McCosky: Circumstances seem to be conspiring against Tigers' Daniel Norris

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Left-hander Daniel Norris has only pitched 5.1 innings this season and will miss a turn due to Friday's snowed out game.

Minneapolis — It’s not really his nature to rage against things he can't control, but if anyone had a legitimate beef with this crazy weather, it’s Tigers pitcher Daniel Norris.

All he wants to do is pitch. He hasn’t had a full season of steady, uninterrupted work since 2016. He’s battled injuries, made countless mechanical adjustments and, after losing most of last season to groin surgery, he is finally healthy.

And he still can’t get on the mound.

He was promoted to the starting rotation last Saturday after Matt Moore left his start with a knee strain and was supposed start against the Twins here Saturday.

But with Friday’s game getting snowed out, manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson decided, prudently for the rest of the rotation, to skip Norris’ turn. That enables Jordan Zimmermann, Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull and Tyson Ross to stay on regular rest.

So, for the time being, it’s back to the bullpen for Norris, and there hasn’t been much work available for him there, either. Since leaving Lakeland, Norris has thrown 86 pitches total in a 2⅓-inning outing on March 30 and a three-inning stint last Saturday.

If somehow the schedule stays intact and there are no more surprise off days, the Tigers won’t need a fifth starter until next Saturday, April 20, against the White Sox. Unless one of the starters falters here in Minnesota, Norris, if he remains the choice to fill-in, would go into that game having faced big-league hitters exactly twice, for 5⅓ innings, in three-plus weeks.

Sub-optimal, right?

This is a tricky situation, for all sides. Norris, understandably, wants to be in the big leagues, regardless of his role or work load. He’s thrown 460 innings in the minor leagues over seven seasons. What more does he need to prove at that level?

Except, the thing he needs most is consistent innings. He needs to face hitters, period. If the Tigers believe he is, in fact, the No. 6 starter in their organization, he needs to start pitching consistently, every fifth day.

Because right now, for all his talent, work ethic and want-to, Norris is stuck, a case of arrested development.

He’s not the same pitcher he was back in 2015 and 2016, before the injuries. He’s mostly a four-seam fastball (90-91 mph), slider, change-up guy now. He’s not a power left-hander anymore.

Maybe the mid-90s fastball will come back, who knows? Only time, and a much larger accumulation of innings, will tell. But Norris can be a productive pitcher without it. Small sample size, for sure, but even at 90-91, he’s got an 18.2 whiff rate with his four-seamer.

Again, though, he needs to pitch. The mechanical changes he and Anderson, with an assist to Zimmermann, made are still raw. It was something they figured out late in camp. The changes aren’t completely natural yet. How could they be?

Yes, he’s throwing exhaustive bullpens, trying to keep himself built-up and sharp, but that’s not a true simulation of game speed. He’s thrown less than 100 live pitches with these new mechanics.

The more beneficial scenario, always visible in retrospect, would have been for Norris to start the season in the rotation at Triple-A Toledo. He could have had two starts under his belt, been on a five-day regimen going back to the final two weeks of spring training and been better prepared to step in for Moore next week.  

We’re not accusing the Tigers’ of negligence, here. Moore’s injury came out of the blue. The initial plan was to have an extra bullpen arm (Norris) because the Tigers opened the season with eight straight games (10 in 11 days).

Norris might have been back in the Toledo rotation last week had Moore not sprained his meniscus. And now, the situation is complicated by the uncertainty of Moore’s recovery time. Will the Tigers need a spot-starter for a game or two? Or will they need someone to step in for a month?

The options at Triple-A Toledo right now are Ryan Carpenter and Kyle Funkhouser, both are stretched out to about 90 pitches. It’s unlikely that they’d bring up prospect Beau Burrows this early, though he's been impressive, only one unearned run in 10.1 innings in two starts.

The Tigers could very easily use one of those three pitchers next week. Or, they can throw Norris into the fire with a pitch-count built up to what, realistically, 50-60 pitches?

Not a recipe for success.

Norris, of course, isn’t looking at it like that. He just wants the ball. He wants to compete. He’s not thinking about pitch-counts. He’s thinking, let me go get hitters out for as long as I can.

And who knows, it could end up being the right tonic. Norris’ hyperactivity has worked against him in the past. Maybe he’d be better off going in with a nothing-to-lose, just-be-me approach.

Regardless, this hasn't been a textbook development plan. Injuries, circumstances, his own inconsistency, it’s forced Norris onto a meandering path. But he’s just turning 26 on April 25. This isn’t a lost cause.

There is a useful, productive big-league pitcher here. But he needs weeks of consistent, uninterrupted innings so his mechanics become as natural as breathing. He needs to be allowed to work through his mistakes. He needs to throw the heck out of his change-up and curveball to regain confidence in those pitches. He needs to see how hitters react to his pitches, so he knows what works in what counts, and in what situations.

He just needs to pitch.

Tigers at Twins

First pitch: 2:10 Saturday, Target Field, Minneapolis

TV/radio: FSD/97.1


RHP Tyson Ross, Tigers (1-1, 2.25): He’s allowed three earned runs in 12 innings in two starts. His slider has been nasty thus far — opponents are hittin .133 against the pitch with a 54.5 percent whiff rate. He’s been effectively setting the slider up with well-placed four-seam fastballs, topping out at 90 mph.

RHP Michael Pineda, Twins (1-0, 2.00): The Twins took a two-year, $10 million flier on Pineda before the last season — he’d missed 2012-2013 with shoulder injuries, then had Tommy John and meniscus surgeries late in 2017 and missed last season, too. But he’s back now and pitching well, though his fastball is down in velocity to 92-93 mph, from 94-95.

Twitter: @cmccosky