Tigers' Norris learning how to spin art out of his 5-pitch palette

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

“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.”

– Detroit News, April 12, 2019

Baltimore – The art of pitching.

That phrase has become a cliché these days, a slogan, a catch phrase popularized by Tigers venerable radio analyst Jim Price. But truth is, unless you can overpower hitters consistently with high-octane fastballs, there is an art to pitching.

Detroit Tigers pitcher Daniel Norris throws against the Baltimore Orioles in the first inning Monday.

And for some, you only wake up to that reality when the octane in your heater drops from premium to regular grade. Witness the performance of Tigers lefty Daniel Norris against the Orioles on Monday.

The Orioles sent out eight aggressive and mostly young, fastball-hunting right-handed hitters. And it became clear quickly – when Renato Nunez parked a two-out, two-run homer in the first inning – that Norris’ slider, moving into the right-handed hitters’ swing path, might not be a good pitch choice right out of the gate, either.

“Talking to Andy (pitching coach Rick Anderson), they had pretty much an all-righty lineup and their guys were jumping the heater and pulling it,” catcher Grayson Greiner said. “The pitch Nunez hit was a slider that kind of came back into his barrel.

“We talked and said, ‘Hey, your change-up is working. It’s going away from the right-handers’ bats. So let’s go predominantly fastball, change-up and see how it goes.’”

It went very well. Those two first-inning runs were the only earned runs Norris allowed. He ended up throwing 27 change-ups, getting six swings and misses. Only eight were put in play, only one was hit hard. The average exit velocity on those eight change-ups was 90 mph.

It got to the point where Greiner was sequencing his pitches to set up the change-up. Against Orioles’ right fielder Stevie Wilkerson with runners at the corners and no outs, Norris two fastballs and a slider in, then got him out in front of a change-up – fly ball to right, too shallow to score the run.

Then, with runners at first and third and two outs, he preyed on Hanser Alberto’s youthful aggression with a first-pitch change-up – fly out to center.

Detroit Tigers pitcher Daniel Norris, left, and catcher Grayson Greiner confer in the fourth inning Monday.

“That was not by accident,” Greiner said. “That was on purpose. His change-up has been really good the last two or three starts – both in the bullpen and in the game.”

And, the ultimate effect of that change-up – it made his slider effective again in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings.

“The change-up definitely got me through those early innings,” Norris said. “And when you can establish something like that, they start going for it. And once they started diving out on the change-up, that’s when I could go back to my slider inside.”

Norris ended up throwing 100 pitches: 20 four-seam fastballs (velocity range 87-93), 28 two-seam sinking fastballs, 27 change-ups, 18 sliders and seven curveballs. He ended up getting five swings and misses and four called strikes with the slider.

It was a masterful use of a five-pitch palette, from a 26-year-old pitch who until early April of this season relied mainly on a four-seam fastball and a slider.  

In 2016 and 2017, Norris’ average fastball was 93 mph. But, when he got into trouble, he could amp it up to 95 or 96 mph. His slider was the only secondary pitch he needed, the others were essentially window dressing.

But after a couple of injury-ruined seasons, missing most of last year after groin surgery, Norris no longer had that extra gear. In fact, he about ruined his mechanics trying to bring it back.  

“That’s the thing,” Norris said. “I needed to stop focusing on the velocity and realize that I could get hitters out at this level with what I have. It’s forced me to learn how to pitch.”

In April, when he was pitching long relief, he used his four-seam fastball 64 percent of the time. In his six starts in May, he’s used it 39 percent. It wasn’t until his start against the Angels on May 7 that he incorporated the two-seam fastball – and that has opened another mode of attack.

In his last six starts, opponents are hitting .150 against his change-up and .088 against his slider.

He now can work up (four-seam) and down (two-seam) in the zone. He can work away from right-handers with a change-up and work away from left-handers with a slider and curve. Norris can paint any picture he wants to any batter.

Say it with conviction, Jim Price – the art of pitching.

Twitter @cmccosky