CHICAGO -- The handwritten note wasn’t much bigger than a scorecard, according to Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire. It was the case from Daniel Norris to stick in the Tigers' rotation for the stretch run, rather than be shut down for September.
“He wrote a nice big message, and it was on a little bitty page,” said Gardenhire, holding up a tiny scorecard as an example. “And it was really neatly written in little bitty words, and I can't hardly freaking see them. But it basically read: Don't shut me down. I want to pitch the rest of the season. I like being a starter and I'd like to pitch the rest of the season.
“He gave us reasons why and it was pretty in-depth and it was really cool. It was a nice written letter.”
It was a little more than a letter.
“I heard that I had an innings cap, and I wrote like a research paper: This is why I shouldn't have an innings cap, this is why I should finish out the year,” Norris said. “And so when I handed them that, I think maybe they reconsidered it.”
The three-inning start was a compromise between the Tigers’ plan and Norris’ research. Pitching coach Rick Anderson proposed it, telling Norris to stick with the starting routine he had developed over the course of the season, but concentrate his effort into three innings.
The results from Norris provided a badly needed bright spot in the midst of a difficult stretch run. With three scoreless innings against the Twins on Wednesday at Comerica Park, the 26-year-old finished the season with a 4.49 ERA. He posted a 3.33 ERA in his nine mini-starts, striking out 27 batters over as many innings while allowing 20 hits and a .208 opposing batting average.
“I think it's a step in the right direction,” Gardenhire said. “I think he feels good about himself.”
Just as important, Norris finished with a sense of confidence that wasn’t there in past years. It wasn’t simply about results, but the process that led to them.
“I've always loved working out and I've always been in tune with my body,” Norris said. “But this year it was different. I literally was in love with working out and trying to redline my body every day to the point where I was going to pass out. Because in my head, I just knew it was going to pay off. I knew I was going to be better for it. I'd finish pitching and I'm like, 'I can't wait for tomorrow to get to work out.' …
“I've always worked the same. I've always probably done too much. But it was almost the mental aspect of it. I think in the past I was working out to stay healthy, I was working out to get bigger or whatever. But this year I was working out so I had zero doubt. My biggest thing this year was the night before and the day of my start. Of course you wake up and have different anxiety than the other days. This year it was like if I ever started feeling an ounce of doubt, I'd be like, 'You know what, I trained hard.' And as soon as I uttered those words in my head, that doubt and fear was gone, and I'd just walk to the field. I trained hard. I checked every single box. Whatever happens, happens. I have zero fear. Nobody can knock me on that. If I go out there and give up 15 runs, that doesn't matter because I worked my butt off every day.”
With Norris’ season over, the workouts will pick up again, transitioning to the offseason. He again plans to work out in California, trying to build towards a 200-inning season. That might be a tad ambitious, especially since the Tigers haven’t determined whether he’ll open in the rotation next year.
“I think he's going to go and fight for the rotation,” Gardenhire said. “Depending on how it all breaks down, he's a valuable asset either way, whether we use him as a starter or bring him out of the pen. He can chew up innings just like that coming out of the 'pen, too. He can pitch to righties and lefties. He's already proven that. Those guys are going to be very valuable no matter which way we go. I think he's done very well this year.”
Thanks to a persuasive research paper and a receptive pitching coach, he now has the feeling of a full season, including 29 starts this year.
“That's him,” Norris said, “and I'm so grateful for that.”