Daniel Norris is currently with the Lansing Lugnuts, the Class A Midwest League affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. He debuted professionally with the Bluefield Blue Jays in 2012.
Daniel Norris worked at Mahoney’s outdoors shop after his rookie season of professional baseball, and he appears to be climbing out of the rocky start to his career.
The hard-throwing left-hander from Science Hill is pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays’ Lansing Lugnuts in the Class A Midwest League, where he made his third straight quality start Thursday.
In fact, the performance was arguably his best since he struck out five while pitching four perfect innings for Bluefield last summer in his professional debut on opening night in Bristol. Norris struck out 10 in four shutout innings against the Lake County Captains.
“This was definitely the best I’ve felt so far as a Blue Jay,” Norris said Saturday. “You know, I had all four of my pitches working, and it was just fun. I felt like I was in control. But you know, this year my stuff’s better than it’s ever been. I’ve been throwing all four of my pitches for strikes and getting swings and misses. My fastball velocity’s increased and it’s more consistent.”
But it’s only recently begun to pay dividends. Working within the confines of a 75-pitch count, he has allowed one earned run in 12 innings during his last three starts. He’s allowed seven hits, eight walks and struck out 22 during that span.
Of course, the recent surge lowered his ERA to 6.82, which gives some idea of the rocky outings that preceded it. Norris (0-3) was 2-4 with an 8.44 ERA and 43 strikeouts and 18 walks in 42 2/3 innings last season, which began in Bluefield and ended in Vancouver. And he’d seemingly picked up right where he left off in Lansing.
But Norris said he’s in the best physical condition of his life and he’s throwing harder than ever, and it appears he’s finally found the type of groove Toronto anticipated when making him a second-round bonus baby.
“I’m throwing harder than I ever have more consistently,” Norris said. “Every time out I know what I’m gonna feel just because I’m in a good routine and I know what I’m doing in between starts in the weight room and running wise. So I’m preparing myself well, and in the end I think that’ll pay off.
“Every time out I’m sitting at 93 or 92 to 96 (mph), and being able to touch 97 and 98. I just feel a lot stronger.”
Control has been Norris’ nemesis. Getting behind in counts will offset any amount of velocity and ability to change speeds.
Toronto wanted Norris to tweak his delivery in order for the ball to travel on a more downhill plane, and the transition hasn’t been smooth for a power pitcher who occasionally had high-pitch counts even in high school. But the delivery is beginning to feel natural.
“It’s starting to feel a lot better and the muscle memory is starting to take over,” Norris said. “And I really bought in to what they want to do. Now it’s just a matter of making the adjustment pitch by pitch.
“If I fly open one time and leave a ball up and away, I know exactly what I’ve got to do to get it back down in the zone, and it’s just a matter of doing it. When I start doing that more consistently, I start having better outings and making more quality pitches.”
Consistency and confidence go hand in hand, and Norris said he’s pitching more aggressively the past three weeks.
“I’m just going out there with a different mentality,” he said. “Even if I make a mistake, I’m gonna throw with conviction and they’re not gonna hit it — that’s, you know, what I say. I try to hit my spots, but rather than throw to a spot I try to throw through it.”
First-pitch strikes are becoming more common.
“I go out there with more confidence now and just go right after hitters,” Norris said. “In other games I’d make good pitches and I wasn’t necessarily giving up hard hits, but I’d be behind in counts. So guys are getting good swings off of me. If you’re getting a good swing but I make a good pitch ... a professional hitter finds a way to hit that bloop single or break their bat and still get a hit when they’re ahead in the count. …
“That’s 100 percent the main difference, just getting ahead in counts. When you get in to a 2-0 or 3-1 count, then the hitter is sitting for one pitch, and if they get it, even if I hit my spot they can still get their bat on it.”
Even when his ERA ballooned well into double digits, Norris says, he didn’t lose confidence. But he found more and more frustration.
He said pitching coach Vince Horsman has been patient, and generally was saying Norris’ reports were good even during rough times because he was delivering the ball the way they wanted.
“There were times where I would get frustrated, like, ‘Man, I’m better than this,’” Norris said. “That’s the main thing. I know how much better I am than what I was showing. … But honestly, at the end of the day, you know, I know how to deal with adversity now, and it’s really helped me.”
The free-spirited Norris is wired to handle highs and lows. He went hiking and took rock-climbing trips in the offseason. He spent an off day Friday surfing in Lake Michigan at St. Joseph.
“I’d heard that they had some waves, so I went and checked it out for myself, and they did,” Norris said. “I had a lot of fun with that. I was out there all day. … It’s a blessing to live, so I try to live every day pretty good. It’s a beautiful earth we’re on, so I like to, you know, play around on it. It’s a pretty good playground.”
He drove to spring training in Dunedin, Fla., a month early to live in his Volkswagen van on the beach. It included a several-day stopover in Gainesville when the van broke down.
“I had to get it towed to a Volkswagen dealership in Gainesville,” Norris said. “I slept in it a few nights until I could get a new starter for it. I rode my skateboard to get food and stuff.
“I lived in it. I was parked on the beach and I’d wake up and see if I could catch some waves and then head to the ballpark. … It’s still down in Florida while I’m up here. Yeah, I miss that thing, too.”
Norris’ sense of adventure is apparently unprecedented in the Toronto organization.
“They kid around with me,” he said. “They say they’d never seen anything like it (living in a van). I don’t know, I’m different, I guess. I’m kind of weird. But it was something I wanted to do. I kind of wanted the experience and I like doing that kind of stuff, being on my own.”
Of course, Norris is even happier riding buses with teammates throughout the Midwest and spending spring/summer nights with dugouts, diamonds and five-digit crowds.
“I’m so blessed to be living the dream,” he said. “I like the bus rides. I like the road trips. I like going from place to place and not getting really settled in. I just like it. And what better way to spend the day than playing baseball. I love going out on the field and shagging BP and just running around and being on the field. I love it. I couldn’t ask for anything better. It really is a dream lifestyle.”
Indeed, nightmarish outings didn’t keep Norris from seeing the big picture.
“It was tough going through last year and the beginning of this year,” Norris said. “But honestly, I know God put me through it for a reason. He knows on down the road I’m gonna need to know how to deal with adversity on a higher stage. And honestly, just the past year, he’s made that happen for me to get used to it and know how to deal with it.
“When I laid my head down at night I was at peace with it after a bad outing, because I knew it happened for a reason. And I knew it made me wake up the next day hungry to get better.”