Henning: Norris, Zimmermann baffling for Tigers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Baltimore — Side by side in the visitors’ clubhouse at Camden Yards were two lockers late Sunday afternoon, occupied for a few more minutes by two Tigers pitchers: Daniel Norris and Jordan Zimmermann.

Each has been part of some confounding April episodes from Tigers baseball.

And no one seems to have any answers, which are particularly acute in the case of Norris, who was Sunday’s starter in a game the Tigers lost, 5-3, sealing a series defeat against an Orioles team that has won all of eight games in 2018.

It will surprise no one, perhaps least of all Norris, if a left-handed pitcher who last week turned 25 finds himself on the disabled list after leaving Sunday’s game in the third inning with “left groin tightness.”

You could fairly have concluded something was wrong one batter into the Orioles’ first inning.

Norris got behind leadoff batter Trey Mancini, 2-and-0. He then threw an 87-mph fastball that Mancini parked into the left-field seats.

BOX SCORE: Orioles 5, Tigers 3

A pitch from Norris, or from any big-leaguer, that cruises at 87 is not a fastball. Not a big-league fastball. It is a pitch waiting to get creamed.

Norris understands this. So, it would seem, do bosses who must — must — be ready to consign him to the disabled list and to whatever medical specialists can determine what has squeezed the life from Norris’ primary pitch.

“You don’t go from 94 to 87 for no reason,” said Norris, who stood before that emptied locker Sunday and admitted he was as baffled as anyone sorting through a mound of theories on why he has pitched so bewilderingly.

“It’s pretty frustrating, for sure,” he said. “It’s kind of been the case all year. You don’t just lose 6 to 7 miles per hour off your heater.

“I’ve got to figure out something. I’m not only hurting myself, I’m hurting my team.”

Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire was asked after Sunday’s game for insight on why a left-hander with Norris’ pedigree could be so mystifying. The Tigers can’t explain why his velocity disappeared. Neither can they say if he is a starter or a reliever.

“It’s all about healthy,” Gardenhire said, which got to the crux of Sunday’s darker issue.

Norris said, after the game, that he had felt during his third pitch, the one Mancini launched into the seats, something was wrong quite apart from a bad pitch.

He and the Tigers talked. Norris, who doesn’t believe in coming out of games, indicated he was fine and wanted to continue. He lasted into the third. Gardenhire and trainer Doug Teter at that point decided he was finished.

“He’s on my watch as a manager,” Gardenhire said. “Not only for a day, but for a career … Right now, I’m the protector.”

Neither the Tigers nor Norris could say Sunday what now seems all but a mandate. A pitcher who first had groin issues three years ago, a few weeks after the Tigers got him in a trade with the Blue Jays, probably is headed for a return visit with Philadelphia specialist Dr. William Meyers, who treated Norris in 2015.

The Tigers, no more than Norris, need answers for why a pitcher so talented, and yet so young, is churning in a swirl of medical and performance issues.

And while they are figuring out Norris, they and Zimmermann can work to untangle whatever is creating strife for him, whether it’s in pitch execution, or in pitch selection, or in their joint critiques on what exactly he throws.

Zimmermann will start Monday night’s game against the Rays at Comerica Park. He will bring into the game a 7.91 ERA a season after he put together a 6.08 ERA, and two years after his season ERA was 4.87.

The Tigers want him to twirl pitches off and on that vary enough in speed to keep batters from teeing off on his fastball and slider. They want him, in so many words, to throw occasional off-speed junk that keeps batters from teeing off.

Zimmermann believes the pitches and speed differentials all are there. He insists, as he did during a conversation following Sunday’s game, that his fastball is at 90-92, his slider at 84-87, his curveball runs from 78-82, and his change-up from 83-86.

“So I’m getting plenty of separation,” Zimmermann insisted.

The data supports him, for the most part, although why Zimmermann doesn’t throw more curveballs is perhaps the Tigers’ fundamental question. He has tossed more than twice as many fastballs and sliders this spring as curves, which, given the chilly weather, isn’t a surprise when grips and spinning pitches aren’t the easiest of tricks when it’s 40 degrees.

But it’s interesting that Mike Fiers, who has been a nice addition to a rotation that needs all the upbeat stories it can find, has been flipping that 65-mph breaker with no serious issues.

No two pitchers are alike, of course. Sometimes no single pitcher appears to be the same person, which could be said, in an abstract way, about the duality in pitching profiles that have marked Norris and Zimmermann these past three seasons and that today leave a team wondering what might — or might not — be ahead.