Daniel Norris has a lot of friends. They include a fastball, a slider, a changeup, and a curveball. The Detroit Tigers southpaw doesn’t actually converse with them — not in the way that Mark “The Bird” Fidrych once talked to the baseball — but they are nonetheless part of his coterie. They are his compadres. His amigos.
Norris is known for his unconventional ways. A few years back he gained a certain amount of notoriety for living in a VW van. His beard — since shorn — is often bushy, his soliloquies on life thoughtful. Moreover, his responses to reporters’ questions have rarely been of the paint-by-numbers variety. A few hours before he fanned the first big-league batter he faced — David Ortiz, in September 2014 — I happened to ask Norris if he’s imagined what his debut would feel like. His response was, “I have, and it will be like that times 10.”
A few days ago, I asked the now-26-year-old about his arsenal. The answer I received didn’t disappoint.
“I had a ball in my hand the other day and was thinking about how, as pitchers, we’re partial to our pitches,” he told me. “They’re almost like friends. Sometimes you have the ebb and flow of a friendship. Maybe you guys are super close, and then maybe one of you moves away, and you kind of get far apart. Then there are times where… some guys will draw their fingers on a ball to remember the grip, to remember that feel. I’ve seen a few guys do that. Shane Greene does it with his cutter-slider. If you start gradually moving millimeters over on a ball, it can change the shape of a pitch drastically. So your pitches are like your friends. You’ve got to work on them every day. You’ve got to stay in contact with them every day. You have to keep that friendship going good.”
While Norris was referring primarily to secondaries, rekindling a relationship with his fastball is his biggest need. Groin surgery last May sapped a lot of his velocity, and he’s still trying to get it back. On Friday, his heater averaged a lackluster 89.8 mph [per Brooks Baseball], and it topped out at 92.9. Norris used to sit 93-96, and not having that old oomph has wreaked havoc on his psyche.
“When you have 95-96 in your back pocket, you’re like, ‘OK, I’m going to rear back and challenge this guy here,’” Norris explained. “When your velo is down, sometimes you inadvertently back off a little bit and throw something else. I’ve been working to get that groove back, to where I’m challenging people with my fastball. After surgery, I lost that ego a little bit. Throwing 90 instead of 95, there’s a little bit of ‘I don’t know’ in the back of your head.”
It’s hard to know if Norris’s fastball will return to what it once was. It’s likewise hard to know if he can be effective if it doesn’t. The eccentric lefty does have his other friends to fall back on, but it’s hard to excel at the highest level without a good heater. The 10 hits he allowed over five innings in his last start suggest as much.
Cincinnati Reds reliever — and sometimes centerfielder — Michael Lorenzen was featured here at FanGraphs a few weeks ago. Left on the cutting-room floor from my conversation with him was his thoughtful take on the following question:
When he was playing in Boston, Manny Ramirez was criticized for saying — I’m paraphrasing here — that it’s only a baseball game. The world won’t end if the team doesn’t win.
“That’s people who don’t understand what an elite mind is,” said Lorenzen. “It’s people who don’t understand the psychological battle that goes on when you’re a professional athlete. They don’t understand how long the season is. The people that got on [Ramirez] for saying that have zero clue how to deal with failure, nor do they understand the amount of failure we have to deal with on a daily basis. They don’t know what goes on in our minds.
“As a player, you have to come up with a way to think, in order to bring the best out of yourself every day. The way you just brought up — the way Ramirez was thinking — is the best way.”
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Last Sunday’s column included Clint Hurdle’s thoughts on how umpires handle retaliatory HBPs, or, in some cases, pitches being thrown behind batters. My question was prompted by by the April escapades featuring Chris Archer and Derek Dietrich, and later Brad Keller and Tim Anderson.
“All the situations are different; how they precipitate,” said Snitker. “And it’s different now than it used to be. If a guy did something, and then he got hit, he would just go to first base and it was over. From when I started — this is my 43rd year in baseball — that part of the game is changing.”
Snitker went on to say that some umpires are more willing to let things play out than others. My impression was that he likes it that way.
“A lot of times, the ball gets away,” said Snitker. “You can tell when a guy is trying to hit somebody, also, but I’ve seen guys get thrown out on breaking balls. The umpires jumped to a decision and threw a guy out for a bad breaking ball. That’s a little extreme [and] aggressive. You’ve got to have a little more common sense than that.”
Gardenhire took old-school a step farther.
“Baseball is never going to change when it comes down to somebody hitting a home run and getting a little too flamboyant,” opined the Tigers skipper. “Baseball has always taken care of itself that way. The thing that happens now is that an umpire throws you out of a game. It used to take care of itself a lot more. But it’s still going to be part of the game. If you do something, something is probably going to happen, like we saw in Chicago. The umpires are going to do what they have to do.”
In terms of how they dole out justice, not all arbiters are created equal.
“A lot depends on who is back there,” opined Gardenhire. “If the umpire thinks there’s intent, he’ll throw him out. If he thinks the pitch just got away from the guy, trying to pitch inside, so be it. Umpires can also sit there and go, ‘He deserved that one.’ — throwing behind him. That’s kind of the old-school way. They know what’s going on.
“I don’t really pay much attention to it unless we’re involved in it, but I watch it [on TV] and can sit and tell you that this guy might get his head knocked off. Umpires control it differently. We’ve got young ones, we’ve got old veteran guys, and they all do it a little differently. But the league really wants it stopped.”
Ed Jenson, the longtime play-by-play voice of the Greenville Drive, died earlier this week at age 69. Jenson called games for the South Atlantic League club from 2006 through the end of last season.
This year’s SABR convention — June 26-30, in San Diego — will include a panel celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Baseball Encyclopedia. John Thorn will be the moderator, and Sean Forman, David Neft, and David Smith will be the panelists.
Mark Armour is the new president of SABR, having replaced Vince Gennaro, who stepped down after eight years in that role. Armour founded SABR’s Baseball Biography Project, and has received both the Bob Davids Award, and the Henry Chadwick Award.
Chris Welsh has been part of the Cincinnati Reds broadcast team for each of the past 27 seasons. Before that he was a pitcher. From 1981-1986, Welsh played for the Padres, Expos, Rangers, and Reds, winning 22 games and logging a 4.45 ERA over 122 appearances. His career highlights include a complete-game shutout against the team he grew up rooting for, during his rookie season in San Diego.
More than anything, the graduate of St. Xavier High School relishes having worn a Reds uniform in his final season.
“I grew up in Cincinnati,” Welsh told me recently. “And being a Cincinnati kid, I loved Pete Rose my entire youth life. When I got to play for the Reds, in 1986, Pete was the player-manager, and I was a hometown kid who started 25 games as a left-handed pitcher. When that combination happened — when Pete put himself in the lineup, and I pitched — we had six players on the field who went to high school in Cincinnati. Pete was at first base, Ron Oester was at second, Barry Larkin was at short, Buddy Bell was at third, and Dave Parker was in right field. I was on the mound. That’s a local trivia question — I’ve told it on the air a few times — and it’s also a testament to the quality of amateur baseball in Cincinnati.”
How did the Reds do that year?
“We came in second place,” said Welsh. “I got released. That was the end of that story.”
Travis Snider is slashing .411/.500/.685 in 86 plate appearances with the Pacific Coast League’s Reno Aces. Signed to a minor-league deal by the Arizona Diamondbacks over the winter, Snider spent last season with the Long Island Ducks in the independent Atlantic League.
Deivi Garcia, the No. 3 prospect in the New York Yankees system, has 33 strikeouts in 17-and-two-third innings. The 19-year-old right-hander out of the Dominican Republic is with the Tampa Tarpons in the high-A Florida State League.
Also in the Florida State League, Bailey Ober, a 23-year-old right-hander in the Minnesota Twins system, has thrown 24 innings and is yet to allow an earned run. A 12th-round pick in 2017 out of the College of Charleston, Ober stands 6-foot-9.
Over in Japan, Hiroshi Kaino has made 11 relief appearances for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and has yet to allow a run in 10-and-two-thirds innings. The 22-year-old right-hander has allowed three hits and fanned 17. This is the Tokyo University product’s first season in NPB.
Pierce Johnson has made 10 relief appearances for the Hanshin Tigers and has yet to allow a run in 10-and-two-thirds innings. The 27-year-old former Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants righty has allowed five hits and fanned 13.
Have you ever wondered how the term “back through the box” originated? I recently learned the answer while reading the second chapter of Tyler Kepner’s new book, K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches.
Prior to the mound being moved to its current sixty feet six inches from home plate, in 1893, the pitcher not only delivered the ball from 50 feet away, he did so from a six-foot-by-six-foot square. Tony Mullane, who won 284 games from 1881-1894, was known as “The Apollo of the Box.”
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
At Forbes, Tony Blengino made a case for, and against, a juiced baseball.
James Parker wrote about the lost art of deadline writing, at The Atlantic.
Chris McCoskey of The Detroit News did a Q&A with Dave Dombrowski — the architect of multiple just-miss Tigers teams — who is now the President of Baseball Operations in Boston.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
On this date in 1988, the Baltimore Orioles lost to the Minnesota Twins, dropping their record to 0-21. The O’s won their first game of the season the following day, beating the Chicago White Sox by a score of 9-0.
Baltimore’s Chris Davis is 9 for 29, with three doubles and a pair of home runs, since the nadir of his 0 for 54 hitless streak.
Counting the postseason, Brewers righty Brandon Woodruff is 7 for his last 15, with two doubles and two home runs.
In a five-plate-appearances sequence over three games in June 2001, Rockies left-hander Mike Hampton went home run, home run, home run, sacrifice bunt, single.
From 2006-2008, Brandon Webb made 101 starts and went 56-25 with a 3.13 ERA. Over that three-year stretch he won a Cy Young award and was twice runner-up. On April 6, 2009 — a month short of his 30th birthday, with an injured shoulder — the Arizona DiamondBacks sinkerball specialist pitched his last MLB game.
Harmon Killebrew stole just 19 bases in a career that spanned the 1954-1975 seasons. Eight of those thefts came in 1969, the same year the Minnesota Twins legend led the junior circuit in home runs , RBIs , bases on balls , and OBP [.427].
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.