By: Will Burchfield

Amid his discouraging, injury-plagued 2017 season, Daniel Norris lost the strike zone. Badly, at times.

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The result was lots of walks and lots of short outings. And loads of frustration.

“I think going into last year I expected at the very least to continue moving forward, and unfortunately it just wasn’t happening. And I think the harder I tried the worse I did,” Norris told 97.1 The Ticket.

For the 24-year-old lefty, the issue wasn’t so much an inability to pitch within the strike zone. It was an inability to stray effectively beyond it.

Instead of teasing a fastball up by the letters, Norris would sail it past the batter’s eyes. Instead of dangling a slider just below the knees, he’d spike it into the dirt. In his desire to flummox hitters, Norris often flummoxed himself.

“The big misses,” Norris said. “I have to eliminate those.”

They change the complexion of an at-bat. They’re liable to change the complexion of a game. If hitters don’t respect a pitcher’s ability to throw strikes, they’ll wait for one they like. And then they’ll hammer it.

Norris found this out the hard way. No pitcher who threw at least 100 innings last year allowed a higher-rate of hard contact.

“If I’m throwing the ball seven feet high and you go (from an 0-1 count) to 1-1, the batter’s thinking, ‘This guy has no idea where the ball’s going. I’m going to make him throw strikes,'” Norris explained. “But when I miss close, they’re thinking, ‘Oh, that was a close pitch. I have to be ready for the next one.’ And that’s when they’re in swing mode.”

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And that’s when Norris’ arsenal becomes dangerous. That’s when he can get the whiffs — and the outs — he desires.

No one’s ever doubted his natural ability. Every pitching coach he’s worked with, from his amateur days to his time in the bigs, has told Norris the same thing: Your stuff is plenty good. You just have to use it better.

Looking to fully harness his talent, Norris underwent some important physical changes this offseason through a sports science training center in California. He studied his body to understand the source of his myriad injuries last season. He improved his range of motion and fluidity.

“It was an investment in myself, and I knew that I needed to do that,” he said.

But, as is typically the case with Norris, the key adjustment in the 2018 season will be a mental one. In short, Norris needs to learn to do less. No more over-throwing.

No more big misses.

“The bottom line with that is just trying to make it too nasty,” Norris admitted. “For me, a chase pitch doesn’t have to be better than any of the pitches that got you to that point. That’s where I start wasting pitches and missing a lot.”

Norris pitched past the sixth inning in just two of his 18 starts last season. It was mostly his own doing. To stay on the mound longer this season, he’ll need to apply a lesson he learned off the mound this winter: “Working hard isn’t necessarily better than working smart,” he said.

That doesn’t mean less effort. It certainly doesn’t mean less care. In these areas, Norris is ahead of the curve.

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It means, most fundamentally, more efficiency. If Norris pitches smart, his stuff will take care of the rest.