Just two starts into his Triple-A career, it’s clear why the Blue Jays gave Daniel Norris a $2M signing bonus when they drafted him in the second round of the 2011 draft out of Science Hill High School in Tennessee.
Further, Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos has hinted that Norris might be in the process of being prepared for a September call-up to join the bullpen, a strategy they recently employed with Aaron Sanchez, the club’s other top pitching prospect.
After struggling with command issues and forearm stiffness in 2013, Norris has worked with coaches in order to make tweaks in his motion to find more consistency with his mechanics and release point. Whereas the 6’2”, 180 pound lefty used to throw across his body, he now employs a high ¾’s release point, and the change has worked wonders.
At High-A Dunedin this season, Norris posted a 10.31 K/9 while limiting the number of free passes to just 2.44 per nine innings. In 66.1 innings, Norris didn’t allow a single home run while posting a FIP of 1.72.
In his eight starts with Double-A New Hampshire, Norris struggled a bit with his command, posting a 4.29 BB/9. But he did strike out more batters (12.36 K/9), and the Blue Jays decided he was ready for Triple-A.
Through two starts with the Buffalo Bisons, Norris has looked like a frontline starter. In 11.2 IP, he has struck out 23 batters while walking only one. He’s yielded just five hits and one run. His first Triple-A start was against a Durham lineup that featured Wil Myers, Nick Franklin, Wilson Betemit and Mike Fontenot. Norris had no problem, striking out 10 batters (including Myers) in 6 innings, walking just one while allowing two hits and zero runs.
Norris works with a full arsenal of pitches. His fastball sits at 93 mph and can touch 96 with good, late movement. His high release point allows him to pound the lower half of the strike zone, as his 43.3 career GB% indicates. He has enough velocity to pitch up in the zone when he wants to, and hitters at all levels of the minor leagues have consistently swung through the pitch.
He also works with a slider, which ranges from 83-87 mph while exhibiting sharp, late downward bite and sometimes some slurvy action. He uses the pitch as much against right-handed batters as he does against lefties, and hitters from both sides of the plate swing through it with frequency.
Norris’ biggest improvement this season has been the movement on his curve. While in the past the pitch showed a higher velocity and sweeping movement, he now throws it 72-81 mph with 11-7 break. He will often freeze hitters, especially lefties, when dropping the pitch into the strike zone with an effortless motion.
The changeup has also made improvements, although it still needs a little work if Norris is going to reach his potential as a No. 2 starter. He doesn’t throw it very often, and many times he misses too far down in the zone. When he throws it right, it exhibits late sinking movement, and hitters get out front and swing over the top.
Norris’ downfall could be his command, which sometimes disappears on him in the middle of starts. But he’s still just 21 and three years out of high school, and he’s made significant strides over the past year. As he climbs the ladder and eventually reaches the major leagues, where he will receive premium coaching, the likelihood of him finding consistent mechanics and maintaining them for seven innings at a time certainly increases.
I like Norris as a No. 2, mostly due to his impressive arsenal of average-to-above-average pitches and ability to retire both left- and right-handed batters consistently. Over 241.1 career innings in the minor leagues, Norris has posted a near identical FIP (3.04, 3.03) against lefties and righties, respectively. As long as he continues to control his mechanics and becomes more confident with the changeup, there’s no reason Norris can’t be a successful member of a fearsome Blue Jays rotation in 2015.
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