Daniel Norris is moving to the Detroit Tigers bullpen after his season debut. Ron Gardenhire said that he thinks Norris will eventually return to the rotation, but should he?
Detroit Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire announced that Daniel Noris is moving to the bullpen after his disastrous season debut. Norris began the season at the Tigers’ alternate training site working on rebuilding his strength after recovering the novel coronavirus. Norris claimed to be back to 100% strength after just a few days but the Tigers acted cautiously and delayed the start of his season until a second starter was needed for a double-header last Sunday. It could have gone better. Norris threw 54 pitches and recorded just five outs. He allowed two runs on four hits and two walks.
Gardenhire is going to use Norris and Michael Fulmer as piggyback starters while Fulmer rebuilds his strength after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Tyler Alexander is going to be taking Norris’ spot in the rotation. Alexander is getting his first shot to start this season after striking out a record-tying nine consecutive batters. In four appearances this season Alexander has allowed just one run and has earned a chance to stick in the rotation.
Norris has lost the velocity that once made him the centerpiece of the trade that sent David Price to Toronto. He sat in the mid ’90s from 2015 until he had groin surgery in 2018. He returned with diminished velocity but attributed it to some bad habits that he created around his injury. He and Jordan Zimmermann discussed the issue and soon after he was throwing 92-93 mph again. But sadly it wouldn’t last. Last year he saw his velocity drop once again and eventually moved into the role as an opener. During his last eight games of the 2019 season, he only pitched the first three innings of each game.
Why a permanent move to the bullpen makes sense
Norris seemingly excelled in his role as an opener last season. He had an ERA of 2.25 and limited his opponents to an OPS of just .546. If Norris is able to put up numbers anywhere close to that as a reliever this season, he should be kept in the bullpen permanently.
Remember this season 16 teams will qualify for the playoffs and if the season ended today, Detroit would be a playoff team. If the Tigers are going to keep winning they are going to need more consistency out of the bullpen. After Buck Farmer, Gregory Soto, and José Cisnero the Tigers’ bullpen looks like, well a Detroit Tigers bullpen. If by moving Norris to the pen the Tigers get another reliable relief arm he may be more valuable to the team as a reliever this season.
The novel coronavirus has generated a ton of uncertainty within baseball this season. And one of the most concerning topics that will need to be closely monitored for this season and beyond is how players that contract the virus will recover. Norris tested positive for COVID-19 which caused the delay to his season. He might need this season to build back strength for a starting role next season. But with a role in the bullpen, he could still help his team in the present as they try to be a surprise playoff contender.
The best reason for Norris to remain in the bullpen this season though? Casey Mize, Matt Manning, and Tarik Skubal. Detroit has three top 50 prospects awaiting their callups. Barring any trades, Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull are guaranteed rotation spots. The starting rotation is going to get a little crowded.
Why Norris should remain in the rotation
With diminished velocity, the question of Norris’ success as a reliever remains. Even though he was superb in three-inning stints at the end of last season it’s not a sure bet that he could replicate that success. During his stretch as an opener, Norris may have benefited from quite a bit of luck. His batting average on balls in play (BAbip) was just .231 when he was used as an opener. Generally for BAbip, the league average is around .300 and anything below is considered lucky. A .231 would be considered extremely lucky and isn’t sustainable, of all qualified pitchers only Justin Verlander had a lower BAbip in 2019. Before becoming the opener, Norris was actually slightly unlucky with a .328 BAbip. If his improvement during shorter outings was driven by luck he might regress as a reliever. But if his luck improves as a starter, he could be one of Detroit’s best starting pitchers.
Norris is just one of just four left-handed pitchers in Detroit’s player pool. And, if Norris joins Boyd and Alexander in the rotation it would leave the Tigers with just one left-handed reliever. But Soto has become such a dominant reliever this season that the lack of depth is less of a worry.
Soto has been nothing short of amazing this season, but the Tigers could have an even better left-handed reliever debut later this season. Even though Skubal’s future lies in the rotation, he might be used in relief this season. Like Norris, Skubal has been rebuilding strength after contracting the coronavirus.
Even though Norris’ average velocity was higher as an opener last season, he was showing signs that his fastball velocity was perking up before moving to relief. Over his last six appearances before being moved to his role as opener his average fastball velocity increased from 90.3 to 91.3. There is a chance that he is still refining his mechanics after the 2018 groin surgery and that he could regain velocity and stamina with more outings.
The Tigers are a better team if Norris succeeds as a starting pitcher. And Gardenhire has already gone on the record stating that he believes Norris will be back in the rotation at some point this year. If he is healthy Norris should return to the rotation. Detroit recently cut Jordy Mercer. It was a hard decision according to Gardenhire. Everyone loved Mercer but there wasn’t enough playing time for him and the other, younger players. If Detroit is going to start prioritizing youth, Norris is 27 years old and Nova is 33. Nova won’t be on the next competitive Tigers’ team, but Norris might. He needs a chance to reach his potential before the Tigers’ top prospects jump him on the depth chart. He won’t be able to do that as a reliever. Norris deserves the playing time, even if it is a hard decision.