Finally healthy, Norris set to claim rotation spot

January 28th, 2019

DETROIT -- The first thing that stood out about as he talked with reporters last Thursday on the Tigers' Winter Caravan was, of course, the beard. He grows it out every offseason, and it gets big enough to provide him with insulation against Michigan's typical January ice-box temperatures.

The beard will likely be gone, or at least trimmed, by Spring Training in a few weeks. The offseason shape Norris has put himself in, though, will stay. As he tries to stake his claim for a spot in the Tigers' rotation, or at least on the roster, his health is a major hurdle to clear.

"It's everything," Norris said. "You just want to go out there and feel like yourself, have confidence in your body, no reservations when you throw a baseball. That free-and-easy feeling is what we're all chasing, so that's kind of been my main focus."

Norris didn't have that confidence last Spring Training, thanks to lingering left groin issues, which left him pitching in middle and long relief for most of camp. He held off on surgery after a follow-up visit with Dr. William Meyers, but ultimately decided on a procedure following a month of inconsistent pitching in a swing role.

Norris made it back for a September stint in the rotation, stretching out to 98 pitches but topping out at 5 1/3 innings. He picked up some more work in three winter ball starts in the Dominican Republic, then a few relief appearances in MLB's Japan Series, then went to work on getting past his health questions once and for all for 2019.

Norris returned to California to work out at Peak Performance Project for a month, then went back home to Johnson City, Tenn., for the holiday season, but made the four-hour drive once a week to work out at P3's Atlanta location. He did some mixed martial arts-style workouts to try to regain core explosiveness and agility.

The result is a pitcher who feels closer to his younger form, the form that made Norris a highly touted prospect in the Blue Jays system and the top prize in the trade four years ago. Most importantly, he's a pitcher who can go to Spring Training with his focus on his actual pitching.

"It's huge," pitching coach Rick Anderson said. "Anyone that's had any kind of an injury, to get over it and get through the mental part of it where you just concentrate on your craft and pitching instead of worrying about things, it's huge. Danny Norris says he feels great, so that's a good thing."

Norris had limited repetitions to work on his pitching down the stretch, thanks to the surgery. His fastball and slider velocities were down 3 and 4 mph from his 2017 averages, one reason the Tigers wanted him to get more work after the season in winter ball and in Japan. His strikeout rate was up, but his hard-hit rate soared to 46 percent, according to Statcast™. In some ways, Norris was an all-or-nothing pitcher.

If Norris can make tweaks in his pitches rather than worrying about tweaks in his health, expect those metrics to improve. It might not result in a starting job if everyone else is healthy, but it'll put him in a good position on the pitching staff entering a critical season.

Despite being in the Majors for parts of five seasons, Norris has just 282 big league innings on his resume. He doesn't turn 26 years old until April. He's just eight months older than Christin Stewart, the slugging left fielder who made his Major League debut for the Tigers last September.

There's still time for Norris to realize his pitching potential. But with top prospects looming for potential camp battles in 2020, his best opportunity is likely now.