Daniel Norris seemed intrigued when I suggested he might be the next Drake Britton. It is an apples-to-orange comparison — the latter underwent Tommy John surgery and Norris‘s worst malady has been a forearm strain — but the southpaws share notable things in common. For one, they saw their professional careers get off to slow starts.
Norris, one of the top prospects in the Toronto Blue Jays system, has gone 3-11, 6.19 since being taken in the second round of the 2011 draft. Two years ago, in high-A, Britton went 1-13, 6.91. He is now in the big leagues with the Red Sox.
The 20-year-old Norris is showing indications he may be ready to turn a similar corner. In his last two starts for the low-A Lansing Lugnuts, he has thrown nine scoreless innings with 13 strikeouts. More importantly, he has begun pitching with more poise and confidence. Norris talked about his development — including what he has learned from his struggles — late last week.
Norris on dealing with adversity: “To be completely honest, I try not to think about it. I say ‘try,’ because it’s almost inevitable that you do. But I just try to go pitch-by-pitch, game-by-game. That’s a cliché, but it’s the way you have to approach it. You need to have a short memory.
“I’ve definitely had my ups-and-downs, starting last season in Bluefield, I’d never experienced that kind of failure. I’m actually thankful for last year, and the beginning of this year, because I’ve learned how to deal with adversity. Now, the next day, I’m ready to go back out there and get better. It’s been a blessing in disguise for me to have some bad games.”
On the reasons behind his struggles: “I think a lot of it has been lack of command. I have to stay focused. My pitching coach this year, Vince Horsman, told me, ‘It doesn’t matter how hard you throw; if you’re up in the zone, you’re going to get hit.’ For me, it’s a matter of focusing down in the zone and getting ahead of guys, attacking guys.
“It’s not that I’m figuring out the hitters, it’s more a matter of figuring out myself. If I can get ahead of hitters, I know I can put them away with my off-speed. It’s a matter of getting ahead and staying ahead.
“A lot of the [poor outings] have been due to bad innings, especially early in the year. I’d have a good game, and then an inning would implode. It would be like, ’Oh man, I ruined a good outing.’ It’s a matter of keeping my focus.”
On his repertoire and velocity: “I throw a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, a changeup, a slider, and a curveball. I came to pro ball with all of those pitches. The slider was new to me. I developed it my senior year of high school and now it’s one of my put-away pitches. I’ve worked hard on refining it.
“I was [preparing for pro ball in high school]. My senior year, I focused a lot on my changeup, knowing I had to show one — show I had a feel for a changeup. It’s a modified circle. It’s kind of deep in my hand — I kind of choke it — and my pitching coach calls it a screwball because of the movement. I get arm-side run, and sink, with it. When I throw it right — when I get on top of it and throw it with conviction and arm speed — I get a lot of depth. It’s been a good pitch for me this year.
“There is about an 8-10 mph difference from my fastball. My changeup has been as hard as 88 this year, but it’s usually anywhere from 83-86. My fastball, before I went on the DL [with forearm soreness] was 93-95, and I’ve been up 96-97. Since then, I’ve mostly been 92-95.
“I think velocity is important to my game. I’m a fastball pitcher. I pitch off my fastball and velocity helps you get ahead of guys. And not that you want to pitch up in the zone, but sometimes you can get away with a few more mistakes when you throw harder.
“You can [selectively pitch up]. In fact, I’ve been doing that a little bit lately. I’ll work low in the zone, get 0-2, 1-2, and then expand up with my fastball. If they chase, great. If not, then they’re set up for a curveball. A fastball up, followed by a curveball down, changes a hitter’s eye level and can get him to chase.
“I’d say I’m about 60 percent four-seam and 40 percent two seam. I like to throw my two-seam, it’s just a matter of the feel I have for it that day. Sometimes the sink is more than I’m used to, and sometimes it’s less. I usually get pretty good movement on it. I like to throw it with two strikes and when I’m ahead in the count.
“My slider has been pretty consistent this year. I’ve been very pleased with the break on it. I’ve been able to back-foot, or back-door, a righty with it. My curveball is something I’ve thrown all my life. It’s usually around 72-76, so it’s a bit of a change of pace. I can drop it in for strikes pretty consistently. The velocity isn’t hard, but it’s a hard breaker, so I can get some good swings-and-misses with it.
“Some pitching coaches like my slider more, and some like my curveball more. They all seem to like that I have both, because it gives me that other option. Hitters have another pitch to think about.”
On mechanical changes and muscle memory: “Last year was a big… it was almost a whole revamp of my mechanics. I was inconsistent with my delivery. I knew that. Dane Johnson, our pitching coordinator, and I worked really hard in spring training, and extended spring training, to refine it. It’s paying off. My delivery has been a lot more consistent, and I’m able to get on top of the ball more. Hard work pays off, getting that muscle memory into your mechanics.
“When I’m thinking about [my mechanics] is when I’m doing my side work. I’m getting the muscle memory there. Once I’m out on the mound, it’s just all about competing.
“Delivery-wise, it was primarily that when I’d fall off, I’d get a lot of separation from my arm and my head. I’d land on my heel and spin off a little bit, and end up on the third base side. I’ve come to realize it’s all right to fall off a little bit. Guys are going to fall off to their glove side, but it’s a matter of staying through the ball when you’re releasing it, and not getting on the side of it and cutting it. Being able to repeat that is big.”
On continuing his development: “Going out there and pitching, more and more, is the main thing. It’s a learning experience. The more innings I’m getting, the more comfortable I’m getting. I’m not foolish. I know there are going to be more bad outings. It’s a matter of building confidence each time I’m out there, and feeling the ball come out of my hand.
“Has there been any doubting of myself? I don’t think so. There have been times where it has been, ‘Man, why is this happening to me?,’ but things happen for a reason. You just have to overcome them. When I’m struggling, something inside me burns even harder to get through it.
“I’m glad I didn’t come into pro ball and just coast. If you get too comfortable, too complacent, you often stop working hard. This has made me work harder than I ever have in my life, and if you want to be successful — if you want to achieve that dream of the big leagues — you have to work. For me, it’s not about the money; it’s about playing the game I love for the rest of my life. That what drives me. I know I was born to play baseball.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.