time in a couple years that I actually felt like my mechanics were on time. … I felt balanced. I felt like I saw the ball; the ball was coming a little slower. And since then, that’s just the way I’ve been approaching things.”
Norris stuck with the leg kick and began studying video of other players who use one. He took the adjustment home last winter to Kansas and hitting coach Paul Sanigorski, with whom Norris has worked since 2008, and “just worked on repeating the same swing over and over, just to get that muscle memory down.”
When Norris arrived at spring training this year, A’s manager Bob Melvin said, he had “a little different setup and stroke – a shorter stroke.” Davis described it as “the shortest little compact swing,” which allows Norris to see pitches longer before deciding whether to offer at them.
“When you’re tracking the ball, and you trust ‘I’ve got enough bat speed to catch up to anybody’s fastball,’ you don’t need to cheat,” Davis said. “And when you don’t need to cheat, you allow for pitch recognition. You allow (yourself to see) the breaking ball.”
One manifestation of that is Norris’ numbers against right-handers. Last year, he hit .320 in 150 at-bats against left-handers with nine home runs and .149 with no homers in 114 at-bats against righties. Those results were somewhat cyclical – Norris’ splits supported limiting his at-bats against right-handers; meanwhile, the platoon system meant when he did face a right-hander, the unfamiliarity often made it a more uncomfortable at-bat.
Entering Tuesday, Norris had hit pitchers of both handedness with equal gusto in 2014. His .400 average against right-handers included both of his homers, even thought he had started just five games against a right-handed pitcher.
Perhaps just as illustrative are the pitches Norris isn’t swinging at. He began Tuesday with 11 walks and just nine strikeouts, the former including a pinch-hit walk in his lone plate appearance Monday. After Norris was announced in the seventh inning, Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon summoned right-hander Dominic Leone to face him. Norris got behind in the count 1-2 before laying off three consecutive balls.
Melvin remains a staunch believer in platoons at several positions, including catcher. But Sunday, he worked both Norris and John Jaso into the lineup by using Jaso at designated hitter against Boston right-hander John Lackey.
“If you’re doing well, you are going to get some more reps,” Melvin said. “And (Norris) has gotten to play against some righties because he has done well against them.”
Regardless of the opposing pitcher, Davis said, Norris is “swinging the bat well, period. He worked all spring and I commend him on the work he’s done. … He comes in and works with a purpose.
“We don’t want to go and try to correct bad habits,” Davis said. “We want to try to create good habits and then maintain good habits. And that’s what D-No has done.”