In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, this year New English D will be running a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We’ll be calling the series “2016 Bellwethers,” and will break down the players currently on the roster whose 2016 direction will indicate where the Tigers are heading this year. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy.
2015 was a big year for Tigers left-hander Daniel Norris. His professional life changed dramatically when he found himself serving as the July 30th centerpiece of a trade that delivered superstar David Price to the Toronto Blue Jays. For most people, switching employers, cities, and countries would probably register as the biggest event of the year, but the introspective hurler found himself face to face with cancer last April, pitched the entire season, and then had surgery to remove a malignant tumor in October. Norris behaves like someone you might find musing near Walden Pond, but pitches like someone who earned $2 million signing bonus out of high school. He starts our list of 2016 Bellwethers.
Norris will turn 23 years old during the first month of the 2016 campaign and despite losing his rookie/prospect status in 2015, he is essentially the Tigers brightest “prospect” if you’ll allow me to use the term non-technically. Michael Fulmer is the club’s consensus number one (official) prospect but the promising right-handed is actually older than Norris despite his lack of major league experience. Nick Castellanos, Jose Iglesias, and James McCann are also older than Norris and possess lower ceilings.
Twenty-three is young in pitcher-years. While the sport is skewing younger, pitching requires seasoning and experience. Justin Verlander wasn’t Justin Verlander until he was 26. Max Scherzer was 27 before he turned himself into a star. It’s extremely rare for pitchers to arrive on the scene fully formed and how long it takes Norris to develop will be a key determinant of the club’s success going forward.
During the 2015 season, Norris logged 150.2 professional innings, 60 at the MLB level. The year before he had tossed roughly 130 innings and given that his offseason was likely disrupted by his recovery, it’s unlikely that we’ll see more than 180 innings from Norris in 2016. There isn’t a formula for assessing pitcher risk, but teams typically avoid big year-to-year innings jumps for young pitchers and Norris will likely be no exception. With that in mind, there is an artificial ceiling on what Norris can do for the Tigers, but there’s also a big difference between 180 above average innings and the kind of season that gets him sent to Toledo for some extra development time.
We can all see Norris’ potential. He’s a lefty who sits 92 with his fastballs and touches 95-96 with some regularity. He is also comfortable throwing his curve, slider, and change with significant frequency. The pitches aren’t all fully formed and reliable, but the fact that they are as advanced as they are is a promising sign. The question for Norris in the long run will be his ability to command as many of them as possible.
During his 60 brief innings last year Norris posted a 94 ERA- and 114 FIP-. Neither number is particularly meaningful in such a small sample of innings spread across a full season in conjunction with an oblique strain. He struck out batters at a below average clip and walked about an average number for a guy who threw just 60 innings. Given that command is the area of his game which needs work, the latter is a promising note. But in order for Norris to be successful he will need to find himself more strikeouts. Those were there in 2014, but were lacking in 2015. There’s no way to know if his health issues were to blame, if it was a matter of better competition, or if something else was the cause.
That’s essentially the question we’ll be looking to answer in 2016. Can Daniel Norris strike out more hitters without sacrificing command? He’s a fly ball pitcher with a solid enough group of outfielders and has a pair of great defenders up the middle in the field. Norris was victimized surprisingly by lefties in 2015, who hit for a ton of power (.293 ISO in 64 PA), but that probably won’t continue once he gets a chance to pitch a full season.
In 2015, hitters were very patient against Norris, which is something he’ll need to combat with a higher number of first pitch strikes. He needs to get ahead early and let his arsenal of secondary pitches force hitters to chase for swinging strikes and weak contact. This is all very much within his grasp given the tools at his disposal. He’s physically gifted, intellectually capable, and works hard.
Norris has the potential to become a #2 starter someday, but it’s probably not a good bet to predict he reaches that zenith in his first full season in the majors. More likely, Norris will have his ups and downs, getting hit hard from time to time before making adjustments to get back in control. Realistically, a 90 ERA-/FIP- is probably the best case scenario, which would make him about a 3 WAR pitcher over 180 innings. That’s better than he was in 2015, but it’s not all the way to his ceiling.
But it’s also not out of the question to imagine Norris struggles with his command in April and the club decides he isn’t quite ready for prime time, especially because they need to watch his innings anyway. In this scenario, maybe he’s in the 110 ERA-/FIP- range, or worse, and the Tigers have to rely on Boyd, Fulmer, etc before they are fully ready. Given that the club doesn’t have a ton of depth, Norris is a crucial component of a successful season. There are always ways for teams to surprise you, but it seems relatively unlikely that the Tigers will win the division without a productive Daniel Norris.
Norris seems like a good bet to be a productive member of the organization over the next six years, but the question the club will face in 2016 is if he’s ready to be a mid rotation starter right now. That’s going to depend on his ability to get ahead of hitters with strikes and finish them off when he does.
If Norris has good strikeout numbers and doesn’t increase his walk rate too much in 2016, he’ll have done his part and the Tigers will be on track for meaningful September baseball.