Last week, the Reds signed free agent Daniel Norris, a left-handed reliever to a minor league deal. Norris has been invited to participate in the big league camp and will compete with Alex Young for a spot in the Reds bullpen. Let’s take a look at Norris.
Daniel Norris is from Johnson City, Tennessee. That’s about as far east as you can go in Tennessee, spittin’ distance from Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina.
In 2011, the Toronto Blue Jays drafted him out of high school in the second round. Norris debuted for the Blue Jays three years later as a 21-year-old.
Norris is now 29 years old, turning 30 at the end of April. He’ll wear #31 with the Reds
Major League Career Path
Norris spent the final month of 2014 and the first half of 2015 with Toronto. The Blue Jays traded him to the Detroit Tigers for superstar starter David Price. Price had already won one Cy Young Award and would finish second in voting in that 2015 season. Norris was the headliner of three pitchers the Tigers received.
As a note of interest to Reds fans, the Price trade took place within days of the Reds trading Johnny Cueto. Price and Cueto were elite starting pitchers with only a half year of team control remaining before free agency. Both signed gigantic free agent contracts the following seasons.
Many were critical of the return the Reds received for Cueto (three left-handed pitchers) from the Kansas City Royals. But that package was similar in quality to the one Detroit got from Toronto for Price. The Reds should have traded Cueto sooner to get a bigger return, but that was 2015 and owner Bob Castellini didn’t want Cueto pitching for another team in the All-Star Game he was hosting. (For the record, Cueto didn’t make the All-Star team.)
Norris pitched from 2016 to 2021 for Detroit, splitting his time starting and relieving. At the 2021 summer deadline, the Tigers traded Norris to the Brewers for a pitching prospect. Milwaukee was in first place in the NL Central, running away with the division title hoping Norris would give them another solid left-handed bullpen arm. However, Norris proved to be a disappointment over 18 appearances, walking almost as many batters as he struck out. Milwaukee non-tendered him at the end of the season and Norris chose free agency.
Norris’ 2022 Season
Daniel Norris pitched for the Cubs and Tigers in 2022. Chicago signed Norris at the start. He appeared in 27 games with a 3.78 xFIP on 43 strikeouts in 30 innings. But Norris also walked 21 and was unlucky with home runs, so his ERA ballooned to 6.90. The Cubs cut him on July 22.
Four days later, the Tigers picked Norris up for a return Motor City engagement. The lefty pitched in 14 games, two as a starter. His strikeout rate was less impressive (23 in 28 IP) but he did cut his walks to just eight. Over his final seven appearances with Detroit, comprising 9.1 innings, Norris gave up no earned runs, no walks and struck out 12.
On the plus side, Norris ended 2022 in the 73rd percentile for strikeouts, the 87th percentile for whiffs and 74th percentile for fastball spin. His elite success with whiffs comes on the two off-speed pitches.
On the negative side, he was hit hard, was in the 11th percentile in walks and 24th percentile (bottom quarter) in xERA.
Norris hasn’t had significant recent injury problems. He was sidelined with an oblique strain in 2015 and had a bad groin pull that spanned 2017 and 2018 including a stint on the 60-day list. Since then, it was a 10-day COVID hit and nothing else.
As a reliever, Norris has a standard three-pitch portfolio, each of which he throws about a third of the time. His four-seam fastball comes in at hitting speed at 91.2 mph.
He throws a slider mostly to left-handed hitters. Here’s an example of one that worked, thrown to a batter you’ll recognize.
Norris’ changeup, thrown mostly to righties, comes in at 87-mph. Here he strikes out Jose Ramirez on a change. Note the extreme vertical drop.
Also note there isn’t much of a mph gap between his fastball and changeup.
As you would expect with a left-handed pitcher, Daniel Norris has performed better against left-handed hitters than right-handers. Over his career, there’s about a half-run difference in xFIP (4.05 vs. 4.56) and 13 points in wOBA (.324 vs. .337). That’s a mild handedness split that continued on through the 2022 season.
Norris’ career reliever-starter split may turn out to be important. 411 of his 569.2 major league innings have come in a starter role. If you isolate his 158.2 innings as a reliever, you’ll find a career xFIP of 4.04 compared to 4.58 as a starter. That variance is due mainly to a better strikeout rate out of the bullpen (24.6% vs. 20.5%) and having a higher ground ball rate (46% vs. 39.5%). On the other hand, his career wOBA allowed in the two roles is almost identical. In 2022, if you take out Norris’ three starts, his xFIP as a reliever was an excellent 3.53.
You can hunt for reasons to be optimistic about Daniel Norris. I identified several in this post. But keep in mind the big picture. His career ERA is 4.71 and career xERA about the same. Expert projections for Norris in 2023 put his ERA around 4.65. In the past couple years, Norris has been cut by the Cubs, Brewers and Tigers.
Signing Daniel Norris to a minor league contract is worth the no-risk tryout for the Reds, with the caveat that spring training rarely reveals anything meaningful about players. Given enough innings, Norris is likely to prove to be a southpaw version of the retread relievers who have streamed through the Reds bullpen the past couple years.