Getting through that first year of full-season professional baseball is hard enough. Try doing it while spending 100 games squatting behind the plate, learning the nuances of catching.
The MiLBY Awards for top hitters are just that, recognition of strong offensive seasons. But there's no question that Nationals catching prospect Derek Norris is the choice for Class A Hitter of the Year at least partially because he put up extremely good numbers while donning the "tools of ignorance" at the same time.
"It's a mental grind," the 20-year-old Norris said. "If you have an at-bat where you think you should've done better, you have to shut it out and focus on your pitching staff. If you're not out there supporting your pitchers, you're not going to win too many ballgames. If you're going to be a good Major League player, you have to be an all-around player."
It certainly seemed like Norris was able to let at-bats go quickly. Besides, there weren't too many to dwell on. Norris was a mid- and postseason All-Star as well as being named the South Atlantic League's Most Outstanding Major League Prospect. That's because he finished second in home runs with 23 and fourth in RBIs with 84. He was second in total bases (224) and fifth in slugging percentage (.513). As impressive as all of those numbers are, the ones that stand out the most are those not typical for his age at this level: 90 walks and a league-leading .413 on-base percentage.
"He's a professional hitter, a very advanced young hitter with regard to approach and plate discipline," Nationals farm director Doug Harris said. "He knows his swing. You don't know where his power will go. He'll use the whole field and take what the pitcher gives him. You don't see that from a young hitter."
"Ever since I was little, my mom said I always had great vision, the hand-eye coordination," said Norris, who broke the hamate bone in his left hand at instructs this fall, but is expected to be 100 percent for Spring Training. "I developed the ability to pick up things right out of the pitcher's hand. I don't have to do a whole lot of thinking about it. It's kind of another instinct for me."
While Norris knows he has plenty of work to do on his defensive game to become the all-around player he wants to develop into, he didn't seem to have too many issues adjusting to the higher level offensively. After a bit of a slow start (.246/.359/.462 in 18 April games), Norris had a torrid May during which he hit .370 with eight homers and 29 RBIs along with a .444 OBP and .690 SLG. After a decent June, he got red-hot again in July (.323/.440/.677) before running out of gas in August. But even in that final month, when he hit just .176, he drew 28 walks for a .410 OBP.
"The first half of the season, it was pretty much the same as short-season," said Norris, who was a New York-Penn League All-Star in 2008. "Toward the second half, when my numbers started getting higher, I saw a lot more offspeed stuff and probably wouldn't see a fastball the whole day. I remember one day when I saw 13 straight changeups. That prepares you for the next level as much as anything. You're not going to see a steady diet of fastballs down the middle.
"I was falling out of my plate approach and what I was wanting to do. I got frustrated and started getting myself out, which is why my average slumped. That's when I started being more patient. I didn't have a hit until Aug. 12. It finally got to a point, I just took what they were giving to me. If they weren't giving it to me, I'd take the free base and let the other guys drive me in."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.