Tigers SP Daniel Norris Isn't Back -- But He Might Return Better Than Before

The 26-year-old once again has reasons for hope.

Will Burchfield
May 14, 2019 - 2:53 pm

© Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

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He does his best not to dwell on it, and lately he’s been doing better. Whether or not his velocity will return, that mid-90’s smoke he came here with a few years ago, doesn’t consume Daniel Norris the way it has in the recent past. The fretting is futile. Still, if Norris is being honest, it’s the first thing he thinks about every morning when he wakes up. He just wishes his fastball would wake up with him.

It’s been a season of mixed messages so far for the 26-year-old Norris. At the moment, he finds himself in a sort of emotional limbo. The results have been encouraging, especially since he reclaimed a spot in the rotation last month. His ERA (3.63) is the lowest it’s been in two years. Pitching without his best fastball has sharpened the rest of his repertoire. And this is where Norris begins to shake his head. If only his best fastball would return.

Last Thursday, Norris and Spencer Turnbull – the surprise arm in the Tigers’ rotation – shared an animated discussion in the clubhouse. For five minutes or so, they mimicked their throwing motions and talked about the mental side of a sometimes excruciatingly mental game. The game has been easy this season on Turnbull. It’s been much more of a puzzle for Norris, who’s trying to piece things together in the reverse order of his entire career.  

“That’s kind of what we were just talking about,” Norris said upon sitting down in the chair in front of his locker. “When you have 95 (mph) in your back pocket, you’re like, ‘Alright, motherf’er, hit this.’ And right now if I rear back, it’s 91. I’m just like, dang. But it’s made me challenge hitters with my offspeed better. That way when it does mysteriously come back, I’m going to still have that offspeed feel and I’ll be better for it.

“But it’s obviously a little frustrating just because I’ve thrown hard my whole life and now I can’t. It’s just sort of discouraging, but it is what it is. Can’t keep beating a dead horse.”

Norris sighed. He’s right. There’s little point in worrying the matter to death. Anyway, these things take time. Norris had groin surgery about a year ago to address an injury that first surfaced in 2017, when his velocity began to decline. His former teammate, Justin Verlander, underwent a similar operation in the 2014 offseason and struggled for the better part of the next two seasons. His velocity dipped to career-low levels. There were questions as to whether it would ever come back.

Those questions are laughable now. Verlander, 36, sat in the visitors dugout at Comerica Park on Monday before the Astros took on the Tigers and reflected on his long road back to dominance. For most of the 2014 season, he said, his body “was all out of whack.” He was in pain every time he threw a pitch. Baseball wasn’t fun. It wasn’t until the next season, after he got himself right physically, that he rediscovered his groove.

“It took a while. It took me probably a good year,” he said. “It just doesn’t come back right away. It’s just not there.”

Throughout his recovery, Verlander was bullish that his velocity would return. He just needed time and the right rehab. Norris is of the same mind. His body finally feels right. His arm, he said, “feels great.” Now it’s just a matter of when. This isn’t a man waiting around for something that’s already gone. In the last few pitches of his last start of spring training this year, Norris proved that the fastball he lost hasn’t been lost for good.

For much of the afternoon, as was the case for most of the spring, Norris was maxing out at 90, 91 mph. He got knocked around a bit in his final inning, and then he got mad. “Screw it,” he decided. “I’m just going to throw it.” So he reached back like he used to and smacked one into the catcher’s glove.

“I released the ball and I was like, holy crap. I haven’t felt that in a long time. I remember looking back (at the scoreboard) and it said 93 (mph). I was like, okay, I can get more. Next pitch: 94. Okay, next pitch: 94. Okay, next pitch: 94. I was like, there it is,” Norris said.

It’s the best Norris has felt, he said, in at least a year. 2018 was a lost cause from pretty much the moment it began. The end of 2017 wasn’t much better. When the groin problem first popped up that season, other injuries ensued. Soon Norris was pitching himself into a knot, much like Verlander did in 2014. Worried about making things even worse, Norris said he lost the “conviction of rearing back and throwing.” He’s just beginning to regain it.

The challenge is regaining it for good. Since finding that zone in his last start of the spring, Norris admits he hasn’t been able to get it back. He’s not entirely sure why, though part of the reason is the anger that fueled it can’t be conjured out of thin air. When Norris is in a groove, he says he “sees red” on the mound. He’s still waiting for the spark this season, at which point his fastball, which has sat around 90 mph thus far, might start to simmer like it did before.

“It’s obviously there. It wasn’t like I had surgery and I’ll never throw hard again. I showed myself I could,” Norris said. “It’s just kind of recreating that feeling. It’s weird. You have your routine, but it’s hard to get pissed off in your bullpens and really air it out. But I’m definitely confident (it will come back). I don’t need a miracle. I just need continued reps. And as a I continue to do that I’m going to be fine.”

As it is, Norris has pitched well since replacing Matt Moore in the Tigers rotation. He’s allowed three runs or less in four of his five starts, throwing his offspeed pitches more consistently for strikes. His strikeouts might be down, but more significantly, so are his walks.

Last Sunday, Norris held the hot-hitting Twins to two runs over 6 1/3 innings. It was his longest start in almost two full years. Back then, Norris was working with a fastball in the mid-90’s and slider in the upper-80’s. This was his ‘A’ stuff, the stuff he arrived with from Toronto as the prized prospect in the David Price trade midway through the 2015 season. For the next couple years it all came easy. These days?  

“I’m showing myself I can compete with literally my ‘D’ stuff right now. Honestly if I can just get back to my ‘B’ stuff, it’s going to be great. My ‘B’ stuff in the past been 92-95 (mph), my ‘A’ stuff has been 94-96-97 (mph),” Norris said. “If I can get into that happy medium, I’ll be great.”

Coming out of spring training, Norris wasn’t in a good place. He had been relegated to the bullpen and knew he deserved it. Then he got tagged in his second appearance of the season. 2019 was starting to feel like 2018. This couldn’t be happening again, could it? But an opportunity came his way shortly thereafter, and Norris has started to write a new script. If he can combine it with his original one, he knows he can be better than ever before.

“He’s getting more and more confident. That’s the big thing,” Ron Gardenhire said on Monday. “He’s one of these guys when he first got up here, he’s looking around all the time and always worried about something. I think he’s kind of gotten past that point. That’s a start, that’s No. 1. Quit worrying about, ‘Am I going to be in the rotation?’ Quit worrying about velocity or anything like that. Just find a way to get them out.

“That’s what he did (Sunday) and that’s what he has to continue to do. He’s thrown the ball pretty good a couple of times. Those are big steps forward for him to get past the, ‘Well, he’s been hurt an awful lot.’ We want to get past all that and just move forward.”

Norris is past the pain. He’s past the doubts that surfaced last season that he might never be the same. He’s yet to clear the hurdle on his mind every morning, but he’s confident that he will in time. Maybe he just needs to get good and mad. If we see him throw 97, can we assume that’s the case?

Norris smiled.

“If you see me throw 97,” he said, “you can tell everybody I’m back.”