By: Will Burchfield
It is both revealing and reassuring that after Daniel Norris’ most recent start, a six-inning, one-run effort on Monday versus the Indians in which he picked up the win, neither Norris nor his manager sounded wholly satisfied.
“I would definitely say I was pleased with the fact that I left with the lead, went six innings and gave my team a chance to win,” Norris said. “But definitely not satisfied as far as my work. I’ve just gotta be better.”
Said Brad Ausmus, “I’d still like to see him throw more strikes, get ahead of hitters, and when he is ahead of hitters not lose the hitters. But he’s got raw stuff and his stuff can get him through it. One run, six innings, we’ll take that every time — but we think there’s a little bit more room before he hits his ceiling.”
Given his natural ability, Norris, 24, is viewed through a different lens. Just as six innings of one-run ball on Monday was met with ho-hum replies, his performance over the past two seasons with the Tigers, during which time Norris has pitched to a 3.55 ERA and averaged almost a strikeout per inning, feels satisfactory at best.
Asked if he agrees with Ausmus, if he believes he has much more room to grow, Norris was quick to respond.
“Oh yeah, no doubt. I think there’s just a ton of things in my game I gotta refine, and the most glaring one right now is throwing strikes. Once I begin to do that more consistently then I’ll get closer to reaching that ceiling,” he said. “It’s just a matter of always making adjustments.”
Inconsistent command has been the biggest drag on Norris’ young career. It has especially plagued him this season. Through five starts, he is yielding five walks per nine innings. All those errant offerings and free passes have driven up his pitch count, limiting Norris’ ability to work deep into games.
In 2017, he is averaging about 102 pitches per start despite lasting an average of about 5 1/3 innings. That’s right around 19 pitches per inning, which, even to the math-averse (me), is a pretty clear recipe for a short outing.
Exacerbating that problem is another: Norris’ inability to finish batters off. So often, it seems, he jumps ahead of a hitter 0-2, only to find himself in an extended and taxing battle five or six pitches later.
“Perfect example,” he said. “Even with the eight strikeouts (Monday night), I probably should have had even more. I was ahead of a few guys and then I’d get behind them and have to make a pitch for a strike and they’d put it in play or I’d walk them. That’s ultimately what I’m trying to eliminate.”
It is in these cases that Norris almost feels like a victim of his own talent. Knowing how good his stuff is – “It’s amazing,” said catcher Alex Avila – he tries to do more than he needs to.
“The thing is once he gets to 0-2, he tends to try to make perfect pitches,” said Avila. “As a pitcher you try to make your slider or changeup, whatever it may be, better than the last one you threw. And it typically doesn’t work that way, so the hitter ends up getting back in the count.”
The key for Norris, Avila said, is focusing on what got him to the 0-2 count in the first place.
“And then typically you see him relax and make a better pitch 2-2 than he did, let’s say, 0-2 , just because he’s not trying as hard,” Avila explained.
“The guys that go on runs and the real good ones are able to maintain that level of effort throughout the entire sequence of pitches and throughout the entire sequence of the game,” he added. “Those are the guys that tend to be more consistent than others, but those are battles that every pitcher goes through.”
It is strange to gripe about a pitcher, and a young pitcher at that, who has pitched so objectively well. In 23 of his 26 starts with the Tigers, Norris has allowed three earned runs or less. Just about every time he takes the mound he puts his team in a position to win. But there is more in that left arm. There is undeniably more.
“You can tell that he’s got the type of stuff that can make him a dominating pitcher,” said Avila. “With him it’s just a matter of learning and maturing and figuring himself out.”
When the Tigers acquired Norris from the Blue Jays as part of the David Price trade in 2015, he was seen as a potential ace. The mid-90’s fastball. The wipeout slider. The sweeping southpaw delivery. He’s shown flashes of fulfilling this potential in Detroit, but he still has much to learn.
“Most young pitchers have to become secure with their mechanics, have to be able to repeat their mechanics and repeat their release point in order to execute pitches and locate pitches,” said Ausmus. “You don’t see many young pitchers come up and have that ability right away.”
Therein lies the conundrum with Norris. His age and experience demands patience yet his ability shuns it. It is hard to give a guy time when he has such obvious big-league talent. If the fans are occasionally frustrated with Norris, it’s only a reflection of how much they expect of him.
“I think it’s well-warranted,” he said. “I believe in myself and I know that they believe in me, and I’m excited to reach that full potential. I have to realize, and I guess they have to realize, that it doesn’t happen overnight. I’m not just gonna wake up one morning and be perfect. I’m never gonna be perfect. But I’m always working to be better and it is a process, so you just have to trust it,” he said.
Norris embraces the standard to which he is held. He and Ausmus talk frequently, he said, often about how much better he can be. That they are both looking for more is proof that more exists.
After his start on Monday night, Norris spoke about being “out of whack.” Again: six innings, one run, eight strikeouts. But also: four walks and 106 pitches.
“If I can eliminate that,” he said, “I believe the sky is the limit.”