Daniel Norris has spent past offseasons driving across the country in a van, surfing off the coast of Nicaragua and hiking through the mountains of Hawaii. His biggest trip this offseason was a trek last week to Matthew Boyd’s home in Seattle, complete with a trip down memory lane.
It was a fitting stop for where both Tigers pitchers are in their careers and their lives as they head into what could be a defining season for both of them.
“He’s Uncle Daniel to my kids pretty much. They love him,” Boyd said Monday on a video conference with reporters. “They think he’s like Santa Claus with his beard.”
The Tigers are holding interviews with a series of players and coaches this week to look ahead to Spring Training. Fittingly, Boyd and Norris led off the week, two pitchers and personalities who have become part of the face of the team in the youth movement of the last few years. They’ve also been tied together for years through two organizations.
“This is going to be our ninth season together,” Boyd said, “which is kind of crazy in pro ball.”
Norris didn’t just stop in Seattle to say hello or surf Puget Sound. He was following Boyd’s lead and heading to nearby Driveline Baseball to work on pitch design. Boyd has worked out there for several offseasons, and has been a proponent of their concepts, buying his own machine to measure spin rates in his offseason throwing sessions.
The Tigers’ hire of former University of Michigan pitching coach Chris Fetter has given Boyd a kindred spirit in his search for improvement.
“He’s so smart and so versed in so many things that I don’t even know about,” Boyd said of Fetter, who’s just five years older than him, “so it’s been awesome learning about new concepts, using analytics and breaking down data.”
By contrast, pitch design is admittedly a new foray for Norris, who spent the previous few offseasons focusing on health and conditioning following injuries and core muscle surgery in 2018.
“I’ve always kind of had the old-school approach,” Norris said.
Despite that, Norris has become known for a fastball with a high spin rate, among the top 16% or better among Major League pitchers in five of the last six seasons according to Statcast. That’s encouraging, but Norris wanted to find a way to better harness it. Thus, after going to California to train and Oregon to surf during the fall, he made another trip.
“My spin rate’s good, but the way I spin, it’s not as good as it could be,” said Norris, who said he wanted to get more backspin on the fastball. “And so that’s kind of what I’ve been focusing on, and I’ve seen a lot of progress in that, which has been pretty exciting.”
Norris wasn’t the first Tigers pitcher to pay Boyd a visit this year on his way to Driveline. Spencer Turnbull and Tarik Skubal had been up there earlier. But Norris crashing with Boyd is a trip back to their roots. They’ve been teammates since the summer of 2013 in the Blue Jays’ farm system. A just-drafted Boyd made his pro debut in Lansing and found a place to stay in a house with some of his new teammates, including a 20-year-old Norris.
“I was like, ‘Hey, you can come live with us if you want,’” Norris recalled. “I showed him his room and he’s like, ‘Where do you live?’ And I was like, ‘I’m in the attic.’
“I slept in a hammock that year. We all have our weird quirks.”
Their personalities clicked, and so did their games. Just over a year later, Norris made his Major League debut in Toronto, followed by Boyd the following summer. Shortly after that, they were packaged together to Detroit in a trade for David Price.
While injuries hampered Norris’ progress until last year, Boyd emerged as a front-line starter and team leader the last couple of seasons. But he, too, had to deal with injuries last year, pitching through hamstring and Achilles tightness that impacted his leg drive and altered some of the mechanics he’d worked meticulously to build. Like Norris, Boyd has spent part of the offseason on pitch design, trying to tweak the slider that has been his primary out pitch the last few seasons.
When Norris came up to visit, they reflected on the years. But they also looked ahead.
“Me and Boyd, we’re up late at night watching pitching and highlight videos and just working on stuff,” Norris said. “Well, I’ll admit I made him a few surf films, and I think he liked them. But then we put in some Jake deGrom videos, and then the next day he was working on something he saw on that. It’s always fun to hang out, and we’re always picking each other’s brain.”
This could be their last year together to do that. Norris is eligible for free agency next offseason, and a big season would make him a coveted, versatile pitcher at age 28. Boyd has two years to go, but a rebound season could put him on the trade market as the Tigers’ next group of talented young starters knock on Detroit’s door.
“I haven’t really thought too much about it, to be honest with you,” Norris said. “It’s crazy to get to this point. It does seem like time has flown, but it’s exciting.”