On the day that rumors of a possible September callup surfaced, Daniel Norris made an emphatic case that he deserves a promotion. Making only his second Triple-A start, Norris was excellent once again last night for Buffalo as he struck out 13 and walked none over 5.2 innings. I attended the game and will offer my thoughts on his dominant performance below.
Norris, a lefty listed at 6’2", 180-pounds, used an effective four-pitch mix to keep the Lehigh Valley hitters baffled all night. He pitched primarily off of his fastball, which ranged from 87-96 MPH with good life. He sat 91-93 in the early innings and although his velocity dropped a few ticks as the game progressed, he was still able to generate many swings and misses with his fastball during the entire game. Norris worked up in the zone very frequently, challenging hitters to hit his high heat, which they could not. Some of the high pitches were a result of him overthrowing and not finishing his pitch, but he still deliberately worked up in the zone with regularity. He showed some ability to move the ball around to spots on the edges of the zone, although many of his fastballs were of the "here it is, try to hit it" variety. I applaud his aggression with the pitch but fear that consistently working up in the zone could lead to home run issues in the future.
I liked that Norris was able to sit in the low 90’s then reach back for more velocity when he needed it, including one strike three on a 96 MPH fastball at the letters. Furthermore, I loved how Norris was able to generate a high number of swings and misses with the fastball, a terrific sign for a pitcher without exceptional velocity. I’d like to see him work down in the zone a bit more but his fastball is still a quality pitch that plays much higher than the velocity would suggest.
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The lefty featured two breaking pitches, a big overhand curveball and a smaller, tighter slider. The curveball was an extremely impressive pitch with a sharp and large 12-6 break that he could command. He was able to record strikeouts with the pitch in the zone, where he froze batters on multiple occasions, and out of the zone as a chase pitch. The offering ranged from 69-74 MPH, a huge velocity difference from the fastball and opposing hitters had a very difficult time adjusting to the difference.
The slider sat in the 79-85 MPH range and featured a small but sharp break that also missed bats effectively. Norris was able to move the pitch around, getting strike calls on backdoor sliders to righties and many swings and misses on sliders down and out of the zone. He only hung one slider all night, a spinner that was taken high for a ball, and the rest were consistently sharp. None of his breaking pitches found a barrel all night and most swings on these pitches resulted in whiffs.
His fourth pitch is a changeup, a fringe offering that was 83-84 MPH and commanded poorly. He did not use the pitch frequently and when he did, it was pretty flat and only featured slight movement to the arm side and down. Norris did not telegraph the pitch, but other than a few fastballs left over the plate this was the pitch that opposing hitters saw well and were able to hit well. If Norris does indeed move to the Toronto bullpen this season, expect him to scrap the changeup and focus on his fastball and breaking pitches.
While this is easy to say after watching him dominate, I was also impressed with his pitchability and general feel for his craft. Norris was able to sequence well, often using the curve and slider off of each other to keep the hitters guessing. The velocity difference of his pitches, which ranged from 69-96 MPH and everything in between, allowed him to get creative in setting up hitters. It helps that Norris showed three swing and miss pitches, but it was nevertheless encouraging to see him effectively use each of them to record strikeouts. Additionally, I love pitchers with command who do not walk batters, but Norris displayed more control than command in this look. His walks could remain low due to his aggressiveness in the zone, but it would not be accurate to assert that Norris has terrific command simply because he did not walk any batters.
Mechanically, Norris stands tall in his smooth, simple delivery. He has no wasted movements and is therefore able to repeat his motion very well. It is not an extremely slow motion but Norris does a great job of finding and maintaining his balance throughout the entire delivery, which bodes well for his future command profile. Out of the stretch, Norris employs a full leg kick and is slow to the plate at 1.5 to 1.6 seconds. During the few times opposing hitters reached base, they did not hesitate to run on him. Unless he finds a good pickoff move (he did not show one in this look) or cuts down on his times to home, stolen bases could become an issue. On the positive side, his pitches did not lose any effectiveness in the stretch.
I was impressed with the makeup Norris displayed last night as well. He was often the first player on the field each inning, seizing the mound ready to compete. That competitive demeanor continued throughout the game as he worked quickly, showed good body language, and was not afraid to show a bit of emotion when things went well. Even better, when Norris lost his feel a bit during the fourth inning and surrendered multiple hits he bounced back extremely well. He was not pleased with himself but he took the mature approach of channeling that anger and aggression into positive energy. He immediately began throwing harder (without selling out to overthrow) and recorded a strikeout on the next batter.
It was difficult to not walk away impressed after a performance like that, but Norris still has work to do. He overthrew his fastball on multiple occasions, worked up in the zone too frequently, and lacked an effective changeup. He can still help Toronto this season, especially out of the pen where the need for a quality fourth pitch is not as great. This profile is not indicative of a pitcher with an ace-level ceiling, but Norris makes the aforementioned improvements I could see him as a number three starter, and if not, a number four starter. The Blue Jays need quality starting pitching and it would not be far-fetched to imagine a 2015 Blue Jays rotation featuring Norris. For now, however, the bullpen makes more sense and since Norris is probably one of the best 13 pitchers in the organization, the Blue Jays ought to give him an opportunity this season. He is throwing better now than ever before, and for a team trying to win now, Norris can help them do it.
Dan Weigel, who proudly wore his brand new Bartolo Colon shirsey to the game, is a contributing writer for Minor League Ball. For his thoughts about baseball, especially prospects, you can follow him on Twitter at @DanWiggles38.