LHP Daniel Norris of the Toledo Mud Hens (Tigers) has crammed a lot of living into 23 years. Dubbed “The Most Interesting Pitcher in Baseball” by ESPN the Magazine, in part because he once lived out of a van in a WalMart parking lot, Norris eschews conventionality in favor of his own Earth-first, simple-life values. He also spent part of the 2015-16 offseason fighting and beating thyroid cancer. On the baseball field, Norris is a former #1 prospect in the Blue Jays’ system. Acquired at the 2015 trade deadline as the key piece in a blockbuster deal that sent LHP David Price to Toronto, Norris now ranks as Detroit’s top young pitcher.
Norris’s fascinating biography and elite talent notwithstanding, it is possible that fantasy owners have forgotten about him.
Earlier this year, after driving his 1978 Volkswagen camper (which he named “Shaggy”) to Tigers spring training in Lakeland, Fla., Norris, cancer-free, expected to compete for a spot in the Detroit rotation. Lower-back stiffness, however, cost him that chance, and he landed on the DL. In late April, after a short rehab assignment, he was activated and then optioned to Triple-A, where he continues to work his way back into form.
It has not been easy. Three of his first four starts with the Mud Hens were downright clunkers, punctuated by an ugly home start (2.1 IP, 8 H, 7 ER, 4 BB, 5 K) against the Columbus Clippers (Indians) that raised his ERA to an atrocious 9.98. He has righted the ship, however, and on Friday evening against the Buffalo Bisons (Blue Jays) the “Van Man” turned in by far his best performance of the season.
Norris breezed through the first three innings. A leadoff bloop single by Buffalo CF Dalton Pompey was erased on a 6-4-3 double play. After falling behind the first two hitters, Norris threw first-pitch strikes to six of the next seven batters and got into a nice rhythm. In fact, getting ahead in the count was the key to his success; all told, he threw 14 of 23 first-pitch strikes. He struck out the side in the third inning with a curveball, inside fastball, and a slider. Through three innings he had faced the minimum number of batters and had thrown only 39 pitches.
Trouble came in the fourth inning. A swinging strikeout on a slider was followed by a hard-hit ground ball right at 3B Casey McGehee. Somehow McGehee did not make the play, and somehow it was ruled a hit. After another Norris strikeout on a high fastball, Buffalo’s Jesus Montero fought through a long at-bat and was rewarded with a bloop single to center. Norris walked the next batter on four pitches to load the bases. Here the evening could have unraveled, but Norris ended the rally by snagging a comebacker to the mound and throwing to first for the final out. The fourth inning alone took him 31 pitches.
In the fifth and sixth innings Norris allowed a sharp double to left and uncorked two wild pitches, but he also recorded three more strikeouts and did not run into trouble. He was lifted after 96 pitches, 63 of which went for strikes. It was a strong finish to an excellent outing (6 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 8 K).
Norris’s performance merits attention in fantasy circles. With all the hype surrounding rookie call-ups such as LHP Julio Urias and RHP Jose Berrios, it is easy to forget about Norris, who, after all, has made 14 Major-League starts and posted a 3.86 career ERA. Better yet, the young lefthander appears to be rounding into shape just in time to help the back end of a shaky Detroit rotation. RHP Michael Fulmer has pitched better of late, but RHPs Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey have been awful. Norris should get his chance before long, and he has the strikeout potential to help your fantasy team, even as an initial streaming option in mixed leagues.