CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Success has come early, often and evenly for Tennessee left-hander Daniel Norris throughout the little more than a decade that he has nurtured his baseball career.
There were months during his years at Science Hill High School in Johnson City, Tenn., that Perfect Game ranked him the No. 1 overall national prospect in the class of 2011, and he was ranked No. 2 when he graduated. Norris was named the 2011 Perfect Game Pitcher of the Year before receiving the coveted Jackie Robinson Award, which recognizes the PG National Player of the Year.
Now a top prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, Norris has learned that the transition from high school superstar to becoming an impact player in the minor leagues is not always without its speed bumps. He made 13 appearances (12 starts) in the Rookie-level Appalachian League and the Class A short-season Northwest League in 2012 and was basically roughed-up – a combined 2-4 record with an 8.44 ERA, giving up 58 hits in 42 2/3 innings with a 43-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
This spring Norris has landed with the Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts, the Blue Jays’ affiliate in the Class A Midwest League, where he is looking to work past those unrecognizable struggles of 2012.
“I was just trying to find that consistency,” Norris said of the challenges he faced last season, speaking Monday from Perfect Game Field before the Lugnuts played the Cedar Rapids Kernels. “I’d have a game where I’d throw the ball really well and have a good outing, and then the next outing would be kind of up and down. That’s just part of learning pro baseball; it’s different than high school where (up here) every hitter can hit a fastball. You’ve got to learn to work both sides of the plate.
“From last year to this year is almost like night and day just with my mechanics and everything from throwing the ball to getting the ball over the plate.”
Any progress Norris has made through the first few weeks of his second professional season isn’t readily identifiable in his stat line. He has thrown 16 innings (five appearances, four starts) and is 0-2 with a 9.56 ERA, and has given up 17 runs on 22 hits with 13 strikeouts and 11 walks. His most recent outing on April 26 – a day after his 20th birthday – was his best: four innings, one run on three hits with three walks and four strikeouts.
“The numbers aren’t exactly where I would choose to have them but I’ve really been throwing the ball well,” Norris said. “Me and my pitching coach (Vince Horsman) have been working really hard on my mechanics and just kind of getting the feel for the ball, and honestly I feel better than ever.”
Norris has experienced a lot already in his still young baseball career. Listed at 6-foot-2, 180-pounds as both an 18-year-old high school senior and a 20-year-old second-year pro, Norris was throwing a 92-93 mph fastball – topping out at 96 – as a prep with a 78 mph curve and 85 mph change. He was named a 2010 Perfect Game Underclass 1st Team All-American and a 2011 Rawlings 1st Team All-American.
Norris was impressive at the 2010 Perfect Game National Showcase at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., playing alongside 19 prospects that would become first-round or first-round compensation picks in the 2011 draft. That included right-hander Jose Fernandez, who made his made his big-league debut with the Miami Marlins on April 7.
“I had never really been to showcase so it was different,” Norris said. “But I could go out there and just pitch and relax, and it was fun being able to play in the Trop; it was a cool event for sure.”
He reached the national stage again a couple months later when he pitched at the 2010 Perfect Game All-American Classic at PETCO Park in San Diego. It was during the Classic’s Awards Banquet that Norris received his Pitcher of the Year Award and the Jackie Robinson Award.
“The Aflac (Perfect Game) event was probably the best experience of my life,” he said. “Just being able to play in PETCO with all the top names in the country was just an unbelievable experience.”
He continued: “Knowing the history of what Jackie Robinson did for the game, I was going into it like, ‘Man, that would be pretty cool to win that award.’ … When I got both of those (awards) it meant so much to me. The Jackie Robinson Award wasn’t necessarily for all the on-the-field things; it was for off-the-field things, too. To be recognized as a good person off the field and good steward of the game … that meant a lot to me, more than people maybe would have thought.
“I love the game so much and it’s my first passion and being able to receive that as a ‘thank you’ for what you’ve done for the game just this far into your life was just really cool for me.”
Norris spent two summers playing with the East Cobb Yankees and head coach James Beavers (he also played for the Royals Baseball club at the 2009 and 2010 PG WWBA World Championship). He moved down to Marietta from his home in Johnson City during those summers just so he could play with the Yankees every day (he played centerfield when he wasn’t pitching). It was the first time in his young life he was really living his dream, and those halcyon days of summer will always remain with him.
“Living down in Marietta was just awesome,” he said. “It’s a really cool place, and every day that we went to the ballpark it seemed like it was sunny and we were just having a great time. After that we’d go back to a buddy’s house and swim for a little bit and then pack up and head to a (Atlanta) Braves’ game. It was a perfect setting – no stress, no worries, just go hang out and play ball.
“It’s just such a blessing to be able to play this game every day and thinking back, those were great times, with the coaching staff, your buddies and mid-summer nights playing ball; it was just awesome.”
Norris made an early commitment to play baseball at Clemson University, and some MLB organizations thought he might be difficult to sign. Despite that, he was still projected as a first-round prospect, and some projections had him going in the top 10. Then draft day rolled around, and Norris tumbled into the second round where the Blue Jays grabbed him with the 74th pick in the draft.
He shared a draft experience similar to that of Lance McCullers Jr., who at one time was considered a cant’-miss early first-rounder – and was the player that won the Jackie Robinson Award the year after Norris – but fell to a first-round compensation pick. Norris said he and McCullers talked about their experiences recently when their paths crossed at a MWL game in Quad Cities.
“The draft process was a really weird experience for me,” Norris said. “It was difficult at the time; that Monday night I really didn’t know what to think. There were teams that had told me they were going to take me in the first round … and then it didn’t happen. … I look back at it now and I’m actually really glad that it happened because it made me realize that it’s not where you get picked and it’s not how much money you sign for, it’s the opportunity to come and play this game for a living.”
Norris eventually accepted a $2 million signing bonus with the Blue Jays.
“The crazy thing is we get paid to play this game,” he said. “Honestly, I would play for nothing; I would play for food. It’s such a blessing, and you get into things day-in and day-out and you kind of forget how blessed you are to play this game.”
If there is anything else Norris is as passionate about as baseball, it’s his Christian faith. He said if not for his profound “relationship with Christ” he might not have been able to cope with the struggles he encountered during his first season in professional baseball. After being such a dominant pitcher at the high school level, it was a bit of a blow to get his handed to him on a regular basis as he attempted to climb the ladder.
His faith, Norris said, gave him the strength and courage to persevere while also providing a much-needed sense of peace.
“It’s a relief to sit back and relax and just have fun,” he said. “Being on this diamond every day is a fun thing. It’s not supposed to be stressful; you’re not supposed to worry about stats or where you’re going to be, you’re supposed to have fun. When you have fun and you’re winning ballgames, naturally you’re going to start playing better, and that’s something to look forward to.”
As powerful as his faith may be, it alone did not earn Norris his promotion to the Midwest League this season. He put in a ton of work during the offseason and then enjoyed what he referred to as a “really good” spring training.
He said he was thrilled to hear the Blue Jays tell him had “earned” his spot on the Lansing roster instead of just being moved there because of the expectations that surround a second-round draft pick with a $2 million signing bonus. And he feels he is a better pitcher today than he was a year ago.
“My mentality isn’t different but my mechanics are,” Norris said. “In high school I was very inconsistent with my delivery and I’d fall off to the side a lot. Now I haven’t been falling off at all, really, and I’m just working on maintaining my path through the plate and staying within myself. Sometimes things don’t go your way, but that’s just part of the game. I’m really excited about how far I’ve come so far.”
He also realizes he has a long way to go if he is to realize his dream of one day pitching in the major leagues. He has long considered himself a student of the game; a player who will continue to lean heavily on his faith while also taking advantage of the lessons the game’s history has taught him. Norris has always felt older in “baseball years” than what his actual age was.
“When I was growing up – and it’s still this way – baseball was everything to me,” he said. “I wanted to study the game, I wanted to learn more about the game, I wanted to know everything there was to know about baseball and I never wanted to stop playing.”