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Tigers' Daniel Norris frustrated as poor results belie overall quality of his outings

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Cleveland — It was Daniel Norris’ season in a nutshell.

He entered the game in the seventh inning Monday throwing fire. His four-seam fastball, which has sat at 92-93 mph this season, was hitting 95 and 96 mph on the radar gun. He was throwing 90-mph change-ups. It was like 2016 all over again.

Except, when he walked off the mound, he'd given up three singles and a run.

Tigers pitcher Daniel Norris has given up 35 hits and 22 runs in 28.1 innings out of the bullpen this season.

“I talked to (pitching coach Chris) Fetter and he was like, ‘I think the Baseball Gods just hate you right now,’” Norris said Tuesday before the game with the Indians was postponed because of steady rain before the game Tuesday. “Almost half my runs have come in three separate outings (nine of 21). It’s been frustrating. I want to go out there and be successful.

“I’m healthy, feeling good, throwing hard again and my stuff is the best it’s ever been. Hopefully, at some point the results will acknowledge that.”

Norris, 28 and eligible for free agency after the season, has added between five and 10 pounds of muscle (depending on the day), which has pumped some voltage into his four-seam fastball. His change-up remains an elite pitch (.229 opponent average with a 37% whiff rate) and his slider, though spotty, has gotten sharper with the added velocity.

He’s got 31 strikeouts, averaging about 10 strikeouts per nine innings. And, validating the ire of the Baseball Gods, his FIP (fielding independent pitching) is more that two runs lower that his ERA — 4.28 to 6.67.

“I feel like every time they make contact, it’s a hit,” Norris said.

The problem is, a lot of the contact has been hard contact. The 95-mph exit velocity on balls in play against him is the worst of his career. The 54% hard-hit rate against him is in the bottom one percentile in baseball.

“Being a starter my whole career, I’m used to having the ebbs and flows of the game,” Norris said. “If I were to pitch five or six innings last night, some of those first-pitch hits and things might’ve evened out. This is really my first year in the bullpen (he was a piggyback starter the last two years) and what I’m realizing is, everything is magnified because it’s one inning.

“You give up a couple of hits and a run and it looks like a terrible outing. But in reality, my stuff was good and maybe over three innings it would’ve evened out.”

It’s fair to ask if being a reliever is the best use of Norris’ experience and talent. He’s been a starter his entire career. He was given a brief chance to win a rotation role this spring before manager AJ Hinch announced that Norris would be a “weapon” out of the bullpen.

But Norris started poorly and has yet to gain any traction, despite the uptick in his stuff. To his credit, he has neither complained about his role nor campaigned for different one.

“I’m weird in the sense that I don’t really think that’s my place,” Norris said. “He’s the manager he his for a reason. The way I was raised, when they give you the ball, you take it. I don’t have any gripes about anything. It just comes down to doing my job. I feel like I have been, just the results aren’t telling the whole story of the way I’ve felt or the way I’ve thrown the ball.”

He hears the coaches say just control what you can control and it’ll work out. And he has. He’s worked his tail off. He’s changed his body, gained strength, put all the injury issues he dealt with earlier in his career behind him.

And yet, he’s walking around with a ballooned ERA and an ever-shrinking role.

“The frustration comes when you feel like you’re prepared, you’ve worked hard, all those boxes are checked and it doesn’t match up in the box score,” he said. “It’s like, what’s going on here? I could understand if my stuff wasn’t there and I was just getting beat.

“But I feel really good. That’s the baffling part. This is why they traded for me. I feel like I am better than when I was a prospect. Everything has inclined. In baseball people preach not to be results-oriented, but it’s tough.”

It’s a hard thing to reconcile and it’s eating him up.

“It’s hard not to be the guy they want me to be,” Norris said. “I want to be the guy they trust, someone he (Hinch) wants to go to, and I haven’t been. You can feel good and throw the ball well, but if the results aren’t matching up, he’s not going use me.

“If things aren’t going my way, why would he put me in a bigger situation?”

Twitter: @cmccosky