Trying to define Daniel Norris

While Daniel Norris has been on the radar of prospect fans for quite some time, he really got his first taste of a national spotlight when he was involved in the trade that sent David Price from Detroit to the Toronto Blue Jays. Norris was perhaps the main piece sent to Motown, although fellow pitcher Matt Boyd could be argued as well. Norris was seen as a middle rotation starter, with some slight upside to reach top of the rotation status. While there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect, Norris maintained very strong strikeout numbers all through the minors, while always tempering his walk rates to bearable marks.

Norris spent some time after the trade in the Show, but next year in 2016 he split time between the minors and majors. When he was pitching with the major league club, Norris looked really good. His 3.38 ERA was excellent, although his ERA estimators like FIP and SIERA had him closer to 4.00. This was in large part due to his strikeout and walk rates being good, but nothing really exceptional (23.5% and 7.3% respectively).

This last year, 2017, we saw him climb up to where the advanced metrics had projected him, and then even higher. His ERA reached 5.31, with a FIP of 4.39 and a SIERA of 4.94. Norris hit a hard sophomore slump, his team barely benefiting from using him instead of a random pitcher with just a 1.3 fWAR. Norris’ strikeouts crashed to 18.7%, while his walks rose to 9.6%. Obviously this is not a combination destined for success, and it’s led many fantasy players and casual observers as well wondering if there’s a bounce-back season in the works, or if Norris is just another example as to why we can just never guess with pitchers.

Before we read too much into just numbers, let’s not forget Norris had part of his season knowingly derailed by leg injuries, which led the Tigers to use him out of the bullpen down the stretch (limiting his innings as well as a rehab/prehab type usage). When I say knowingly, I mean from where he was placed on the disabled list. Guys often try to work through minor issues then tend to either be worse than they thought, or blow up down the stretch. Both hurt their numbers, and both should be taken into account when we already know he had some nagging injuries.

Injured or not, Norris didn’t seem to lose much velocity because of it. His fastball velocity went from 93.9 MPH to 93.5 MPH, which is not ideal but pretty well accepted for a pitcher to lose some juice every year, especially when he already throws decently hard. But while the speed was still there, the effectiveness was not. The heater was almost a neutral pitch in 2016 at 2.1 runs below average, but in 2017 is fell into a crater at 16.5 runs below average. His movement on the pitch stayed static during the two years, but instead what’s interesting is the arm angle:

When a pitcher raises his arm angle, generally we see they lose movement on their pitches. However this can have a great effect on the breaking pitches, and this makes sense as we saw Norris increase his slider usage from 15.8% to 22.8%. It seems that Norris took a known risk on the fastball to better his change, which worked as the pitch went from 0.1 runs below average to 2.3 runs above. But the risk on the fastball was too much, tanking any extra value the change added.

And to add even further intrigue, look at his horizontal release points:

Norris stayed relatively close to the same spot in 2016, but in 2017 he experimented with different spots before finally moving back closer to his original one when coming back from injury. Still, he was miserable in September (5.40 ERA, 3.7 K/9).

Norris started the year off hot, with 8.91 K/9 in May and then 9.79 K/9 in June, with an average 3.61 BB/9 (not great but passable with the high strikeouts). This was the height of his arm angle experimentation peak, and before long he ended up hurt, but there’s a few things to note. He was pitching pretty well, although he needed better control, and the leg issue most likely came from something unrelated to his arm angle mechanics. The legs definitely drive power behind pitches, but also balance and stabilize to help with control.

It’s not outrageous to say that a season long issue with his leg cost him the control he needed on his fastball, resulting in walks and hitters sitting on the pitch to crush it. The changeup looked good and has an even better ceiling if his control comes back, and if the fastball starts to reach average he’s going to be a strong pitcher.

Daniel Norris is a bit of an enigma, because his success relies on his struggles coming from an injury. If you’re really buying into this line of thinking, Norris will be a late round steal, as it looks very likely that a healthy Norris has the same, or better, strikeouts, with much improved control. But if this seems like too much peripheral stat magic to try and justify a popular breakout candidate last year, then just stay away and shop for other bargains. One thing we do know: Norris has one of the best beards in the majors – at least he has that going for him.

 

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James Krueger

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James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.