The days of Daniel Norris struggling to find his command in Lansing are long gone.
Now the 21-year-old 2011 2nd Round Toronto Blue Jays draft pick is more than benefitting from patience and perseverance.
When he arrived at Lansing in 2013, he went to work with Lugnuts pitching coach Vince Horseman on rebuilding part of his mechanics and gaining control of his fastball.
At times, it seemed the ultimate goal was out of reach, but once he began hitting his marks, Norris vaulted through the Jays system.
“A lot of it was just a matter of maturing not only as a baseball player, but as a person mentally. You improve on that everyday and there’s the baseball side of mechanics,” Norris said outside the Buffalo Bisons clubhouse Aug. 23. “It’s kind of crazy thinking back. Less than a year ago I was in Lansing. It’s cool to be here and take a step back and look on how far I’ve come.”
In a 2013 interview, Horseman said that until he found command of his fastball moving to the next level wasn’t going to happen. But with Norris’ talent, once he found it he’d tear through the Jays system.
“That’s what he needs is consistency and that’s what we’ve worked on,” Horseman said back in July 2013 in Lansing. “Once he does, he’s a powerful lefty with a mid-90s fastball.”
Norris, who has been among the top prospects in baseball all of 2014, said outside of the fastball command they worked on getting on top of the ball and stepping in line instead of across his body.
Last year split between Lansing and Dunedin, the lefty struggled at times as he searched for command of his fastball. Through tinkering with Horseman and Jays’ roving instructor Dane Johnson, he found his way and has steamrolled batters this season.
The coachability he’s shown through all levels has only served to help him find his path.
“I’ve always been that way. I’ve grown up always open to instruction because if you’re close-minded it’s not going to be good. Listening and taking what people say is important. There were times when I’d say I’d try it but it doesn’t feel right,” he said of working with Horseman last season. “Basically, our relationship was so good if I didn’t like something it’d be out the door and we’d try something else.”
Since starting the year at Dunedin, Norris has advanced to AAA Buffalo and is knocking on the majors door as a top prospect in baseball.
Through three levels, he’s racked up a 12-2 record and a 2.53 ERA across 25 starts. He’s thrown 124.2 innings pitched with a strikeout rank of 32.21%. With Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez graduating to the big leagues, Norris has become the Jays prospect with all eyes on him.
With few things remaining to work on, Buffalo Bisons catcher Mike Nickeas said they’ve worked on slowing down his tempo to the plate, but that with his already refined talent the lefty is someone to pay attention to in the coming years.
“He’s so electric. His stuff’s so good… I’ve been so impressed with how well he’s done striking guys out and everything seems to come out with the same arm action and with a lot of movement,” Nickeas said. “He’s got a really bright future.”
Instead of nibbling the corners, Norris is using his mid- to high-90s two- and four-seam fastball, curveball, change up and a slider to attack batters.
In his few games in a Bisons jersey, Buffalo’s pitching coach Randy St. Claire said Norris has gone after hitters and with his ability to control his fastball, he gets ahead of hitters quickly.
“He keeps the ball in the strike zone and attacks the hitters and goes after them, so he’s always working ahead,” St. Claire said of Norris. “With fastball command, you’re throwing it 60 to 75% of the time, so if you don’t execute it you’re going to be in trouble. That’s the key to pitching is staying ahead. Changing speeds and making them chase balls out of the zone, that happens when you’re in the driver’s seat.”
It was a valuable lesson learned for the young southpaw back in his Lansing days.
“When you get ahead of people it changes the way you can attack them. When you get that first strike you can kind of do whatever you want,” Norris said of getting ahead in the count. “That’s really important since it’s tough to pitch behind and each level it gets even tougher.”
Among some of the so called bumps in the road came in Norris’ Aug. 21 start against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Railriders when he went five innings with nine strikeouts, three walks, gave up one earned run and one hit.
“Early in the game my tempo was quick and I was speeding up at times and I walked three guys that time,” Norris said. “In the fourth and fifth inning, I made adjustments after I sat down with (St. Claire) in the dugout and he said I was getting a little quick and I went out there and it felt better.
“You grow through times like that when you battle with your command and still get outs and get swings and misses,” he added. “Even if the stuff’s still there and the command’s not sometimes you can get away with stuff. That’s part of the game.”
Despite Norris being unimpressed with his line and struggles, Nickeas came away with a different opinion.
“When we talked after the fifth inning he said his command was horrible and he only gave up one hit and struck out nine. I just thought, ‘holy cow. That’s special’. If you had a veteran pitcher come in and throw that stat line you’d think that was great,” Nickeas said of Norris. “The standards for this guy are so high.”
Nickeas said the only factor they watch out for is if Norris starts to work more quickly as the game goes along. Although it’s flared up at times, Nickeas said Norris has been a dream to call a game for.
“His tempo’s been fantastic and he gets on the mound and throws the ball. It’s been like playing a video game calling a game for this kid. It’s a lot of fun.”
With the tempo largely under control, Norris said the next step is improving his in game adjustments.
“I was on game to game adjustments then inning to inning adjustments and I’m in between batter to batter adjustments and I feel at the big league level you have to make pitch by pitch adjustments and that’s where I want to get to,” Norris said of his future goals. “I want to get there rather than batter to batter. It’s nice, but you can always do better.”
Though he’s put up video game like numbers across the minors in 2014, especially since moving to Buffalo with a 3.18 ERA and a 2.21 FIP as per Fangraphs, Norris said he still feels there’s room to expand.
“I still feel like it hasn’t clicked yet,” he said. “I talk to my agent (Matt Laird of Excel Sports Management) after every outing since we have a good relationship and if I had a good line he’ll ask ‘did it click?’. I’ll say, I’m still not hitting on stuff I need to and I’m waiting for the day it’s like that.”
It may be some time until things ‘click’ for Norris, but once it does, he’ll show the baseball world his praise scouts, writers, coaches and players have heaped on him are no fluke.
“I think the factor he realizes that’s what he has to do is impressive in itself for a guy his age. It’s really hard to be in every pitch during 100 pitches. It’s difficult to be in every play in a baseball game,” Nickeas said. “If he can get to that point where’s he’s pitch-to-pitch the guy’s got potential to do unlimited things in this game.”
Norris’ filthy filthy curve ball to strike out David Ortiz in his first batter faced in the majors. Get ready to see a lot of batters frozen like Ortiz over the next few years.