Detroit Tigers 40-Man Roster Preview: LHP Daniel Norris
After an innings limit changed his role at the end of 2019, Daniel Norris looks to settle in as a long-term rotation arm for Detroit
Daniel Norris was finally healthy in 2019, pitching a career-high 144.1 innings for Detroit. Instead of shutting Norris down toward the end of the season, the Tigers opted to purposely shorten his starts in order to spread him out; allowing him to finish the season with the club. His starts since they decided to do so were encouraging, as evidenced nicely by Cody Stavenhagen’s piece for The Athletic.
The role was some variation of the opener, made famous by the Tampa Bay Rays’ Sergio Romo and Tyler Glasnow. Norris’ last 9 starts were a little unique, however, in that they were all exactly 3 innings rather than the standard 1 inning start typically deployed. Norris flourished in these starts; posting a 3.33 ERA and averaging a strikeout per inning.
The Tigers are faced with a decision: do they allow Norris to try to build on last season and start in 2020, or do they let him continue with the hybrid opener plan as long as it is working? The obvious upside in the opener role is that Norris would be effectively banished from ever working through a batting order the third time, which we know can be a pesky task for pitchers. Additionally, Norris may be able to stay fresh through his entire outing which may keep his stuff crisper both in terms of velocity and movement, depending on how often he made his starts.
The case for Norris starting is basically founded in the idea of maximizing his value. Although he was healthy last season, we have still yet to see what a full season of Daniel Norris starting on the mound looks like. If he does have his injuries out-of-the-way, the Tigers would have a long-term rotation piece or even a trade chip as their young pitchers begin to hit the big leagues. Any market for Norris would take a big hit if he was cornered into an opener role. In another lost Tigers season, the organization can afford to give him some leash to figure out starting.
Contrary to common belief, the opener role isn’t actually rooted in analytics; it’s rooted in necessity. Putting him in that position by choice would likely only be based on the fact that he pitched well there for 9 starts, which also begs the question of whether that would be a big enough sample size to make such a shift. His ability and willingness to pitch in those scenarios undoubtedly has value and may even come in handy in 2020, but I am not convinced it is a role the Tigers would put him in out of spring.
Norris isn’t necessarily out of the woods in terms of his struggles, however. Although he somehow produced 2.9 bWAR, his Statcast numbers aren’t as glossy–particularly his average exit velocity and his hard-hit percentage. Both ranked in the bottom 6 percent of the league, which means he may have had some good fortune to produce the numbers he did in 2019.
Look for the avid surfer and photographer to start in 2020 and possibly flex into that opener role if the Tigers have some of the same luck with injuries as they had last season. The great news is Norris is no longer so reliant on the slider; as his change-up has developed into a plus pitch to help him get outs on both sides of the plate. His fastball velocity is something to keep an eye on as the season goes on. Not only will that pitch generate more swings and misses itself, but the greater separation he has between the fastball and the change-up, the more awkward contact he will generate and we will begin to see those nasty hard-hit figures start to fall.
This is a building block-type year for Norris. If he is healthy once again, the Tigers will have a sneaky underrated 1-2-3 in Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, and Daniel Norris.