Updated: Jun 28, 2021
The Cincinnati Reds were mediocre during the late 2000s and didn't exactly have a world-beating lineup in 2007, losing 90 games. Core guys like Brandon Phillips made his Reds debut in the year prior and Joey Votto made his first appearance in the majors in 2007 with Jay Bruce soon to follow in 2008. However, the Reds had an exciting player make his debut during the 2006 season who had a crazy 2007 campaign and then was out of baseball almost as quickly as he could get up the first-base line on a bunt attempt.
That player would be Norris Hopper.
Hopper fit the bill of the prototypical speedy outfielder of that era, great contact hitter, fast but no power. He was similar to guys like Joey Gathright and Jason Tyner.
Hopper also has one of the coolest names ever, but let's get into what you're reading this article for.
Norris Hopper had a career that we had never seen before and probably will never see again.
HOPPING AROUND (MINOR LEAGUES)
Hopper was drafted out of Shelby HS in Shelby, North Carolina by the Kansas City Royals in 1998, instantly showing what he was capable of with the GCL Royals. Despite only hitting three extra base hits out of 41, he had a solid showing, batting .308 and walking 13 times as opposed to striking out 12 times. He quickly showed tremendous plate discipline and a steady hand in the outfield.
He contributed more of the same the next two seasons with Single-A Charleston, batting .290 and having a 70/75 K/BB ratio. A singles hitter by design with explosive speed, it made sense why he didn't notch as many extra-base hits during his career, but in his first full season at Charleston, he hit 20 doubles and six triples which was the highest XBH total to that point in his career.
The Royals called Hopper up to the Wilmington Blue Rocks (hey, I know them!) in the Carolina League, which proved to be his toughest test yet, batting .261 in almost 950 plate appearances, stealing 38 bases, hitting his first two professional home runs and driving in 84 runs in two years in the great state of Delaware. His discipline wavered these two seasons though as his K/BB was the furthest apart it had ever been over a two-season span, checking in at 63/115.
Spending the next two seasons with the Wichita Wranglers, he was quite productive with the bat and shored up the K/BB ratio but still was far apart. He drove in 40 runs both seasons in Wichita with zero home runs, which I thought was pretty cool. He had 60 walks as opposed to 102 strikeouts in these two seasons and stole 31 bases. To that point in his career, he swiped 137 bags, and for the first time in his career, he got to pick where he played after a season.
SEEING RED (2005-2006)
Hopper signed with the Cincinnati Reds which turned out to be a sneaky good signing for the team, spending his first year in the organization at Chattanooga. He batted .310 with a home run, knocking in 37 runs and stealing 25 bases. He got his discipline in check as well, walking 27 times and striking out 38 times. This season put Hopper on the Reds' radar as a potential piece, but with Ken Griffey Jr., Austin Kearns and Adam Dunn already in the outfield, it would be tough for Hopper to stick on the roster.
Heading to the Louisville Bats and also spending time at Chattanooga, Hopper raked in the minors during the 2006 season, batting .340 and having a 26/28 ratio at the plate. He batted .347 alone at Louisville, signifying that he could make the jump to the big club.
In August of that season, he finally got recalled in a flurry of roster moves. His contract was purchased on August 20 alongside Eddie Guardado heading to the disabled list, activating Matt Belisle from the DL, placing Chris Michalak on the bereavement list and designating Mike Burns for assignment.
So what did Hopper do in his first at-bat? Lashed a single off Pirates' closer Mike Gonzalez. This guy hit at every level so it was no surprise he did so in the MLB.
Playing in just 21 games and getting 47 at-bats in 2006, Hopper made the most of it, batting .359/.435/.462 (14/39) and walking more times than he struck out at a 6/4 clip. He also hit his only major league home run this season off of Rich Hill on September 22. It was a small sample size, but it showed that he could handle MLB pitching, also benefitting from a BABIP of .371 and notching a 127 OPS+.
LOCKED IN (2007 SEASON)
While he dealt with a heel injury to start the 2007 season, he came back in mid-April and never slowed down for the remainder of the season. He hit like crazy in May, batting .365 in that month and getting chances in the lead-off spot with his discipline abilities and speed. He was also a joy to watch in the outfield as well.
The first crazy stat? He utilized a strong push bunt throughout the season, notching 18 hits of the bunt variety. In bunt-hit attempts, he batted 18-26, or .692, second only to Willy Taveras who was 37/52 (.712). That means there was a nearly 70-percent chance Hopper would get a hit when he laid down a bunt attempt, he was just that fast. I will take those odds any day of the week. 18 of his 101 hits on the season were bunt hits, about 17-percent total. I've seen a lot of tweets that say his bunts were automatic (when name-searching Hopper), and after looking at the stats, it's true.
His final two months of the season were even crazier, batting .381 from August to September and just putting on a show of small-ball out there. It was beautiful to watch, and he proved why he belonged in the major leagues, hitting almost everything that was thrown at him. He recorded 101 hits coming mostly off the bench, which I think any team would take.
His final stat line in 2007: .329 BA (101/309), .371 OBP, .367 BABIP, 14 RBI, 14 SB, 14 2B, .758 OPS, .339 wOBA, 2 DRS, 7.6 UZR, 2.3 fWAR. A solid season in almost every way, especially on the defensive side, where he was about 13-percent better than league average. He also walked 20 times and struck out 33 times.
Just think about it-- 2.3 fWAR in less than 400 plate appearances. That's a ridiculous season in a small sample size. Most guys are lucky to do that over a full season, Hopper did it in about two-thirds of the at-bats a regular player would get.
He and Josh Hamilton both had multiple four-hit games as rookies during that season. Hopper had ten 3+ hit games during that season. He had a lot of hits in a short period of time and 21 of them were of the bunt variety.
Norris Hopper finds himself in several trivia categories as well.
Cincinnati Reds to bat .320 or higher since 2000 (min. 100 hits)
Chris Stynes (2000, .334)
Jose Guillen (2003, .337)
Sean Casey (2004, .324)
Norris Hopper (2007, .329)
Joey Votto (5 times)
Hopper's 2007 was not only among the best in Reds history, but also in major league rookie history as well.
Since 2000, rookies to bat at least .329 (min. 200 PA):
Albert Pujols (2001, .329)
Ichiro (2001, .350)
Luke Scott (2006, .336)
Norris Hopper (2007, .329)
James Loney (2007, .331)
Trea Turner (2016, .342)
Jeff McNeil (2018, .329)
That's pretty select company right there, especially the top two players. It's a shame Hopper's career was shorter than all the players listed. However, Hopper's 2007 was seemingly out of nowhere and leaves him in some interesting categories.
Hopper's fielding is another great bullet point for him, as he was basically flawless, recording just one error in his career in over 800 innings to finish with a .996 fielding percentage in MLB over all three outfield positions combined.
2008 was not the same for Hopper. He dealt with injuries throughout, only appearing in 16 games before tearing his UCL and missing the remainder of the season. He batted just .200, but that still left him at .316 in his career and also had a 31/43 K/BB ratio.
Unfortunately for Norris, he never made it back to the majors, playing for several other organizations before hanging up the cleats in 2012, finishing with 1,503 overall hits and 125 of them in the majors (only seven home runs!) when he retired. Sometimes, that's the business of baseball and Hopper had to experience that head-on. It's a shame guys like him didn't stick around longer in baseball, they were some of my favorite players and Hopper is certainly the poster-child for that.
Stat lines like this are why 2006-2008 is my favorite baseball era. It was so amazingly weird that there are so many dives you can take into interesting quirks about these seasons, and Hopper's 2007 is certainly one of them.
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