Two years ago, Daniel Norris waited patiently to see how the next chapter of his life would play out.
The top high school left-hander in the 2011 draft class, Norris was considered a tough sign given his strong commitment to Clemson University, but that didn't stop the Blue Jays from taking him in the second round and handing him a $2 million signing bonus. After all, young southpaws that hit mid-90s on the radar gun and show a feel for three secondary pitches don't exactly grow on trees.
"There's no question Daniel Norris should not have been a second-round pick," Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos told MLB.com in August 2011. "He was absolutely a first-round talent, but he slid because of some signability concerns, and that was an opportunity for us."
Since Norris and the Blue Jays took right up until the signing deadline to come to an agreement, fans had to wait until the 2012 season to see him make his pro debut with Bluefield. Given Norris' velocity, deep repertoire and draft clout, many assumed that he would dominate with Bluefield and at least move up to Vancouver by season's end.
While he did make his way up to Vancouver, it wasn't in dominant fashion, according to the numbers. Norris' stuff allowed him to strike out an average of a batter per inning, but he gave up 31 earned runs on 44 hits in 35 innings for an 7.97 ERA.
While it is professional competition, rookie ball is a developmental level, and considered so for a reason. Norris' mechanics were all out of whack in Bluefield, as he struggled to repeat his delivery and left too many balls up in zone. He was hit hard as a result, so he worked on staying tall with his back leg and getting over his front leg more to finish his pitches better and get on more of a downward plane toward the bottom of the zone. He threw fastball-changeup almost exclusively, and worked on better translating his work in bullpens into game situations.
While he admitted having to be patient with Norris, Bluefield pitching coach Antonio Caceres was quick to praise the quality of the young left-hander's arsenal.
"We like his stuff, he's got really good stuff," Caceres said last season. "I think he's going to have four average to plus pitches. He's got a great changeup, he's got a great curveball, he's going to have a good slider and obviously his fastball's good. I really like him, I think he's going to be pretty good."
For Norris, his early struggles in pro ball contrasted his time at Science Hill High School, when he blew by hitters en route to a 33-3 record.
"In high school, you dominate, really. If you throw 90, you dominate," Norris said. "Then you come here and you can't get away with 95 up in the zone because guys can turn on it.
"You're not going to learn how to get your fastball down until you get lit up while you're up in the zone. Then you go 'I've got to learn this quick, I've got to throw my changeup for strikes and work through my mechanics'."
Following his late-season promotion to Vancouver, Norris was hit hard in two Northwest League starts, having allowed surrendered nine earned runs on 14 hits in 7 2/3 innings for a 10.57 ERA. After going through a rigorous spring training where he continued to tweak his delivery and work on stabilizing his landing foot, Norris--still weeks ahead of his 20th birthday--was shipped north by the Blue Jays to Lansing to embark on the challenge of full-season ball.
With a career 8.44 ERA as a pro to his name, though, how was Norris getting promoted once again? That's because short-season stats are hardly a factor when evaluating players, and nothing is better than the first-hand scouting reports and information that teams have on their own players.
So it was a new season and a new minor league assignment for Norris in 2013. To a Baseball-Reference stat line observer, it was more of the same struggles from Norris to begin the season. The left-hander surrendered a whopping 25 earned runs on 34 hits in his first seven outings of the year for a 9.93 ERA, with 16 strikeouts to 13 walks. Add in the .343 average and .956 OPS that opposing hitters had managed over that span, and ridiculous conversations of whether Norris was a bust or that his future could be as a late-inning reliever started to creep in.
What's not well known is that the biggest reason Norris was struggling early on was not because of his ability, but because his secondary pitches had become temporarily off-limits in order for him to focus exclusively on fastball command.
"It's tough," Norris said. "It's definitely tough having to go out there and solely work on fastball command, because if it's a day when I don't have my fastball command, what are you going to do?
"At the beginning of the year, sure, I mean it's tough holding a 13 ERA and just getting hit around, but it's all part of the process and I realize that. It's part of growing up and being more understanding of the game and the process of being a pitcher."
Lugnuts pitching coach Vince Horsman--who is a big reason why Noah Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino and David Rollins, among others, are succeeding with their new organizations-- has a stellar track record developing young pitchers knows all about the process of being a pitcher. He preaches the importance of fastball command, perha[s the biggest thing a pitcher needs to improve if they want to be successful.
"If you asked me at the start of the season what's the key to a pitcher's success, I'd say command the fastball and work in the bottom part of the strike zone," Horsman said. "That's a formula that'll work all the way to the major leagues."
He's also quick to drive home the importance of getting ahead in the count and throwing first-pitch strikes.
"His last couple games he's been working ahead, he's been throwing a lot of first-pitch strikes and now he's been able to get to the really good slider and the really good breaking ball," he said. "If you're always ball one, ball two, you can't get to those pitches. You want to get to those pitches? Throw strike one."
"If you're not throwing strikes then it's a disadvantage," Norris said. "If you can get ahead with them taking, you get the 0-2 or 1-2, then they're eating out of your hand so you can throw your off-speed or your put away pitch."
The formula has worked out well for Norris this season, since he's allowed just 14 earned runs on 47 hits in 59 2/3 innings for a tidy 2.11 ERA over his last 15 starts. More importantly, Norris has 79 strikeouts to 29 walks over that span, and opposing hitters have managed just a .218 average and .617 OPS.
"I've really bought in to what the Blue Jays are doing as an organization on the pitching side, because it's all about learning. So far I've just been blessed with great coaches. What happened earlier in the year, I learned [from it] and it made me better. I learned a lot about how to pitch and what I could do without having my best stuff."
Being able to use all of the pitches in your repertoire certainly helps, too.
"It's nice to have four options to put guys away," he said.
Norris almost had his successful season come to an unfortunate halt, as a sharp comebacker came within inches of his face before he miraculously got his glove up to snare the ball.
"As soon as I caught it, it took my feet from under me and I landed on my back. I just caught it and I was on the ground on my back, and first thing I just said a prayer, thanking the Lord for looking after me and getting my glove up there."
"It was pretty nuts. I remember seeing the last three or four feet of the ball, it was almost like the ball slowed down right in front of me. There was not really much time to think. I've seen the footage 100 times now and I hit my pitch, it was where I wanted it to be, it was down, but he just put a great swing on it."
Even if you look at Norris' season-long stat line, it doesn't indicate how much he's improved and just how good he's been. Two years younger than the average age for pitchers in the Midwest League, Norris has simplified his delivery and is commanding his 93-96 mph fastball much better. In addition to throwing a two-seamer, he's mixing in his mid-70s curveball with 1-7 break, working on throwing his changeup more often, and further refining the pitch he's used for the least amount of time, his slider.
That's not good news for opposing hitters.
As one pitching coach put it, no one is going to remember the numbers that you put up in the Midwest League, but what you learn in the Midwest League is going to help you in the big leagues.
"He might have had a rough April, but let's see where he ends up [at the end of the year]," Horsman said of Norris. "Everyone will look at the stats, but how much are they proving? At the end of the day, even if he ends up 0-9 with a four-and-a-half ERA, I'd say great job this year."