Detroit — Daniel Norris is down to his last five or six starts in 2019, and he’s not likely to pitch more than three innings in any of those starts because of limits imposed by Tigers pitching coach Rick Anderson.
Not that Norris is attacking these starts any differently, mind you. He was asked if he is taking more of a reliever’s mindset into games now, knowing he won’t be going past three innings.
“You’d think so,” Norris said. “But in my head, I’m going in like maybe he will surprise me and let me go five. It’s wishful thinking, I know. I try to avoid Andy after the third inning now.”
The Tigers aren’t likely to budge on this. Norris will go into his start on Thursday at 126.1 innings, already a 56-inning jump from last season when he was out most of the year recovering from groin surgery.
“We aren’t being ordered to do this or anything like that,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “It’s just an organizational philosophy that we happen to agree with. We’re only going to let him go a certain percentage of innings above what he pitched last year.
“We’re just looking out for the player, doing what’s best for him long-term.”
Regardless of what happens in the 15 to 18 innings he has left this season, make no mistake about it, Norris is one of the success stories of the 2019 season.
“One hundred percent,” Gardenhire hire said. “He’s one of the guys we’re going to look for to be a part of this going forward.”
In his last two starts combined, Norris blanked two playoff-contending teams for three innings — the Rays (one hit, three strike outs) and Astros (two hits, two strikeouts). He’s made a career-high 23 starts, which itself is a huge victory for a guy who has struggled to stay healthy.
His 2.0 pitchers WAR is second only to Matthew Boyd in the rotation.
“Norris has a really good arm,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said after seeing him last Wednesday. “And he’s found a little something to make him really tough to hit. I thought we took some uncomfortable swings and didn’t quite read his pitches very well.
“They’ve cleaned his delivery up, and he’s a little more efficient than the early years of his career.”
He’s reincorporated the split change-up to his high-spin, four-seam fastball and slider mix. He also will throw a two-seam fastball and a curveball. But he’s getting the majority of those uncomfortable swings with his change-up (36 percent whiff rate) and slider (28 percent).
Re-establishing the heater
What he’s done this season, essentially, is reconfirm to the Tigers that he can be the pitcher they thought they were getting when they acquired him, along with Boyd, for David Price in 2015. They hadn’t seen that pitcher in a couple of seasons.
“I hadn’t seen myself in the better part a year, coming into this year,” Norris said. “Not that I completely feel like myself yet. But at least I feel like I’m moving a step forward every time I pitch. I can honestly say that’s been the case this year.”
Before the injury issues set in, Norris relied mostly on his fastball and slider. Between 2015 and 2017, his average fastball was between 93-95 mph, but he could reach back and get 96 and 97 on occasion. He lost a lot of yardage off his heater after the groin surgery.
But as he got steady work this season, he’s built up from 89-90 in April to 91-92 now, occasionally hitting 94. Which, because he’s steadily developed those secondary pitches and has an above-average spin rate, plays well for him when he can hit his spots.
“I’m at a happy medium right now,” he said, regarding his velocity. “I think if I keep progressing, I can get back to where I was. It’s just a matter of time.”
That’s something he learned from Justin Verlander. When Verlander went through his core muscle surgery, it took two years to build his velocity back up. Norris has taken solace in that, especially when returned after surgery last September and was straining to throw 88 mph.
A year later and he’s comfortably hitting 92.
“That’s a victory for me,” he said. “I feel like I broke that barrier and can throw a ball over 92 mph. If anything, it gives me that confidence to attack. When I lost the velocity, I was like, ‘I can’t throw my fastball, it’s going to get crushed.’
“But as it’s crept back up, the confidence I have in it has crept up. I still pick and choose my moments, but lately I’ve been attacking with that pitch. I am trying to get ahead with the fastball where before I would try to get ahead with everything else but that pitch.”
Starter or reliever?
Organizationally, though, the Tigers still aren’t completely sure whether he’s a better asset starting or working out of the bullpen.
“The decision will have to be made based on who they sign, who they try to bring in here for next year,” Gardenhire said, meaning veteran starting pitchers. “We aren’t bringing those big boys from Double-A (Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo and Tarik Skubal) up here yet, so they are going to have to put together a rotation for next year.”
The Tigers signed veterans Matt Moore and Tyson Ross last offseason and due to injury got a total of nine starts out of them. Michael Fulmer, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, won’t be ready until after the All-Star break at the earliest.
Jordan Zimmermann, who will be in the last year of his contract, Matthew Boyd (who could be traded in the offseason), Spencer Turnbull, Drew VerHagen and Norris will be rotation candidates next spring, as will Tyler Alexander, Kyle Funkhouser, Beau Burrows and others.
But the Tigers almost certainly will look to add one or two more veteran, low-cost starting pitchers.
“I’d like to give him a chance to start,” Gardenhire said of Norris. “But I also think he could be really dominant out of the bullpen, too. But I want him as a starter. I like his stuff. His last outing (against the Astros) was phenomenal.
“That’s what you’d like to see him do for five or six innings. That was really impressive.”
Gardenhire, though, worries that Norris’ high-energy temperament might not be suited for 33 starts a year.
“He’s a high-anxiety guy,” he said. “He puts a lot on himself and needs to learn to calm down. But he’s definitely a major-league pitcher, whether he’s starting or whatever. We’re still trying to determine if he could go through that for a full season and make it.
“I think he can. He takes care of himself as well as anybody. He has to learn to calm down. He wants to be perfect in everything he does. And that’s impossible in this game. But I love the way he competes. I like the whole package.”
On deck: Indians
► Series: Three-game series, Tuesday through Thursday, at Comerica Park, Detroit
► First pitch: Tuesday-Wednesday, 7:10 p.m.; Thursday, 1:10 p.m.
► TV/radio: All three games on Fox Sports Detroit/97.1 FM
► Probables: Tuesday — RHP Adam Plutko (5-3, 4.54) vs. RHP Spencer Turnbull (3-12, 4.05); Wednesday — RHP Aaron Civale (1-3, 1.82) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (1-9, 6.48); Thursday — RHP Mike Clevinger (9-2, 3.00) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (3-10, 4.70).
► Plutko, Indians: He’s a pitch-to-contact guy — low walks, low strikes and this year, low hard-hit rate (30 percent) — which is in the top nine percentile in baseball. The Tigers hit three home runs off him in July, though, but two of the players who did damage aren’t with the team — Christin Stewart and Jeimer Candelario.
► Turnbull, Tigers: He still hasn’t got back to form since his stint on the injured list. In four starts, he’s allowed 12 runs in 17 innings, with 21 strikeouts and nine walks. He’s averaging nearly 20 pitches an inning, which helps explain his inability to get deep into games.