Daniel Norris Is Mid-Breakout

I talk about James Paxton a lot. I talk about him a lot because I like him a lot. I’m probably the biggest Paxton fan on staff. I might be the biggest Paxton fan on the continent. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn I have more confidence in 2017 James Paxton than James Paxton does. Why am I losing my mind over a 28-year-old with less than 300 big-league innings? This is basically why:

That plot shows every starter who threw at least 50 innings in each of the last two years. I’ve highlighted the Paxton dot in blue. This one is easy to eyeball. By strike rate, Paxton had the biggest year-to-year improvement. And by average fastball speed, Paxton also had the biggest year-to-year improvement. That’s a hell of a one-two punch, and it makes you wonder about the Paxton breakout. More specifically, does this make Paxton a breakout candidate, or did the breakout already happen? “Mid-breakout” might be the best way to describe him. He’s on the way, but he could be more consistent.

In the plot above, Paxton stands way out from the crowd. Yet that doesn’t make him the only pitcher of interest. Who else gained both strikes and speed? Spoiler alert: Read this post’s headline.

Let’s look at the exact same plot, but let’s un-highlight Paxton. Been over that already. Here, I’ve highlighted a new pitcher’s dot. Daniel Norris didn’t show quite the gains that Paxton did, but they still shouldn’t go by unnoticed. The former top prospect has started coming into his own.

Again, Paxton is out there, but if it weren’t for him, you could say Norris is out there. Between the last two years, his fastball improved by 1.2 ticks, ninth-best out of a sample of 128. At the same time, his strike rate improved by 4.3 percentage points, third-best out of the same sample. The only other pitcher in the vicinity is Matt Shoemaker, who sort of re-broke out, if you will. No pitcher would ever complain about more speed or more strikes, and given Norris’ prospect background, these are very encouraging developments.

I can even keep going! So I’ll keep going. Related to the above, Norris pulled another thing off: He threw more pitches in the zone, while also missing more bats in the zone. He just had the 24th-biggest improvement in zone rate, which is something, if modest. While that was happening, he also had the seventh-biggest improvement in in-zone contact rate. There were actually just three starting pitchers who bumped their zone rates at least two points while trimming their zone-contact rates at least three points. Those pitchers:

There’s Paxton again. Can’t get away from him. But Norris was also a standout, relative to what he’d been in the past. I can’t tell you every single thing that contributed to Norris getting himself straightened out, but I can point you in certain directions. For starters, this wasn’t just a major-league phenomenon. Down in Triple-A, Norris showed similar gains. He worked ahead in the count far more often than he did in 2015. Beyond that, late-season Norris was healthy, which has been somewhat uncommon. Already, he’s dealt with a back problem, oblique problems, and cancer. Those tend to be tough to brush aside.

Delivery-wise, Norris folded in some tweaks, including a higher leg-lift to try to find better balance. Norris swears the difference was immediately night and day, which, I’ll take his word for it. Recent results would certainly back him up. And at last, there’s the matter of Norris’ slider, which jumped from 2015’s 83 miles per hour to 2016’s 88. To go along with that velocity jump, Norris also found his slider location. Borrowing some slider heat maps from Baseball Savant:

The slider wasn’t everything, but it became a valuable part of Norris’ repertoire, as he learned to keep it lower and more toward the glove side. Two years ago, sliders accounted for just 7% of Norris’ strikeouts. Last year, they accounted for a quarter of Norris’ strikeouts, and, say, wouldn’t you know, but here’s one of them!

Having a better slider means it isn’t a coincidence that Norris literally doubled his strikeout rate against same-handed hitters. There are steps remaining here, and Norris himself wouldn’t tell you that he’s become a finished product, but it’s now so much easier to see him reaching the lofty potential he’s possessed. Norris as a starter two seasons ago ran a 114 FIP-, meaning he was about 14% worse than average. Last season he managed to trim that all the way to 91, putting him ahead of Julio Teheran and Chris Archer. Even if Norris were done getting better, he’s just a higher innings count from being a No. 2. But to me, this looks like one case of late-season improvement I’m willing to get behind. As long as Norris is able to put in the work, he intrigues me for the same reasons Paxton does.

Odds are, with Justin Verlander around, Norris isn’t about to become the Tigers’ best starting pitcher. I will say he has the capability, but more importantly for the Tigers, they’re going to scratch and claw for a wild-card spot, and having a better Norris makes their rotation that much deeper. Verlander, you can bank on, and Michael Fulmer was a hell of a rookie. You can round out a top four with Norris and Jordan Zimmermann, and then no team really loves their No. 5. For the Tigers of today, Norris’ improvement is crucial. And for the Tigers of tomorrow, Norris’ very presence is a blessing. It’s not all a long-term mess.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

Very cool! Big fans of Paxton and Norris as well. I’m curious who may have made similar jumps in fastball velocity and strike% in previous years and whether they have broken-out. Same question about zone-contact rates as well!