Norris, the Toronto Blue Jays pitching prospect, will begin his third professional season in Dunedin, a High-A affiliate which began its Florida State League season on Thursday. The hard-throwing left-hander, who will turn 21 on April 25, is scheduled to debut on Sunday.
After a disappointing rookie year in 2012 at Bluefield and Vancouver and a rocky start last year in Lansing, Norris found a groove for the final four months of a season that revealed a significant sampling of why Toronto would have offered him a $2 million signing bonus in 2011.
Norris, a Science Hill graduate and three-time Johnson City Press Super 22 Player of the Year, wasn’t fooling many batters last April, but became comfortable with retooled mechanics and showed promise that belied his 2-7 record. He finished with a 3.97 ERA, 100 strikeouts and 46 walks in 90 2/3 innings and a sustained stretch when quality starts were the norm.
“I’m really excited about starting my season here and working my way up,” said Norris, whose next promotion would take him to Manchester, New Hampshire. “I had a good Spring Training. My last outing was my best. So I’m kind of ready to go ... and feeling good. ...
“I feel like I’m in high school again just with the confidence on the mound and the way I’ve been throwing the baseball. It’s a lot of fun not having to worry from a mechanical standpoint.”
Toronto coaches stressed not being worried about Norris’ stats early while he tweaked his delivery, primarily in an attempt to consistently throw balls on a more downward plane. High-pitch counts and hard-hit balls were common — for a player who’d dominated batters his entire life.
“It was definitely frustrating, because I’d never failed to the extent of that before — my first year in Bluefield and all of April and a little bit of May last year,” Norris said. “I’d never failed like that. But after … coming out of that rut I’ve never been more confident, because I’d literally touched the bottom and came back up.”
Norris’ pitching coach in Dunedin is 72-year-old former major-league left-hander Darold Knowles. A fellow flaky left-hander, Norris will tell you, Knowles pitched in all seven games of the 1973 World Series for the Oakland A’s.
“He has a ton of knowledge and I really like him a lot,” Noris said. “We get along well. … It’s more or less working on how to pitch — how to attack hitters — rather than mechanics, just because the work I’ve put in has gotten me to the place I need to be mechanically. … That’s where it gets fun. You get to figure out different sequences and stuff, rather than worrying about my arm angle and all that stuff.”
Norris pitched five innings of scoreless one-hit ball in his lone start for Dunedin last year after a late-season promotion from Lansing, Mich., where he also enjoyed another southpaw pitching coach, Vince Horsman (and some of the waves on the Great Lakes).
“Me and Vince were really close,” Norris said. “He just never got frustrated with me. He knew it was a process and had faith in me. He always told me the right things and he truly believed in my stuff.
“I think all the coaches do. Ever since I’ve been here, they’re like it’s never gonna be anything about your stuff … like, ‘You have all the ingredients, it’s just a matter of refining it down to being consistent.’ … Our pitching coordinator, Dane Johnson, told me last year and this year as well, he’s like, ‘We could start you in the big leagues this year and you would go out there and have success.’ ... He was like, ‘You’re really close’ (and) ‘you should be able to taste it right now.’”
Norris said he’s confident throwing any pitch in any count, as he did during an effective intrasquad outing on Tuesday.
“I threw five innings and it was just a lot of fun, because I could start any hitter out with whatever I wanted and throw it for a strike,” he said. “The changeup’s huge for me. Vince called it more of a splitter or a screwball — the movement that it has. I throw it pretty firm. It’s usually like 86 to 89 (mph).”
Norris enjoys living with Arik Sikula, the closer in Lansing last year, and pitchers Justin Jackson and Blake McFarland, who shares Norris’ passion for surfing. They’ve been known to load up some boards in Norris’ Volkswagen van and to Florida’s opposite coast for waves.
“Blake’s from Santa Cruz and he’s been surfing for like 16 years or so,” Norris said. “We sit there and we watch surf film all day. ... We’re checking the waves.”
The Blue Jays’ baseball facility is five minutes from Norris’ home, and the ocean’s even closer.
“We’re literally probably 50 yards from the water down here in Dunedin,” Norris said. “Me and Blake … just take a board out there in the water and paddle out whenever we want. ... In the morning, I’ll just go brew a pot of coffee, take a couple of cups out and just walk around on the beach. It’s so peaceful in the morning watching the sunrise and just hanging out talking to God.”
As much fun as Norris has pitching, his offseason is also a labor of love. Norris worked at Mahoney’s Outfitters, the outdoorsman’s paradise he frequently visited as a child.
“We’d just ride our bikes down there and go in there and dream of all the cool equipment they had and stuff,” Norris said. “And finally, I get to work there, and I would just ride my skateboard to work every day. It’s cool. I enjoy working there.”
He might have caught a wave of Patagonia perks too after the outdoor apparel company learned of his fondness for its gear. It’s definitely an endorsement Norris can make wholeheartedly.
“It’s basically all I wear, and I guess Patagonia caught wind of it,” Norris said. “They want me to come out there (Ventura, Calif.) and kind of visit their headquarters. ... They’re really curious about my passion for the brand, and what it means to me and stuff. … It’d be really cool to be part of their family.”
Norris also spent a lot of the offseason hanging out with former Science Hill/East Tennessee State slugger Paul Hoilman, which included countless losses in ping-pong.
Science Hill is still dear to Norris. In fact, he dreamed about playing for the Hilltoppers this week, and texted about it to coach Ryan Edwards, assistant Andy Wallen and former assistant Josh Carter.
“I had a dream last night about being in a ’Topper uniform and competing for a championship,” Norris said. “It was a vivid dream. I remember we were wearing the golden suit, you know, yellow pants, yellow top and ... we’re winning a game and high-fiving.”
Norris ended the text by telling his former coaches: “Make sure that the guys you have now realize the memories they are making can’t be taken away from them, so they better make them good ones. Have fun & compete. Play with passion.”
Science Hill’s coaches read it to their players prior to a win against T.C. Roberson on Thursday.
Norris could be wearing a different uniform at some point this season. A promotion to the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats could materialize.
“If I’m pitching well I think they want me to make the jump to Double-A at some point,” Norris said. “But I don’t really think about it.”
Indeed, Norris wasn’t even clear how close the nearest waves were in relation to Manchester. He’d still be near the Atlantic.
“If it’s a couple of hours drive I’ll definitely do it,” Norris said. “I did that last year in Lansing.”
And if Norris’ relaxed confidence is any indication, he appears primed to continue producing more weak waves from batters.