There weren’t many bright spots where the 2019 Detroit Tigers were concerned, but Daniel Norris was certainly one of them. After two seasons plagued by injury in which he threw just 170 innings total, the fact that he was able to make 29 starts and rack up 144 1⁄3 innings with league average results was a distinct improvement. Also encouraging was a fairly emphatic finish to stoke embers of hope that the 26-year-old’s best days are still ahead of him.
Norris, along with Matthew Boyd and Michael Fulmer, remains in a peculiar position on the Tigers’ roster. All three were acquired at the 2015 trade deadline, in then general manager Dave Dombrowski’s attempt to retool for a renewed push in 2016 and beyond. That timetable is now long by the wayside, of course.
Norris is projected to make $2.9M in his second year of arbitration in 2020, and reach free agency after the 2021 season, while Boyd and Fulmer won’t be free agents for another year beyond that. The Tigers still aren’t showing much interest in building the major league roster toward winning yet, and that, coupled with their history of aversion to offering extensions, makes it pretty difficult to imagine any of the trio sticking around for a theoretical return to winning baseball.
Odds are that Norris won’t end up serving out his arbitration years in Detroit. On the other hand he’ll have to pitch well enough to draw stronger trade interest.
What went right in 2019?
The short answer is health, and maybe, just maybe, signs of improving fastball velocity.
For the first time since 2015, Daniel Norris got through the season without a stint on the injured list. That alone made the year a success. From the initial groin strain that cost him July and August of the 2017 season, and which was apparently something he’d been pitching with for a while, Norris has struggled to put the injury and its complications behind him. In 2019, despite the occasional lingering soreness, he was finally able to get past that and pitch a full season.
As a result of that cascade of groin issues, Norris has been forced to make due with a fastball that averaged just over 90 mph over the past two seasons. From an average of 93.7 mph back in 2016, Norris has watched a weapon degrade into a liability.
That didn’t change much early in the 2019 season, but eventually Norris emerged with some real gains in velocity. He averaged 90.8 mph on his fourseam fastball this season, which is only marginally better than the 90.2 mph he averaged in 2018. However, from August 1 through the season’s end, Norris velocity spiked up to a 91.6 mph average, and he averaged 92 mph in September, maxing out at 96 mph as his workload was rolled back to three inning starts. Getting stronger as the season goes along is a very positive sign toward 2020.
Through all this, Norris has relied on an outstanding slider that hitters managed a miserable .253 weighted on base average (wOBA) against this season. Against his changeup? Just a .240 wOBA despite throwing the highest ratio of changeups of his career. That’s particularly impressive knowing that for most of the year, hitters only had to be geared up to hit 90 mph fastballs. If Norris can average more like 92-93 mph next season, he should see more whiffs and weak contact against the heater, and that will make the secondary pitches play up even more by contrast.
Another point in his favor was his willingness to attack hitters despite his diminished fastball. Norris has never been known for pinpoint command, but forced to survive by locating the fastball rather than blowing it past hitters at top of the zone, he made a pretty good show of it. Norris walked just 6.2 percent of batters he faced this season. That’s easily the best mark of his career and over a full point better than the league average. He paid for that willingness to work in the zone with hard contact and a decline in strikeout rate, but overall his 1.33 WHIP was the best of his career.
What went wrong in 2019?
Considering the starting point, there weren’t many negatives for Norris this year. His fastball has yet to fully recapture its former zip, but with the trend moving in the right direction as Norris has recovered from the groin injury, that’s not so much of a concern. What remains a concern, is Norris’ propensity to give up home runs and hard contact off his fastball. Those two issues are inextricably linked.
Norris allowed 1.56 home runs per nine innings this season. League average was 1.40 as overall the league saw a continued trend toward balls flying out of the park. An isolated power (ISO) mark of .291 against the fastball tells us that most of the damage came against the hard stuff.
This is the crux of the biscuit for Norris. Pitching with less velocity has forced him to improve his command and lean more heavily on his slider and changeup. He just isn’t getting the whiffs and weak contact on the fastball that he did early in his career. Yet overall he posted a solid whiff rate despite the strikeouts declining to 20.5 percent. If he can carry the improving fastball velocity into 2020, he should be able to be more aggressive with it and also bait hitters more often with fastballs around the edges rather than the “pump strikes and see what happens” approach he used in 2019.
This offseason, Norris will have the first break in recent memory in which he’s not dealing with rehabilitation from a surgical procedure, and should be free and clear to actually build strength and improve flexibility. While there is still a possibility that a relief role is in his future, that outcome looks less likely right now. And if Norris can find that extra gear, while retaining what he’s learned from surviving in the majors with diminished physical gifts, the 2020 season could yet be a second coming out party for the former high end prospect.
Barring a low cost extension, which the Tigers should absolutely be pursuing but presumably are not, he’s going to end up as trade bait at some point. The problem is that there just isn’t much time to build his value, particularly if there is a change in his role along the way. Right now, he should have a spot in the 2020 rotation more or less locked down unless he struggles in the spring.
Best case scenario is that Norris comes out next year sitting comfortably at 92-93 mph after his first healthy offseason in several years, and is ready to give manager Ron Gardenhire 175 innings of above average work in the rotation. If he does, the Tigers will finally have the quality starter they initially hoped he’d become. The problem will remain how to best leverage his value toward the future. If the injury bug continues to bite, a move to the bullpen will finally be in the offing, and in that scenario it’s a lot harder seeing Norris develop any real trade value before the Tigers’ team control over him expires.