Detroit — Daniel Norris and a friend were paddling out on their boards, one of those inevitable and at times interminable lulls that surfers often use for deep introspection.
This was at the end of November. Norris, a little battered but not in any way broken by what had been a season from hell — a season that ended with the harsh reality of being left off the Milwaukee Brewers’ playoff roster and then subsequently dropped from their 40-man roster — took a trip to North Shore Oahu.
“I’ve been to Hawaii a bunch, but I never really caught it on a big swell,” Norris said Friday. “There’s always waves but never a big, proper Hawaiian swell. This time I caught a big, proper Hawaiian swell. It was incredible. Definitely a bucket-list moment.”
During one of the lulls, though, his friend saw Norris looking pensively out toward the horizon.
“What do you think about when you are surfing,” his friend asked.
Norris replied without hesitation: “My next wave.”
Therein, Norris said, is why surfing is so good for his soul and psyche.
“For two or three hours, I’m just free,” Norris said. “I’m not thinking about anything but my next wave.”
Unfortunately, there’s 24 hours in a day, so there is ample time to ponder what has to be the most uncertain offseason of his eight-year big-league career. After seven seasons with the Tigers, then 18 ill-fated outings for the Brewers, Norris is a free agent.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “It would be more exciting if I’d had a better year. But it’s still exciting to have, I don’t know if it’s freedom, but it’s exciting to see what might happen.”
Before the lockout, Norris said a handful of teams had reached out to him through his agent. That was encouraging. He also made it clear to all the teams that he was seeking an opportunity to be a starting pitcher, which is what he was up until 2020.
“I said going into the offseason that whoever wants me, I’m a starter and I want to be a starter,” he said. “It’s been kind of cool to have that reset.”
In trying to figure out what exactly went wrong last season, Norris — aided by pitching coach Randy Sullivan at The Florida Baseball ARMory outside of Lakeland, Fla.— has locked on command issues, a career-worst 16.5 % walk rate (4.6 per nine innings), despite a 58% first-pitch strike rate.
And the command issues, Norris believes, stem at least partly from single-inning (or less) bullpen stints.
“After the season, I dove into all the numbers and something just didn’t add up,” Norris said. “I felt good physically and my stuff was good. But I had the worst year of my career. … There were some mechanical flaws, for sure, but it’s also the mental approach. Throwing out of the bullpen for me was a different animal.
“Even in 2020, I was still throwing multiple innings. This year, just going an inning or less, I felt like I was learning that on the fly. It was just nice to have it echoed, that it wasn’t like my stuff got worse. It was actually better than it was in 2020.”
At the ARMory, Sullivan gave Norris a full analytical and bio mechanical evaluation. The average velocity on his fastball was 92.3 mph last season with a spin rate of almost 2,400 rpm, which is in the top 17 percentile in baseball. His change-up, his best pitch, still carried a 34.3% swing-and-miss rate with an expected opponent batting average of .192, 30 points lower than the actual opponent average.
Which the Tigers, Brewers and Sullivan all agreed, should have brought better results than a disastrous 92.3-mph average exit velocity (lowest 1 percentile) and 45.6% hard-hit rate.
The elevated walk rate, not hitting spots in the strike zone and nibbling too much on the edges may have conspired against him. And that, Norris believes, was partly the result of never getting comfortable with short-inning relief work.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I’ve always been a starter. I’ve always wanted to be a starter and I still think of myself as a starter. But when the Tigers wanted me to work out of the bullpen, I was game. I really wanted to win and if that’s what they felt was the best for the team, then cool. I was just glad for that opportunity.
“It just didn’t really work out.”
Sullivan noticed, too, that Norris had dropped his arm angle significantly from 2020 to 2021. With the velocity and spin he has on his fastball, Sullivan said Norris’ vertical attack point should be over 20 inches. Last season, and in his early bullpen sessions in Lakeland this month, he was between 17 and 19 inches.
“He said, ‘That’s why you were so hittable,’” Norris said. “We talked about it and he got me to really focus on that. We threw a bullpen (Thursday) and not one pitch was under 22 inches. We were all pretty stoked about that. It was a huge difference.
“I’m just really encouraged.”
His patience will be tested, for sure. Once the lockout ends, there’s going to be another frenzied free agent shopping spree and Norris, coming off his worst season, isn’t going to be at the top of many team’s lists for starting pitchers.
Most likely, he will get a choice of teams offering make-good, minor-league deals. But that’s not anything he can control.
“Just move forward,” Norris said. “I have to do that. There’s no time for me to dwell on the year I had or think about the uncertainty or whatever. I just jumped right back into training and getting things ironed out. It’s been a great offseason.
“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every day.”
Just like paddling out between waves, dreaming about that next ride, that next opportunity.