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Tigers 2020 player preview: Daniel Norris could be back in all his glory

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Can the once-top prospect build on a solid finish in 2019?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

It is hard to believe that 2020 will be Daniel Norris’ fifth full season with the Detroit Tigers. Perhaps that is because, since the team acquired him from the Toronto Blue Jays as part of a package for David Price back in 2015, the young southpaw has pitched over 100 innings at the major league level just twice.

Between 2016 and 2018, Norris pitched just 215 13 innings in all, including 39 starts in 47 appearances, to a 4.76 ERA, 1.51 WHIP and 93 ERA+. The groin injury he suffered in 2017 sapped his velocity, and required a second procedure to clean up scar tissue in 2018, effectively torpedoing both seasons. In the process, the promise he showed helping to carry the club within a game of the postseason down the stretch in 2016 has long since been relegated to the past in the eyes of many. However, Norris finally put the injury in his rearview mirror last year, and still only 26 years old, revitalized hope of finally fulfilling some of that early potential.

In 2019, Norris was finally healthy enough to pitch a full-ish slate of games, throwing a career high in innings (144 13), games (32) and strikeouts (125), the first time he topped the century mark.

After a rough Aug. 6 outing against the Chicago White Sox, the Tigers were ready to shut Norris down due to workload concerns. He wrote a letter to his coaches, asking to be allowed to finish out the season, and a compromise was agreed upon. Norris became subject to an innings limit per start, and thrived under those conditions. In nine shortened starts, Norris compiled a 3.33 ERA in 27 innings, striking out 27 while holding batters to a .208 batting average with a .231 BABIP.

So if 2019 was his first healthy season in years, what is to come in 2020?

Norris is a good bet to beat projections

Unfortunately, the popular projection systems are not stakeholders in the “Daniel Norris redemption arc.” Steamer projects him as the third-most productive Detroit pitcher, but only to the tune of 1.7 WAR with a 4.93 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, and 4.91 FIP. ZiPS is a bit more of a fan, but not by much; they have the lefthander acquiring 1.9 WAR on a 4.74 ERA and 1.40 WHIP.

Neither system has him topping 150 innings, and those projected numbers would be a downgrade from last season.

Objectively, it is fair to recognize that Norris does not boast a sparkling track record filled with success and dominance; he has kept an ERA below .400 in over over 100 major league innings, after all.

On the other hand, projection systems aren’t always in business to evaluate injuries nor a return to health beyond them. Those are factors the projection systems can’t always quantify.

However, if 2019 was the season Norris relearned how to walk, 2020 could be the season he remembers how to run. After a healthy year, clean offseason and newfound talent as a barista, Norris appears as primed for a rebound as ever.

Let us assume that his projections fall closer to worst-case scenario as opposed to best case. What might the other end of the spectrum look like?

In 2019, Norris’ best pitch by a number of metrics — whiff percentage, putaway percentage, expected sluggin (xSLG) and expected weighted on-base average (xWOBA) — was, by far, his changeup. In April, about six percent of his pitches were changeups. By September, that number jumped to 33 percent, making it his second-most used pitch behind the four-seam fastball. And as the fastball ticked up a bit in velocity late in the season, so did the results Norris was getting from the changeup.

Additionally, Norris’ worst pitch (in terms of putaway percentage), the sinker, completely disappeared in August and September. In those two months, Norris was effectively a three-pitch pitcher with the fastball, changeup and slider. His two main off-speed offerings made up 54.7 percent of the pitches he threw in September, where he posted an even 3.00 ERA in five starts. Norris’ fastball velocity also ticked up a bit as the season went on (he topped out at 94.8 miles per hour in September), which could have helped keep hitters a bit more honest.

If Norris is able to focus more on his deadly off-speed pitches and regain a bit of velocity from his healthier self, we might be looking at an earned run average closer to (or under!) 4.00, rather than the 5.00 that Steamer and ZiPS are projecting.

Of course, the question of innings comes into play, since Norris finished the 2019 season throwing three innings a start before handing the ball off to the departed Drew VerHagen. Perhaps manager Ron Gardenhire wants to start Norris off in a similar role; who might he pair with the starter? Assuming it is another right-handed pitcher like VerHagen, Rule 5 acquisition Rony Garcia could come into play. If not, Daniel Norris could just go out as a regular ‘ol starter without an everyday limit placed on his left arm. If he can stay healthy, he has potential to slot in as a fine complement to Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull in the 2020 rotation.