- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2009

HAGERSTOWN, Md. | As Derek Norris strode up to the plate for his final at-bat last Wednesday, the loudspeakers at Municipal Stadium played a few seconds of the “Superman” theme.

It was probably just a coincidence, since the music is chosen randomly for each batter. But considering how Norris has performed this year for the Nationals’ Class A affiliate Hagerstown Suns, the selection was appropriate.

“He’s, by far, the best hitter in this whole league that I’ve seen,” Suns manager Matt LeCroy said of his star catcher.

After entering the season rated as the Nationals’ sixth-best prospect by Baseball America, Norris is enjoying one of the best offensive seasons in the minor leagues. He leads the South Atlantic League in home runs, RBI, total bases, walks and on-base percentage, and he ranks in the top three in slugging percentage, runs and hits. Through Friday’s game, Norris had gone deep more times (21) than the rest of his team combined (20).

People are starting to notice. Baseball America named him one of the top 50 prospects in baseball in their most recent rankings released last week - Norris was the only Nationals prospect on the list. And opposing pitchers are a lot more careful with him now than they were in April.

“Earlier in the year, I’d see a 2-2 fastball, a good pitch to hit, and I’d probably get five, maybe six good pitches to hit a night,” he said. “Now I might be lucky to get two, maybe three a night.”

But when Norris gets one of those pitches, he takes advantage. He also exhibits plate discipline well beyond his years - as a 19-year-old in the New York-Penn League last season, Norris collected 22 more walks than the second-highest finisher and posted an OBP that led the league by 41 points.

His ability to lay off tough pitches and get ahead in the count forces pitchers to make a tough choice: Continue to nibble and potentially issue a free pass, or catch more of the strike zone and risk making a mistake down the middle.

“I’ve always been the type of guy that’s been pretty patient, waiting for my pitch,” Norris said. “If the pitcher paints something on the outside, or throws a good sinker, I’ll let it go. I’m not worried about it - they have to throw three of them to get you out.”

Washington picked Norris in the fourth round of the 2007 draft out of Goddard (Kan.) High School even though he had a scholarship to attend Wichita State. But a $210,000 signing bonus and the opportunity to continue to improve as a catcher under top-notch instructors lured Norris, who had only spent one season behind the plate, to turn professional.

Few are more qualified to work with Norris than LeCroy, in his first year as a manager after spending parts of eight seasons catching in the majors.

“As far as developing as a catcher, here is better,” Norris said. “Getting defensive work and knowing how to do the physical labor behind the plate, that’s really made the decision for me.”

It’s been a tough transition at times for Norris, a third baseman his first three years in high school. But LeCroy has been encouraged by his progress and doesn’t envision Norris needing to change positions again.

“Defensively, he’s made a lot of good strides,” LeCroy said. “He’s gotten so much better receiving the baseball and [with] his footwork on throws to second. He’s got a really strong arm.”

LeCroy compared Norris to Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Russell Martin because both are athletic behind the plate, except LeCroy expects Norris to be a better hitter than Martin. Norris still has a ways to go defensively, though - he has the most errors and passed balls of any catcher in the league.

Regardless, Norris’ rapid development has been a pleasant surprise and rare bright spot for the Nationals. And though Norris wasn’t heralded at draft time, Goddard coach Tom Campa could tell Norris had the ability to be this type of player early on.

“I pretty much knew that he was going to be a quality athlete his freshman year,” Campa said. “He was on the [junior varsity] level with me, and I kept telling the head coach for Goddard High at that time, ‘We got a good one here, this is a kid that we needed to continue to look at.’ ”

And the fact that Norris has a strong work ethic to complement his talent should allow him to continue to improve.

“His mindset to get better - he’s a kid who understands what his abilities are,” Campa said. “I think what separates him from everyone else is that he continues to take the extra [batting practice] or take the extra fielding work and do everything to increase his talent. He goes that extra mile.”

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