Niyo: Tigers’ Norris finds inner peace after trying ’17

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — The shorter the outings were, the longer the nights became for Daniel Norris last summer. The Tigers’ talented 24-year-old lefty would head home from the ballpark, searching for answers he couldn’t find and rest that wouldn’t come.

“It was nonexistent,” Norris said Thursday, sipping a cup of coffee as he poured out some of those memories inside Comerica Park this week as the Tigers’ winter caravan began. “I’m not scared to admit that. I’ll tell you how much I love the game, and that’s it: I’d go out there, go three innings, give up five runs or something, and I couldn’t sleep that night.”

There were several nights like that, he says, and more than he’d care to count.

Norris went 5-8 with a 5.38 ERA in 18 starts last season, and he didn’t fare any better in a handful of relief appearances in September. In what was supposed to be a breakout season for Norris, the top prospect acquired from Toronto in the David Price trade in 2015, his strikeout totals were down and his walks were up, along with opponents’ batting averages, not to mention his own stress level.

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After each outing, he’d go home, watch a replay of the game, see all the things he’d done wrong and then spend hours dwelling on it.

“And that’s not the way to live,” he said. “That’s not healthy.”

Neither was he, of course. And that surely played a role in Norris’ struggles, as groin and hip injuries flared up early in the summer and never really went away, despite cortisone shots and rest and extended rehab stints in the minors.

But as the results added insults to the injuries, there was something else that became more than a nagging problem for Norris, a young player whose passion for the game has always been a blessing and a bit of a curse. All of this was taking place while the Tigers were fighting their own inner debate in 2017, hoping to make one final push as a World Series contender before giving up the chase and beginning a long, painful rebuilding process.

“And for me, I knew going into last year I was going to be a huge part of the team,” Norris said. “I read about it, I heard about it, I was asked about it. and I put that pressure on myself. I wanted to live up to that. And ultimately that’s part of what kept me up at night. When I had a bad game, yeah, I let myself down. But the feeling of letting everyone down — your teammates, your coaches, the front office down — it hurt. It was difficult mentally. I’ll tell you what, walking into the field every day, knowing I was essentially failing (to live up to) my expectations, it was hard. It was hard for me to look people in the eye.

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“I mean, we knew, ‘Hey, if we don’t perform, people are gonna get traded.’ And it was hard to not feel that a lot of that was my fault, honestly. Because I just wasn’t doing what I was supposed to.”

Not many of the Tigers were, frankly, from the big hitters in the middle of the order to the bullpen that kept lighting fires without an extinguisher. Still, Norris couldn’t shake the feeling that, “if I performed, maybe things would’ve gone differently.”

And when some of his veteran teammates packed their bags, including an important mentor in Justin Verlander, “I almost wanted to say, ‘Sorry,’” Norris said. “It’s selfish to say that I think it was all my fault, and I’m not naïve enough to think that, but I definitely did feel that if I could’ve taken care of my business, things may have been different.”

Change agent

So that became the offseason mission for Norris: To make things different.

It started by getting healthy and then figuring out a way to stay that way, a process that involved a major investment in his own training, spending more than a month at the P3 (Peak Performance Project) sports science training center in Santa Barbara, Calif. The staff there identified some of his biomechanical deficiencies and put him on a training plan. Norris has always been a dedicated workout warrior, but he says he discovered the difference between working hard and working smart this offseason.

That work continued even after he left California, waking up at 4 a.m. every Monday to make the four-hour drive from his home in Tennessee to the new P3 facility that opened in Atlanta.

“Basically, this offseason I said, ‘Leave no doubt. I’m gonna do everything I can to invest in myself,’” Norris said. “And that’s what I did.”

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He can feel the difference from all that mobility training with improved range of motion and more fluidity as he ramps up his throwing regimen off the mound. But he’d felt it well before that, actually, in the free time he spent in the Pacific Ocean.

“I’m telling you, man, I could really see the benefits of it, because I was surfing better than I ever have,” Norris said, laughing. “I was making bottom turns, and I wasn’t able to do that before.”

Back to the diamond

Now his full attention turns to baseball, though, as he returns home to Tennessee for a Hall of Fame induction ceremony Saturday at his high school in Johnson City, Tenn., then heads to Lakeland next week with spring training less than a month away.

He says he’s excited to get to work with new pitching coach, Chris Bosio, who helped transform the Chicago Cubs’ pitching staff the last five seasons and will be asked to do the same with some of the young arms in Detroit. Particularly Norris, who has terrific raw stuff but struggles to repeat his delivery, which leads to some wildly erratic performances and no small amount of frustration.

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“He called me around Christmas and I was really impressed with him,” said Norris, who points to Bosio’s work with Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta in particular. “And I told him, ‘Before you say anything, I want you to know I’m gonna be a sponge, I’m gonna soak up everything I can. I want you to make me good.”

That work will begin in earnest in Lakeland, though already he’s taking some of Bosio’s video analysis to heart and working on balancing drills the new pitching coach suggested.

Equally important, though, will be balancing the physical and mental side of this challenge, unlocking all that pitching potential. Norris knows this is the biggest year of his career ahead, just as he knows the Tigers still have another option remaining to send him to the minors. But he also knows the same passion that drives him can also drive him crazy.

“That’s why I was losing sleep last year,” he said. “Because it’s something you love so much. And when you’re not finding success, you’re not even close to the potential that you have, you just sit there and you want to figure it out in your head, like, ‘Why is this going wrong? Why am I not doing this? Why am I hurt right now?’”

Daniel Norris sounds like he’s healthy now, in body and spirit. ("There’s a different peace inside of my head that I’m excited to be going into the season with," he says. But he also knows only he can answer those questions, and silence those doubts.