DETROIT – Pitching is the center of the Detroit Tigers universe right now, with three elite prospects knocking on the door in the minor leagues and Matt Boyd representing the team’s best player and trade chip.
Even beyond Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal, the Tigers have a handful of minor leaguers -- Alex Faedo, Joey Wentz, Franklin Perez, Beau Burrows and others -- generating buzz during the rebuild.
But one player who’s not getting much attention is Daniel Norris, a 26-year-old coming off the best season of his career. Most don’t remember Norris was once an elite prospect in his own right. He was the No. 25 prospect in baseball and the No. 5 left-handed pitcher in 2014 before he made the jump to MLB.
Injuries and disastrous outings have derailed his hype train, but he’s locked into the starting rotation this season and will have a chance to build on one of the most promising developments of 2019.
Norris made a career-high 29 starts and 32 appearances last season -- his first without a major injury. His final numbers weren’t impressive -- 4.49 ERA, 4.61 FIP, 1.330 WHIP, 7.8 K/9. He allowed 154 hits in 144.1 innings and only struck out 125 batters.
But there were enough good starts and the finish was strong. Norris quietly finished the season with 2.9 WAR, according to Baseball Reference -- just behind Boyd’s 3.5 WAR for the best on the team.
The way Norris turned his season around certainly wasn’t conventional. His first three appearances came out of the bullpen before injuries to Matt Moore and Tyson Ross. He allowed 11 hits, four earned runs and there walks in 8.1 innings. Batters hit .324 against him with a 1.025 OPS. His swinging strike rate was a feeble 6%.
He was a bit better as a conventional starter, though still not great. Over the next 20 starts, Norris posted a 4.79 ERA with an .805 opponent OPS and a 10% swinging strike rate. He was a back-of-the-rotation starter at best.
Then, after Norris’ first start in August, the Tigers decided to be cautious. He was already at a career-high 117.1 innings. He’d only thrown 44.1 innings in 2018, and his previous high was 101.2.
In order to protect his arm, they committed to holding him to three innings per start down the stretch. He made nine such starts, and the results were much more promising.
Norris allowed just 20 hits and seven walks in 27 innings while striking out 27 batters. His swinging strike rate soared to 14% and batters hit just .208 with a .683 OPS.
Norris gave up four earned runs in his first three-inning start and three earned runs in the fifth three-inning start. He never allowed more than one one in any of the other seven appearances. Four of them were scoreless, and all seven featured three base runners or fewer.
Shorter outings allow Norris to better utilize what made him such a promising prospect in the first place: his raw stuff. Norris loves to throw fastballs, and his spin rate on that pitch is above league average. Norris got whiffs on 29.8% of his sliders and 37.6% of his change-ups, giving him three plus pitches. He struggled to get through five or six innings effectively with that three-pitch mix, but it plays up in shorter outings.
This could be a stepping stone for Norris in figuring out how to be a true MLB starter. It could also be the best role for him during his MLB career. Either way, he has turned into a valuable player, and the Tigers need to put him in position to succeed.
Could Rony Garcia -- the team’s No. 1 pick in the Rule 5 draft -- be an option to pair with Norris? That was Drew VerHagen’s job a year ago, and he’s no longer on the team. With an extra roster spot added this season, the Tigers can better afford to dedicate a reliever to Norris’ starts.
Garcia has to be on the 26-man roster, or else the Tigers must offer him back to the New York Yankees. He’s been a starter his entire career in the minor leagues, and there’s no room in the Tigers’ current starting rotation. A Norris-Garcia combo every five games would offer Tigers fans a glimpse at two possible pieces of the future.