Five and two-thirds innings. One run. Three hits. Three walks. Ten strikeouts.
Eighty-nine pitches. Sixty for strikes.
A 1.22 ERA and 1.84 FIP at High-A before moving up a level to New Hampshire — and theoretically a step away from the big leagues.
A 15.1 K/9 rate in his first two starts at Double-A.
A 2011 second-rounder who spent most of his first year-and-a-half as a pro in the wilderness with command issues, walking 18 batters in 42.2 innings in 2012, and 28 batters in 45 innings in the first half of 2013. But as the performances — like last night’s gem for the Fisher Cats — more and more consistently start to come in line with the talent and the pre-draft hype, fans are truly starting to take notice of Dan Norris.
It’s been a long strange trip as a pro for Norris — fitting for a guy who spends so much time in a 1978 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van — and things are probably about to start getting even more strange. For one thing, along with fellow Jays prospect Dalton Pompey, yesterday he was named to the roster for the All-Star Futures Game, and both got an impressive nod from Keith Law as two of five potential breakout names he gave in his piece on those selected.
The game will also serve as a coming-out party for several breakout prospects, including the Toronto Blue Jays’ two representatives, lefty Daniel Norris, now up to 96 mph and throwing strikes, and center fielder Dalton Pompey, a potential leadoff-hitter and talented athlete, although Vinnie Vesuvius just owns him.
Norris is no stranger to glowing press clippings, it’s just… it’s been a while. But with what’s been a smooth transition to Double-A so far, we’ve started to remember things.
- Law ranking him 35th heading into the 2011 draft, but calling him “one of the best prep lefties in this year’s class with a chance for three above-average pitches,” and a tough sign who, if he didn’t, would “immediately go to the top of the 2014 draft class.”
- Baseball America ranking him 16th, saying he “entered 2011 as the top high school lefthander in the country, and he has done nothing to change that assessment,” while noting his strong grades for makeup, suggesting that he “has strong present stuff and room to improve.”
- And Baseball Prospectus putting him to the Cardinals at 22 in their final mock draft that year, calling him “the highest upside arm still on the board” at that point, despite the fact that Alex Meyer, Henry Owens, Tyler Beede, and Jose effing Fernandez were still there as well.
Obviously a prospect’s status can change quickly, and a guy like Fernandez got much better much more quickly than anybody saw coming. But for Norris, his struggles out of the gate, as he and the Jays worked at making his mechanics more consistent, quickly turned him into something of a non-factor in the prospect porn world. Keith Law didn’t even list him as a top ten prospect on the Jays heading into 2013, citing him only as a sleeper whose “season was a disappointment overall, with his stuff still so inconsistent from start to start, but on the right day you’ll see 94 mph with two above-average off-speed pitches.”
He was certainly never a non-prospect, just a guy nobody was paying much attention to until the performances started to show up (so take heed, Matt Smoral, who struck out eight in his first three innings at Bluefield last week).
I mean, lots of people whose business it is to follow these guys knew exactly who he was, but as far as his being on fans’ radar, this is relatively new — a piece at Baseball Prospectus this morning debated him jumping into their mid-season top 50, describing him as “a 6-foot-2 lefty who is an outstanding athlete on and off the mound, Norris throws a fastball that sits easily in the 92-95 range and he can run it up to 97 when need be. If a quirky lefty with a mid- to upper-90s fastball isn’t enough for you, let’s talk about his off-speed and breaking stuff. Norris’ best secondary pitch is his slider, a sharp and darting pitch that can miss bats while making hitters look foolish in the process.” (They also add that “his curveball is rapidly improving and I believe that was the main factor in his first-half dominance in the Florida State League,” and that he has a legit fourth pitch, as his “changeup has the makings of a plus pitch and sits in the low 80s with good depth and late drop action.”)
And, of course, over the next few weeks, Norris’s trip is going to get even stranger in another way: because his name has already started surfacing in trade talks. Yesterday I called him “found money,” but that’s not really entirely true — the Blue Jays, after all, invested $2-million in getting him to forgo his commitment to pitch at Clemson, and surely always knew it would be an effort to get his mechanics to where they needed to be. Now he’s paying off, with other teams taking notice, with Alex Anthopoulos taking notice — he was there watching last night’s gem, according to a Shi Davidi piece at Sportsnet — and with fans trying to reconcile the fact that they badly want to see their club upgrade in the rotation, with the fact that Norris’s ascent provides the organization with another top upper-level prospect of the kind they’ve been too bereft of over the last eighteen months, since the trades with the Marlins and Mets were made.
Could Norris himself provide the kind of lift that the Jays are looking for? In the recent past the Jays have shown willingness to bring up pitchers with limited experience above A-ball — Henderson Alvarez had only 14 Double-A starts on his resume when he first got the call, and Drew Hutchison had pitched only 31.2 innings at the level when he did — but unfortunately I’m not sure this is a realistic path for Norris. For one thing, he threw 42.2 innings in his first year as a pro, then jumped up to just 90.2 innings last year. He’s already at 77.2 so far this season, meaning that just twelve starts of five innings apiece would take him nearly to 140 on the season, which is a pretty big jump on its own. To put it in perspective, if R.A. Dickey were to make the same number of starts this year as he did last, he’d need to make 18 more. And then, hopefully, there would be playoff starts in addition.
One might bring up the Michael Wacha example, suggesting that Norris could be brought up to help the bullpen for a while, saving some of his innings for later, and then eventually stretched out to start — the way that the Cardinals did — but it really doesn’t fit so well. Wacha threw 140 innings in 2012, if you include his time at Texas A&M, before throwing 85 in the minors last and 65 in the big league regular season.
His wasn’t an arm that was being asked, within the pressures of a big league playoff race, to log so many more innings that it ever had before. Simply not smart or realistic to ask Norris to do a thing like that. And that’s OK. Keep him developing! Keep him healthy! Or… y’know… trade him for something that can help you right now and for next year, too.
Tough decisions, tough decisions. And surely not the last we’ll hear of this. (Though in his latest on the Jays for CBS Sports, Jon Heyman makes it seem like the Jays are going to be very reluctant to part with their top prospects. But more on that in the next post…)