2/22/2013 1:00 P.M. ET
Norris sets goals that go beyond the box score
By Jane Lee / MLB.com
PHOENIX -- Derek Norris is done trying to control the uncontrollable. That's not what this list is for.
It's just a big piece of paper the A's catcher pinned to his wall -- in the same room of the house he grew up in with his older brother and parents in Goddard, Kan. -- splattered with reminders he hoped would enable a more visual approach to his goals.
They're pragmatic, not at all far fetching. No mention of 20 home runs, or a .300 average, because he's not driven by numbers anymore.
"I don't really think along the same lines as most people," Norris says.
Most people wouldn't like this list, since the endearing element of crossing things off -- this is often the most satisfying part of making lists in the first place -- is missing.
"Being a leader to my teammates and pitching staff, never taking anything for granted, going out there every day trying to make someone else better and myself better, these are the things I can control, the things I write down," said Norris, who turned 24 just last week.
He hasn't always been a list guy -- "I think that was my problem," he said -- but converted when he was traded to Oakland from Washington in the Gio Gonzalez deal last offseason and forced to transfer everything he learned from his time in the Nationals organization to a new one.
Still, he didn't fully buy into the process until he came face-to-face with struggle.
Held back in Triple-A Sacramento before his June 21 promotion, Norris made his debut with a start at catcher that day and, despite going hitless, helped battery mate Travis Blackley limit the Dodgers to one run over eight innings to beat Clayton Kershaw. He then hit safely in each of his next seven games, collecting his first Major League home run -- which just so happened to be a walk-off three-run shot against the Giants -- along the way.
He could get used to this, he thought. But just as he started getting comfortable, Norris fell into an 0-for-30 slump, and by the end of July he was back at Triple-A. Yet his return proved imminent when regular Kurt Suzuki was traded to Washington on Aug. 3, the day the A's decided the future was now for the young Norris, then just 23.
Suddenly, one of baseball's best staffs was his to manage, a task he would have to take on while keeping up his offensive appearance. Norris compiled a 3.05 catchers' ERA -- lowest among American League catchers with at least 50 games played -- but found the latter part to be taxing. He hit .190 over the final 31 games, finished the regular season with a meager .201 average and was 1-for-12 in the AL Division Series against Detroit.
"I fell into a really deep hole," Norris said. "I had never gone through something like that. It wasn't the nasty slider that was getting to me. It was me getting into my own head instead of me just playing my game, sticking to my strengths, not trying to do anything outside of it."
There was to be no pity party, though. Just Norris, a piece of paper and a pen.
He knew his body had taken a toll by season's end. His swing was suffering, too. So he made it his mission to transform both.
"Get in good shape to wow people," he wrote down.
Norris employed a local trainer and followed a strict diet. No more eating out. And no more meat and potatoes -- the meal of champions in the Midwest -- when eating in. He cooked his own meals, four or five of them a day, and kept a chart to track his intake, needing to consume between 4,000 and 4,500 calories each day, but no more than 45 grams of fat.
Norris dropped 10 pounds on this regimen, with help from added cardio in his exercise routine, and entered camp at 223 pounds, his lowest weight since 2009.
"I've always played my best baseball around 225, so that was kind of my goal," he said. "My better years were the ones where I was leaner and not as bulky. I tend to gain weight as the season goes on, so I think this is a good place to start. I'm the strongest I've ever been."
His swing is back to where it needs to be, too. Norris brought it to Paul Sanagorski, a former hitting coach in the Nationals' system who took the catcher under his wing when he was drafted out of high school in the fourth round in 2007. The two have remained close, thanks in part to what Sanagorski calls "a great dialogue."
The pair discovered that Norris had a leak in his front hip whenever he'd stride out, preventing him from powering the ball the other way. So he now starts with more of an open stance, to allow him to stay through the ball away and drive it to the right-center field gap -- a longtime strength of his that, for parts of last season, had become a weakness. He also controlled his hand setting, making sure he simply rests the bat on his shoulder every time, so he never has to think about it.
"He has a much better feel for his swing now," Sanagorski said. "We tried to simplify it a little bit, where before he would do things that would cause him to be out of sync."
"My swing has always been short and compact, and he knows my swing better than anybody," Norris said. "We came up with a game plan, and it took a couple of weeks to figure it out, but once we did, it felt right and it just kept getting better and better over the offseason."
Norris' playing time is expected to lessen with John Jaso now in the fold. A platoon is likely to be formed, meaning the right-handed Norris' starts are likely to be limited to games featuring a left-handed opponent. But, "worse comes to worse," Norris said, "we work so hard for playing time that we make ourselves better at the same time."
He has more important things to worry about, anyway. His list, which currently resides in his spring locker at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, reminds him of this.
"I've always been a leader on all of my teams, and that's kind of my goal here, to gain the respect and trust of these guys, because I think I'm capable of being a leader here," he said.
Last year that role was reserved for Jonny Gomes, who believes Norris is equipped with the right mentality, and surely the right character, for the job.
"He obviously had a whole lot thrown at him real quick, and he covered a lot in just one year, just in terms of growth for a young guy," said Gomes, now with the Red Sox. "How to carry yourself, how to be a professional, how to deal with failure in the game, he wanted to hear about it all, and he kind of just kept coming back for more, which, for me, says so much about a young guy. He was definitely full of questions. It shows he wants to learn and that he's willing to go outside of his own little element to learn.
"He carried a staff, he really did. I think that kind of gets forgotten."
"I think he did a wonderful job with us," starter Tommy Milone said. "I know he probably didn't hit as well as he would've liked, but I feel like he made up for it with us, going out there and not bringing his at-bats onto the field."
Norris, always careful not to compliment himself, acknowledges at least that, that he was able to successfully separate his defense from his offense, no matter which one was wearing. But, with newfound strength on his side, he's ready to better himself in both areas this year.
"I have expectations for myself that I think are way beyond expectations that anybody else can ever put on me," he said. "I've always wanted to be the best."
Until he is, the list will keep growing.