| Detroit Free Press
Detroit Tigers GM Al Avila explains manager search, offseason expectations
Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila speaks with reporters Friday, October 2, 2020, following his team’s season to share offseason expectations.
Norris’ frustration reached its high point in the 2017 season. Injuries and poor results overwhelmed him, and he needed help. Former Tigers pitching coach Rich Dubee had an idea: get Halladay, one of the best pitchers of his generation, on the phone. They spoke about baseball and injuries before the conversation shifted to sharing life stories.
For the last three years, Norris has leaned on the phone call in tough times, but he didn’t initially understand everything that Halladay — who died at age 40 in a 2017 plane crash — was trying to tell him. Over time, he uncovered layers of advice.
Norris this past season fully understood one of Halladay’s most important messages: “With the work you put in, the days in between your outings, you gotta have faith that if you check every box and do everything you can to be successful, then on game day, you have nothing to worry about. Even if it doesn’t happen that day, you can sleep at night because you know you did everything to prepare for it.”
Norris, 27, made one start this year, coinciding with his return from a positive COVID-19 test, which held him out of July’s summer camp. On Aug. 2, he got rocked by the Cincinnati Reds: two earned runs, four hits, two walks and zero strikeouts in 1⅔ innings.
The poor performance in what was essentially a tryout for the No. 5 spot in the rotation sent Norris to the bullpen. He was electric the rest of the season with a 2.77 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 28 strikeouts and five walks in 26 innings across 13 relief appearances.
“Four, five years ago, I would get mad at myself after a bad pitch,” Norris said in late September. “And now, I can kind of channel that energy and use it for the next pitch or the next at-bat. It’s a growing process. I wish it would have happened sooner in my career, but it’s been nice to hone that in and control the chaos.”
That mindset — implanted by Halladay — allows Norris to regulate his adrenaline, which helps his performance in high-pressure situations out of the bullpen. At first, the Tigers used him as a piggyback reliever, often asking him to pitch three or four innings.
By the middle of September, he only entered for intense moments.
One of many examples comes from Sept. 25, when the Tigers were trailing the Kansas City Royals by three runs in the bottom of the sixth inning. Desperately needing to keep the Royals from cushioning their lead, interim manager Lloyd McClendon sent Norris to the mound.
He struck them out in order.
“Starting versus piggyback was almost the same,” Norris said. “You had a good idea of when you were going to throw. Routine-wise for that was pretty easy. I didn’t have to change much. Now that I’ve been throwing later on in the games, I’ve just been learning that on the fly. It’s been fun. … I just love competing.”
What’s next for Norris?
The Toronto Blue Jays drafted Norris in the second round of the 2011 draft to become a frontline starter. And the Tigers acquired him — with Matthew Boyd and Jairo Labourt — in the 2015 David Price trade to do the same.
That is still what Norris wants to become.
“It’s something I’ve done my whole life,” Norris said. “It’s what I enjoy, but at the same time, this year has taught me a lot about what I can do. I like being flexible, doing anything I can to help the team.”
Before the 2020 season, he made 82 of his 97 career appearances as a starter. He knows how it feels to get pulled from the game with two runners on base in the sixth inning — where his only hope is that the bullpen will save him from a disaster.
This year, he did the saving.
“It’s been cool to do that for the starters,” Norris said. “But, yeah, I definitely want to start. I hope I get that opportunity. But if not, I’ve already kind of dealt with that this year, so I’m OK with whatever.”
With uncertainty leading up to the 2021 season, Norris could find himself in different roles: in the starting rotation, as a spot starter and in the bullpen.
For example, it’s unlikely rookie Casey Mize will be allowed to throw 150-plus innings in a 162-game season after only making it through 28⅓ (plus a handful more at the alternate training site) this year. The same could be said for rookie Tarik Skubal, who pitched 32 innings.
So, Norris is going to prepare for everything.
“I’m just gonna train like normal,” Norris said. “I want to be in the best shape I can. I pride myself on trying to be as athletic as possible. If they want me to play center field, I’ll do that. Nothing really is going to change as far as training goes. It’s more when I get to spring and see what they want, and then we’ll go from there.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.