Sunday Notes: Tigers’ Daniel Norris Channels Clayton Kershaw

Daniel Norris has no illusions of being Clayton Kershaw, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to emulate him. Who wouldn’t? Kershaw is arguably baseball’s best pitcher, and — according to the Detroit Tigers southpaw — they share important characteristics. For those reasons, Norris watches “almost all of Kershaw’s starts,” and has for some time.

“I like watching him pitch,” Norris told me on Friday. “And because we’re similar, I can learn from him. He’s the best in the world — he’s Kershaw — but he’s a lefty, he’s typically 93-95, he’s got a slider that’s 88-90, he’s got a curveball that’s 73-76, and he’s started throwing a changeup. That’s four pitches that I throw, as well. If I can pick up something from the way he maybe throws his slider down-and-in more often than he goes backdoor… stuff like that. I like how he attacks hitters.”

Norris also likes how Kershaw, despite being elite, continues to evolve. He pointed to how the Dodgers ace has not only started throwing more changeups, he’s also “kind of dropping down from time to time, to give hitters different angles.” Norris has noticed subtle “delivery adjustments” over the years, where Kershaw appeared to be “working on mechanical rhythms and tempos.”

Norris is currently doing exactly that. Consistency and command have been issues for the 24-year-old former Toronto Blue Jay, and he feels that a work-in-progress tweak may help solve those woes. He described it as “kind of a higher leg kick, and getting a stronger front side.” One of the goals is a freer and easier delivery. Rather than being out there “trying not to walk guys,” he feels he needs to “not think about anything, just let it go and trust my stuff.”

When I asked him why an adjustment of this ilk is needed six years into a professional career — Norris was a second-round selection in 2011 — he told me that pitchers are “always working on stuff,” plus he’s had different voices in his ear.

“I’ve changed organizations,” said Norris, who came to Detroit as part of the 2015 trade-deadline deal for David Price. “I’ve got different handling now. When I was with the Blue Jays, I had Pete Walker. When I first got here, I had Jeff Jones, and now I have Rich Dubee. That’s three different sets of hands getting on you and seeing different things.”

The most-recent set of hands is responsible for his in-progress adjustment. Indirectly, his role model is as well.

“In my last bullpen, Dubee was was like, ‘Who is your favorite pitcher?’ I said it’s obviously Kershaw. He’s like, ‘I watch you pitch, and I watch him pitch, and one thing he does that you don’t is have a strong front side with his glove hand. When you separate, yours stays down here, and his is up here. That helps him get on top of the ball better, and it helps his command.’ So we worked on getting a stronger front side, and it was the best side I’ve thrown all year.”

Norris will be on the mound tonight when the Tigers face the Red Sox, at Fenway Park.

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Mariners special assistant Tom McNamara put it this way: “A lot of scouting is staying on top of your schedules, and letting guys know, ’Hey, you’re going here, so you can also go here.’ We got lucky that day.”

McNamara was referring to Dan Altavilla, whom Seattle took in the fifth round of the 2014 draft out of Division II Mercyhurst College. Three years later, the right-hander has a 3.31 ERA and is striking out better than a better per inning in 37 big-league relief appearances.

Altavilla was already on Seattle’s radar — they’d seen him perform well in the Cape Cod League — so McNamara was maybe overstating things a little when he said the club got lucky. Even so, it was that final, fortuitous look that ultimately sealed the deal. It came via a side trip.

“We were going to watch LSU versus Vanderbilt,” recalled McNamara, who was Seattle’s scouting director at the time. “It was (Aaron) Nola against (Tyler) Beede. Our scout who had Pennsylvania, Mike Moriarty, told us, ‘Hey, you know what? You guys could see the kid from Mercyhurst, too. He’s pitching at noon, and then you can go see the Vanderbilt game at seven o’clock. So we went. Altavilla was pitching literally just a few miles away, and he was 95-96 MPH, as a starter. We had to leave the game early, but we already had history on him, and our guys all liked him.

“I think a lot of people were a little surprised that we drafted him where we did, but he had a good arm and a good breaking ball. The success he had in the Cape Cod League is what first woke us up, and from there it became, ‘Hey, let’s go see this guy.’ We were lucky that day. He fell right in our laps.”

———

Trey Ball is a few weeks short of his 23rd birthday, and he remains athletic with a strong left arm. The projectability is still there. At the same time, there is a real possibility that Ball will go down as a draft bust. The Red Sox selected him seventh overall in 2013, and 402 innings into his professional career he has a 4.61 ERA, a pedestrian strikeout rate, and a too-high walk rate.

But again, there’s still time. The New Castle, Indiana native has been slowly climbing the minor league ladder, and while he’s had some ups and downs this year at Double-A Portland, he remains optimistic.

“It’s taken its course,” said Ball, when asked to describe his development path thus far. “Being drafted so young… I knew I was a raw pitcher and had a lot to work on. I still do. It’s a process you need to buy into, and trust, and I feel that things are coming together.”

Four years after jumping from high school to the rigors of pro ball, he continues to adapt and adjust. He added a slider in 2015, and more recently he’s been fine-tuning his delivery.

“I’m working on my hand separation,” said the 6-foot-6 southpaw. “My hands aren’t separating well, which is causing me to lose my arm — not let it catch up to my body. Being tall and lanky. I’m needing to fine-tune my mechanics to make them more consistent. At the same time, they’re trying to let me be free and easy, so that I don’t constrict my body and detract what I do.”

What Ball does is pitch, which was by no means a given when the 2013 draft began to come into focus. A number of teams saw more potential in his bat than in his arm, and were looking at him as an outfielder. Despite his struggles, he’s not second-guessing the decision to put him on the mound.

“Not at all,” Ball told me. “Back in high school, teams were all 50-50, ‘is he a hitter, or is he a pitcher?’ I told them, ‘look, whatever team picks me, whatever they want, that’s what I’m committed 100% to.’”

Even while walking off the mound after another jarring outing?

“That’s when you have to trust the process,” said Ball. “You have to trust it, and you have to believe in it.”

———

The Colorado Rockies took Riley Pint fourth overall last year out of a Kansas high school. Earlier this week, I asked the hard-throwing right-hander what his expectations were on draft day.

“To be honest, I didn’t really know much,” claimed Pint. “I pretty much knew I wasn’t going to get past nine, to the Tigers. But I didn’t know if I was going to get picked before then, or at nine. It wasn’t until about 10 minutes before the draft that I knew that I’d be going to the Rockies. They told us they’d be taking me if I was there.”

Pint clarified that he didn’t know with any certainty that one of the teams picking in front of Colorado — Philadelphia, Cincinnati, or Atlanta — wouldn’t end up taking him, but he had spoken with them previously and felt it was unlikely.

In 10 starts for the low-A Asheville Tourists, Pint is 1-7 with a 3.98 ERA. We’ll hear more from him in the upcoming week.

———

Thinking about all the hard work scouts have been doing in preparation for this year’s amateur draft, I can’t help but chuckle when I look back at something Joe Biagini told me last April. The eminently-quotable Toronto Blue Jays pitcher shared the following about his last outing at the University of California-Davis:

“A scout, Keith Snider from the Giants, came down after the game. I was disappointed — I was all mad — but he was like, ‘Hey, you were throwing pretty well out there.’ I was like, ‘Really? Are you sure you’re talking about me?’ I wondered if maybe there was a guy behind me. It turns out I had been throwing harder than I thought.”

——

Detroit activated James McCann off the disabled list on Friday. That gives the Tigers two healthy catchers, one of whom, Alex Avila, has a 1.074 OPS. With McCann being the presumptive starter coming into the season, the question now becomes, ‘Who gets the bulk of the playing time?’ It looks like the answer — at least for now — is the left-handed-hitting Avila, but only to a degree.

Ausmus siad it wouldn’t be a strict platoon, but rather “platoon-oriented.” Intrigued, I asked if it would be based at all on who on was the mound for the Tigers, or simply by who the opposing pitcher was.

“I think both catchers are capable of handling our pitchers,” answered Ausmus. “No pitcher has ever shown a preference for one guy, or told me of a preference for one catcher or another. It will be mainly on the opposing pitcher. I have confidence in both catchers, defensively.”

———

JUNE TIDBITS

Terrance Gore hit the first home run of his career last night. It came in his 1,948th professional plate appearance, and traveled a reported 401 feet. Gore is with Kansas City’s Triple-A affiliate, the Omaha Storm Chasers.

On Tuesday, Odubel Herrera became the first Philadelphia Phillies player with nine extra-base hits over a four-game stretch since Cy Williams in 1923. Prior to singling on Friday night, Herrera’s last 12 hits had gone for extra bases, making him the first Phillie in the modern era with 12 straight hits for extra bases.

Joey Votto has walked 44 times and struck out 32 times. Ryon Healy has walked nine times and struck out 60 times.

Oakland’s Yonder Alonso leads American League first baseman in OBP (.383) and SLG (.656), and he ranks third in home runs (16).

Joey Gallo has a .204 batting average and an .820 OPS. Brandon Phillips has a .297 batting average and a .770 OPS. Scooter Gennett has a .305 batting average and an .899 OPS.

Among pitchers 26 years and younger, 19-year-old Triston McKenzie leads the minors with 84 strikeouts (in 64-and-two-thirds innings). The Indians drafted McKenzie 42nd overall in 2015.

The Lansing Lugnuts, Toronto’s low-A affiliate, led off one of yesterday’s Game Notes blurbs with an advanced stat: “Bo Bichette is first in the Midwest League in wRC+ (200), OPS (1.064), batting average (.379), slugging percentage (.611), base hits (75) and runs scored (45).”

Per the Elias Sports Bureau, earlier this week Greg Holland became the second pitcher to reach 20 saves in 22-or-fewer appearances of a single season. Lee Smith did so with the Orioles in 1994.

Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen has 42 strikeouts in 25-and-a-third innings this year. He’s yet to walk a batter.

———

Over the past two weeks, we’ve run an interview with Joey Gallo, and another with Jeremy Barfield. Both have pitching backgrounds, and it turns out that they’ve stood 60 feet, six inches apart.

When I spoke to Barfield, he told me he faced Gallo, in 2014, during his stint as a pitcher in the California League. He responded with a friendly laugh when I asked if Gallo took him deep. “No, I struck him out,” Barfield told me. “I came in from right field and struck him out on three pitches.”

Invoking the spirit of colleague Carson Cistulli, the present author cannot confirm the veracity of said statement.

———

Red Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy recently got in hot water for saying, on air, that foreign-born pitchers like Masahiro Tanaka shouldn’t be allowed to have translators during mound visits. That brought to mind a great story from Tim Kester (I’ve shared this previously) who pitched professionally from 1993-2007. It happened while he was playing winter ball in Taiwan.

“My manager, who didn’t speak a word of English, made a trip to the mound with our interpreter, who learned English in school and didn’t know any baseball lingo at all,” recalled Kester. “The manager rattled off about a minute of Chinese while I stood there and pretended to listen. It sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher, or trying to understand a dog barking. When he got done, the interpreter looked at me and said, with his thick Asian accent, ‘Manager say enemy batter is very strong, but if you use all your weapons, you may defeat him.” I couldn’t do anything but laugh, it was so surreal. I stepped off the mound and said to myself, ‘Where am I?’”

———

LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

Over at The Korea Times, Kang Hyun-kyung wrote about how Trey Hillman, and other foreign-born managers, are impacting baseball on the other side of the world.

Graham Womack wonders if Leo Mazzone and Johnny Sain deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, and he wrote about it at The Sporting News.

At Beyond the Boxscore, Mary Craig weighed in on an upcoming promotion by the short-season Ogden Raptors, who apparently feel that objectifying women is a good idea.

Forty years ago this week, the New York Mets traded Tom Seaver, and their fans weren’t happy. Steven Marcus wrote about the “unthinkable” deal at Newsday.

In the opinion of The St. Louis Dispatch’s Jose de jesus Ortiz, the dysfunctional Cardinals must unite after bloody Friday.

The Chicago Tribune’s David Haugh talked to Ozzie Guillen about his hopes of managing again, and not surprisingly, Guillen was verbose.

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Over the last two seasons, the Cincinnati Reds have had 20 players make their MLB debuts, the most of any team.

Lou Gehrig had 8,001 at bats, 534 doubles and 493 home runs. Miguel Cabrera has 8,028 at bats, 533 doubles, and 451 home runs.

On this date in 1961, Norm Cash became the first Detroit Tiger to hit a fair ball over the roof of Tiger Stadium. On the season, Cash slashed .361/.487/.662, with 41 home runs. He was worth 10.2 WAR.

On this date in 1985, Von Hayes hit two home runs in the first inning — one of them a grand slam — helping lead the Phillies to a 26-7 win over the Mets.

In 1930, George Watkins had the best rookie season you’ve never heard of. A 30-year-old outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, Watkins slashed .373/.415/.621, with 32 doubles, seven triples, and 17 home runs, in just 391 at bats.

Art Hoelskoetter appeared in 299 games for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1905-1908. He played 78 games at second base, 77 at third base, 49 at catcher, 28 at first base, 20 as an outfielder, 16 at shortstop, and 15 as a pitcher.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Tigers’ Daniel Norris Channels Clayton Kershaw by David Laurila!

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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.

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jimcal
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Member
jimcal

Who was the one pass on Lindor? I thought it was Tom McNamara?

Jaded M’s fan.

Joser
Member
Joser

Was it McNamara… or was the decision ultimately Zduriencik’s? Afterall, amateur scouting was how Z made his name (mostly by having Prince Fielder fall into his lap) and by taking Hultzen with the second pick in 2011 they didn’t just miss on Lindor (who went #8, so five other orgs whiffed there too); they also skipped over guys like Javier Baez (#9) and Jose Fernandez (#14). But at the time the Mariners were most strongly linked to Anthony Rendon (who had medical questions that dropped him to #6) and Bubba Starling (#5)… and how did that work out for the Royals?

Besides, as a jaded M’s fan you’d be well aware that the M’s have a long tradition taking a pass on shortstops like Tulowitzki to draft talents like Jeff Clement.

Shawnuel
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Shawnuel

I don’t think the M’s were ever really in on Starling. He made it known that he would go to school if anyone other than KC drafted him. And Lindor worked out at Safeco field so they were definitely interested.

Rahul Setty
Member

I don’t think it’s fair to blame the Mariners for Hultzen. How would they know the highest-floor arm on the board would have recurring elbow issues?

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I fully agree. Hultzen was *dominant* in the minors until his career was destroyed by injuries. The only reason to fault them was that they drafted a pitching prospect, and pitchers break. But that’s not much of a case.
Remember, your first rounder will probably bust, and Hultzen showed real promise. If you want to knock the Mariners for a pick, knock them for taking Alex Jackson over Aaron Nola, Jeff Hoffman, and Michael Conforto.