Norris played basketball through his sophomore year, football (quarterback) through his junior year, and baseball throughout his high school career.
"I've been blessed with a passion for sports but baseball is my first love,” Norris remarked. “It’s been my dream to play in the pros since I was a little kid. I would and still do pray to God at night to give me a chance to make my dreams come true.”
In 2011, Norris's senior year at Science Hill High School in Johnson City, Tennessee, he committed to a baseball scholarship to Clemson University.
But the Blue Jays chose him in the second round of the draft, the 74th player picked overall. And Daniel signed on the August 15 deadline for a bonus of $2 million.
Daniel hired financial advisers and had them stash the money in conservative investments where Norris wouldn't have to think about it. His advisers deposited $800 each month into his checking account—about half as much as he would earn working full-time for minimum wage.
It's enough to live in a van, but just barely.
"I'm actually more comfortable being kind of poor," he says. Because not having money maintains his lifestyle and limits the temptation to conform.
Instead of eating out with teammates, Daniel writes each night in a journal that rests on the dashboard of his VW van.
"Research the things you love," he wrote one night. "Gain knowledge, it's valuable."
"Be kind. Be courteous. Love others and be happy. It's that simple."
In 2009, Daniel was baptized in his baseball uniform. While he admits baseball has always been very important to him, he says he chose to wear his uniform while being baptized "because I realize the gift God has given me to reach out to other people that may look up to me."
In 2012, Baseball America rated Norris as the 4th-best prospect in the Blue Jays' organization. In the winter before 2014 spring training, they had Daniel at 6th-best.
Then, in the spring of 2015, they had Norris as the Blue Jays #1 prospect.
Norris has outstanding character and leadership qualities. In high school, he worked with special needs students.
"I fell in love with the kids and I look forward to that class every day,” Norris said. “They’ve made such an impact on my life; the way they touch your heart. They’re always in good moods toward us. You just want to go up and give them a hug.”
True to his strong faith in God, Daniel works in his church, goes on mission trips and helps with youth. He is also a local leader in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Daniel has a real passion for the game. Norris also had a reputation centered more around his offseason surfing and Volkswagen van camping habits than his pitching. But maturity and mental adjustments (as well as the physical adjustments) have Daniel ready for the Show. (Spring, 2015)
Norris is a true outdoorsman. He drives a VW van to spring training in Dunedin, where the Blue Jays train. He bought it in 2011, just after signing his first contract out of high school. He named it Shaggy after the Scooby-Doo character. He sings it songs and writes it poems and gives it Valentine's Day cards. It's his spiritual center.
Daniel takes it for hiking expeditions in the mountains of Tennessee and surfing trips along the Carolina coast. He avoids interstates, exploring the dirt roads of Appalachia, sleeping each night in the crawl space behind the driver's seat with his head tucked against the back door.
He takes his time, stopping to go surfing and sleeping in the van next to the ocean or a fishing lake.
Before 2015 spring training, Daniel made his third slow spring training trek to the Sunshine State. He even sent out a picture of him shaving with an axe. And he fixes breakfast over a sterno next to wherever he camps in his van.
When Norris finally arrived in Florida, he parked illegally on the beach and camped inside the VW van until the police evicted him and offered directions to the 24-hour Wal-Mart.
Every morning he pulls out of the Walmart and drives three miles through Dunedin, squeezing the VW into a parking spot among his teammates' luxury sports cars and tinted SUVs. He sits in the back of the van to heat water for coffee. A few Blue Jays players stop by. (Eli Saslow - ESPN the Magazine - 3/30/15)
Jonathan has always lived by his own code, no matter what anyone thinks: a three-sport star athlete in high school who spent weekends camping alone: a hippie who has never tried drugs; a Major League pitcher whose first corporate relationship was with an environmental organization called 1% for the Planet.
He says he has never tasted alcohol, either. He's had one serious relationship with his high school girlfriend, and it ended in part because he wanted more time to travel by himself. He was baptized in his baseball uniform His newest surfboard is mad from recycled foam. His van is equipped with a solar panel. He reads hardcover books and never Kindle. He avoids TV and studies photography journals instead.
NONCONFORMIST reads one sign posted inside his VW van.
But all pro sports value their conformists—athletes who sacrifice individuality for team and whose predictable behavior elicits predictable results. Perhaps nowhere is consistency more valued than in baseball, a game whose self-reverence for tradition and purity is otherwise unheard of. The history of the game is valued above any one major league season; the integrity of a season is valued beyond one team; the identity of a team is more important than that of its players.
In the game's unwritten code, drawing individual attention is considered unbecoming, if not downright unsportsmanlike.
Food? Norris is serious about what he puts in his body. He thinks healthy.
Daniel was chosen to play in the 2014 Futures All-Star Game.
Why, with seven figures in the bank, did Norris take an offseason job working 40 hours a week at an outdoor outfitter in his hometown of Johnson City, Tennessee?
Would it do permanent damage to his back muscles to spend his first minor league season sharing an apartment with two teammates in Florida and sleeping only in a hammock?
Why had he decided to spend his first offseason vacationing not on a Caribbean cruise with teammates or partying in South Beach, but instead alone in the hostels of Nicaragua, renting a motorcycle for $2 a day, hiking into the jungle, surfing among the stingrays?
"He always takes care of himself as well as anybody we've got," says Tony LaCava, Toronto's assistant GM. "He's in great shape. He competes on the mound. If that wasn't the case, maybe we'd be more worried about some of the other stuff. But right now, the van and all that is secondary. He has great values, and they're working for him."
Conventionality is the exact thing Norris is hoping to avoid. He was terrified of living by someone else's code.
Norris spent his childhood outside with his parents and his two older sisters, going for weekend bike rides and hiking trips, playing football, basketball and baseball. In school, he was a varsity star in all three, but it was baseball—and particularly pitching—that most aligned with his personality.
Being alone on the mound reminded him of being out in the wild, where he was forced to solve his own problems and wrestle with self-doubt,
"I was a good pitcher because I was already good at taking care of myself," Daniel says. "I love having teammates behind me, but I'm not going to rely on them. It can get quiet and lonely out there when you're pitching, which drives some people crazy. But that's my favorite part." (Eli Saslow - ESPN the Magazine - 3/30/15)
In his first career professional at-bat, Norris connected on a two-run home run to center field in the second inning of a 15-8 Tigers' win. Norris' homer came off Chicago's Jon Lester. In doing so, Norris became the first Tigers pitcher to homer since Jason Johnson did it on June 8, 2005. And he's the very first American League pitcher to hit a regular-season home run at Wrigley Field.
"[It felt like] Cloud Nine," Norris said. "Just how I envisioned it, really"
Added Tigers manager Brad Ausmus: "A little surreal. We've been talking about how much power he has for a guy who never hits, and all of a sudden, he hits a home run to center field. There's not many pitchers who can claim they hit a home run to center field their first at-bat." (Garno - mlb.com - 8/19/15)
2015 offseason: After courageously defeating cancer, Tigers pitcher and noted van inhabitant Daniel Norris has been busy. He made a quick surfing trip down to Nicaragua, plans do so some more surfing up and down both U.S. coasts and is making an adventure film courtesy of Yeti Cooler Productions.
Norris has a real gift with a camera lens. Sometimes he would practice on his friends within the clubhouse, while at other times he'd seek out complete strangers. When the team made road trips to Kansas City and Cleveland in September, he ventured out to local homeless communities, where he sought out interesting people, learned their names and, with their permission, tried to tell a bit of their stories.
His work was stunning. He has a knack for finding people during his travels.
There is something more with Daniel, something beyond his years. Photographer mentor and now a close friend, Ben Moon, a renowned adventure photographer and filmmaker noticed that special "something" about Norris. And in 2015, he sold Daniel a Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II portrait lens, even though Daniel didn't immediately have the cash.
The two had previously struck up a friendship on Instagram through their mutual love of photography. Moon has a bevy of experience—his work has appeared in National Geographic, GQ, People Magazine, and The New York Times. While Norris was still a relative novice, Moon saw some photos that really intrigued him.
"I sell you this lens and you go out and capture humanity on a level most people don't see," Moon recalled.
Their friendship continued throughout the 2015 season, and Moon eventually approached Norris with the idea of doing a road trip together during the off-season. Moon wanted to spend time with Norris and shoot the whole experience to turn it into a film. Norris was immediately "geeked."
"He just freaked out. He was all for it," Moon said.
The two planned a trek from Norris' hometown of Johnson City, Tennessee, to coastal Oregon, where Moon spends a lot of his time. In between, the expedition would take them through Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah and Idaho. They would stop and crash with friends along the way. They would take photos and practice their craft. They would make time to surf once they reached the coast.
Naturally, things didn't always go as planned in their Nov. 15-Dec. 4 road trip. They broke down . . . twice. Any attempt to fix the van themselves was feeble. The VW van, "Shaggy" had no heat, which meant they both had to layer all the clothes they had brought, simply to stay warm, especially during the chillier parts of the trip, including western Kansas and eastern Colorado. But they had plenty to talk about. Both found inspiration in nature and photography. Both came from humble roots. Both felt being on the road helped alleviate some of the craziness of daily life.
Like Norris, Moon was diagnosed with colorectal cancer (Norris was diagnosed with thyroid cancer), which doctors told him that the stage of his colorectal cancer was akin to holding a match to a piece of paper in the middle of a forest. Had he waited even weeks longer, it would have spread everywhere. Thus began a year of chemotherapy and radiation, a difficult journey that took Moon more than a decade to come to terms with, culminating with his production of the short film "Denali," which details his enduring companionship with his beloved dog, Denali, during that battle.
When Norris was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in the spring of 2015, while still with the Blue Jays, he had the option of shutting himself down immediately or putting off the surgery he required until the offseason. Norris chose the latter. He would shuttle to doctor's appointments for testing after his starts. Some of his teammates noticed. Some had no idea he was diagnosed. Norris felt no need to broadcast the information.
"I felt, for the most part, it wasn't necessary for me to put it out there," he said. "I kind of kept it to myself for a while. That was kind of my thing," Norris said. "For me, I wanted to take care of it myself."
The Tigers did know about Norris' diagnosis when they acquired him as part of the deal that sent starting pitcher David Price to the Blue Jays at the trade deadline. The Tigers did their due diligence, however, and were assured Norris' cancer could be easily treated. He would need to undergo surgery during the offseason, after which he would be expected to be fully ready for spring training. And even though he had an up-and-down 2015 season, the Tigers knew he had talent and could instantly add depth to the club's pitching prospects.
Still, those who knew him well could tell it was taking a toll.
"Whether he would ever admit it or not, it definitely affected him," former teammate Randy Wolf told ESPN.com in a phone conversation. "He seemed really torn when he was pitching."
Norris, who was in Triple-A Buffalo at the time, was putting an immense amount of pressure on himself to get back to the big leagues, meanwhile going through the added stress of the diagnosis.
"For anybody, I don't care how old or mature you are, that's a lot to handle," Wolf said.
At first, teammates were struck by how shy Norris was. This may have been the same guy who spent his offseason in a van and spurned many of the conventional luxuries of big league life, but he wasn't the type to trumpet those facts. Only when Wolf, Norris' teammate in Buffalo, arrived in a late-season trade, did the Tigers witness him coming out of his shell and showing more of his personality.
By the time a trip to the disabled list in August sidelined him for almost a month, Norris seemed to be feeling more at ease and comfortable in the new clubhouse, Wolf noticed. Norris always wanted to be around his teammates. He even asked the Tigers if he could continue to be around the team and travel on road trips. But few, even then, knew that he was dealing with cancer in addition to the abdominal strain that landed him on the DL.
It wasn't so much that Norris had deliberately tried to bury the idea. Instead, he was just so consumed with the desire to help his new club that it distracted him from worrying. He obviously has strong mental fortitude.
"I never had any symptoms, really. It was just mental," Norris said. "It was more or less just like trying to focus on baseball. That really kept me going, just focusing on pitching.
"I think for me, honestly, wanting to pitch was about wanting to win ballgames," Norris continued. "I was going to be fine. I knew I was going to be fine. You could just feel people doubting us as a team, and I wanted to do everything I could to go out there and win ballgames. Obviously, being on the disabled list, you can't do that. So that's what kept me going, getting me back on the field to be a part of the team ... just being relevant at the end of the year, that was my drive to get back on the ball field."
Norris eventually revealed his diagnosis after the Tigers' season was over in October, telling his fans and followers on Instagram that he wanted to share this because of his firm belief in the power of prayer. He told thousands that baseball kept him sane, that he forgot about his illness when he was on the mound.
Two weeks later, he posted a smiling photo of himself, revealing that his surgery was successful and that he was cancer-free, hashtag #Justkeeplivin
During the 2015 season: Norris became the first American League pitcher to go yard at Wrigley Field.
Daniel has embarked on the adventure of a Major League Baseball career, which found him taking part in a late-September 2016 post-season race with the Tigers.
Norris addresses the idea of the word "adventure" in a short film released by YETI called "Offseason." It documents his life away from baseball, shown through the lens of his offseason road trip in his van, "Shaggy," with close friend Ben Moon.
"It's not an adventure until something goes wrong," Norris said.
The film, shot by Moon, explores the challenges Norris faces while trying to make it as a Major League pitcher, as well as the real-life challenges he has faced with beating cancer. It also documents Norris' love for photography, which kindled his friendship with Moon. Norris said he had a chance to view the film throughout the editing process and loved seeing the final product.
"It was unbelievable," Norris said. "The thing for me is, I've been such a fan of Ben's since long before he knew me, so it was really cool to be one of his subjects, I guess." Moon wanted to make the film and tell Norris' story "the right way" after stories documented his living out of his van during 2015 Spring Training. Norris said he enjoyed and appreciated the coverage but ultimately felt those stories did not tell his whole story.
"It's good because [Moon] genuinely wanted to tell my story the right way," Norris said. "After getting to know me, he realized that there was more to that story. It wasn't really about the name that I have, but more about, 'I want to be able to inspire others to do different things in life.'"
Norris was drawn to Moon's idea of the film because he has seen his body of work and loves his unique style of photography.
"Everything he does, whether it's a portrait or a short film, or anything, it's so raw and it's so organic and it's so real," Norris said. "I thought he did a really good job of just letting it be real, rather than forcing it."
Norris and Moon planned their trip across the country, and fittingly, nothing went according to planned. Their journey was filled with spontaneity, soul-searching and photography. Norris was able to learn a lot from Moon about photography, which takes him away from the stress of baseball.
"Whether it's finding the right subject or little things with the camera, I was self-taught, so I learned a lot from him by just watching him," Norris said. "The trip itself was an adventure just because of what all went on, like breaking down a couple times, but it was really good." (Kyle Beery - MLB.com - September 27, 2016)
Jan 23, 2017: Norris has become as legendary for his offseason travels as he has for his on-field potential. The winter before 2017 spring training, he tried something a little different. He became a filmmaker last offseason (before 2016) by riding in his van from his hometown of Johnson City, Tenn., to the West Coast with renowned filmmaker Ben Moon, then later surfing off the coast of Nicaragua. His travels this winter took him neither out of the country nor in his van. But his 2016 offseason was not short of adventure, which included training with a former Navy Seal and eating game meat, courtesy of Ian Kinsler.
"We got to work with an ex-Navy Seal on a lot of stuff," Norris said. "For me, being around that kind of guy, seeing his intensity in everything, every part of his life was like … "Kinsler, who helped organize the trip in late November, 2016, interrupted, "It was pretty special,"
Kinsler said of the three-day journey, which included former Tigers catcher Bryan Holaday. The trip, they said, was as much about performance under pressure as about hunting. They had to do endurance exercises or obstacles, then fire at targets from a distance with high-powered rifles. But there was some more normal hunting to it, too.
"It was more heart-rate control, like a stress test, operating guns while you're under stress a little bit," Kinsler said. "He wanted us to experience that, but we also had a chef there whose main technique is cooking outside in fire pits."
"He's like a game chef," Norris said, "so whatever you kill, he immediately takes it, skins it, guts it and throws it on the fire, which was just incredible. We just surfed every day," Norris said, "and it was unbelievable. It was like the best surfing of my life, just being down there, hanging out, meeting all these outdoor legends that I've looked up to for so long. It was awesome. I flew out there and then I camped in his van."
It wasn't entirely fun and surf. Norris also worked out every day in preparation for his throwing program, knowing how important it is for him to come to camp healthy. After a back issue delayed his 2016 season and left him searching for his top form until the stretch run, the 23-year-old realizes simply being able to pitch is the first step toward finding the consistency he craves as a pitcher.
In that sense, this offseason was quiet, in a good way. After having bone chips removed from his elbow after the 2014 season and undergoing surgery for thyroid cancer in the fall of 2015, Norris had no health concerns going into this offseason. "It's easy to say that if I'm healthy I think I'll have success," Norris said. "But also, I just have to be consistent, continue to work on the things I've been working on, and I think just being healthy and not having that at the forefront of my mind is going to be very beneficial. If I'm able to try new things on the mound [this spring] and not worry about my back flaring up or my oblique or anything, it'll pay huge dividends for me."
To that end, Norris plans on trimming his offseason beard—he hasn't shaved since last season ended—and heading to Florida soon. Unlike the last couple of years, however, he won't be taking his van.
"The trip last year was pretty heavy on it," Norris said. "It's not bad, just needs some interior work on the engine. She'll be back up and running soon."
Don't worry. He has a fill-in lined up.
"I've got a little surprise that I've been working on, a new little camper," he said. "It should be pretty cool. Me and my dad have been working on it, making it right. "It allows me to do what I do. It just maybe won't draw as much attention." (Jason Beck - MLB.com - Jan. 2017 )
Dec 22, 2017: Daniel Norris made unexpected headlines as a prospect for spending Spring Training in a van. He later made a documentary driving cross-country with an award-winning filmmaker. He has surfed in Nicaragua, camped on the beach, survived in the woods and ventured into all sorts of terrain in between. But he never had camping out in an airport on his to-do list. And yet, as the young Tigers pitcher waited with many others through the power outage at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport, he had a familiar feeling as he hiked through the dark, tucked into one of the concourses and unpacked some gear. In the process of getting home for Christmas, he picked up a new travel adventure.
"It was pretty crazy," Norris said. "It was one of those situations where it just felt like a bad movie, where everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. It was crazy. I'm all about adventure, but my kind of adventure is getting lost in the woods and finding your way out." Norris eventually did find his way out of ATL, but he needed a rental car to do it. He nearly had a remake of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" on his way back to Johnson City, Tenn., but he arrived home with a story to tell and some gifts in hand.
Norris' offseason travels always lean on the adventurous side, and this year was just slightly different. He spent nearly a month this fall in Santa Barbara, Calif., at Peak Performance Project, finding a workout routine to avoid some of the injuries that have hampered and frustrated him the past couple of years. Not surprisingly, Norris got in some surfing in his schedule—sometimes hitting the water at sunrise, other times at sunset. He camped by the beach, stayed with friends of renowned filmmaker and good friend Ben Moon and spent off-days taking day trips up and down the Pacific coast.
"I know it sounds crazy, but being out there and training with those guys. I wasn't really throwing at that point, but I was surfing every day, and it was the best I'd ever surfed," Norris said. "I think it was a testament to my body feeling good. I think it really helped free up muscles."
Norris returned from California, but his latest travels began with a weekend trip to Telluride, Colo., where he hiked Bridal Veil Falls, worked out and added some photos to his collection. He had an early morning flight back home, but he had to connect in Atlanta on the way.
"I was on my way back, going from Salt Lake to Atlanta, and as soon as we land, we have to hang tight for some reason," Norris said. "Next thing you know, we'd been sitting on the plane for four hours. They couldn't come around and serve drinks because we might be called into the gate."
Once passengers finally deplaned, they walked into a pitch-black airport with cell phone reception nonexistent. Like many other travelers, Norris had to traverse the tunnels in the dark to Terminal F, where they at least had lights working, so he took his carry-on gear and started hiking.
"Nobody really knew that it was a power outage," Norris said. The cellular service was restored, and after calling family to let them know he was OK, Norris checked his phone and found he'd been rescheduled for a Monday morning flight. He could head into the city, but with power still an issue, there was no guarantee security would be working to let him back in. So like many, he stayed and made camp with what he had, chomping on snack bars and almonds he could get from the airport shops.
"I just tucked behind a trash can, built a barrier with my bags, used a few of my Patagonia coats as a blanket," Norris said. He woke up to another update: His flight had been canceled, and he was rescheduled to fly out Tuesday. That wasn't going to work. "I have to work out and throw," Norris said. "I just rented a car and drove. It was actually pretty fun. They have some really cool antique shops on the way, so I was able to buy some gifts. But that experience, really feeling stranded and not being able to contact anybody."
As Norris thinks about reasons to be thankful over the holidays, he isn't going to complain. As he watches coverage of the fires raging through Southern California, he sees places where he stayed and friends he made just weeks earlier, people who in some cases lost everything. But as he sits down with family and talks about his latest travels, he has another story to tell. "I've been on so many random trips, they figured I was fine," Norris said. (J Beck - MLB.com - Dec 22, 2017)
OFF-SEASON OF PITCHING
Sep 28, 2018: Daniel Norris has spent recent off-seasons, among other things, surfing in Nicaragua, hiking in Utah, living on a beach in California, and going on a cross-country trek in his van. He will spend part of his upcoming offseason on pitching mounds in Japan and the Dominican Republic.
Though Norris' season for the Tigers ended with his start against the Brewers in the penultimate game on Detroit's schedule, the young lefthander is not done pitching. He'll spend a short stint pitching in Dominican winter ball for Aguilas Cibaenas before joining other Major Leaguers on a week-long All-Star Tour of Japan in exhibition games in November 2018.
The extra work, likely three starts in the Dominican and another two in Japan, will allow Norris to recoup some of the innings he lost while recovering from groin surgery, which sidelined him from the end of April until an August rehab assignment. He has totaled 51.1 innings between his work in Detroit and his Minor League rehab starts, less than half the total he compiled last year between Detroit and Triple-A Toledo. The Tigers would like to boost that total, so that they might avoid putting an innings limit on him in 2019.
"It was pretty much a no-brainer, honestly," Norris said. "It's a really awesome opportunity [to go on the Japan tour], and it kind of came out of nowhere. I was really excited about it. It's going to be a lot of fun."
More important than numbers, the extra work allows Norris to continue to work on his delivery and mechanics and build muscle memory before he starts his offseason training. Norris' September stint has been compared to Spring Training, not only in terms of building up arm strength and endurance, but also for polishing and repeating his mechanics.
"Coming back from surgery, I just wasn't able to really throw for a long time, so I'm still ironing things out," Norris said. "I'm feeling a lot of progress. This is just continuing that. I'll still have enough time off to train." (J Beck - MLB.com - Sep 28, 2018)
Nov. 2018: Norris was on the MLB roster for the Japan All-Star Series with Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB).
“I've always loved working out and I've always been in tune with my body,” Daniel said. “But 2019 it was different. I literally was in love with working out and trying to redline my body every day to the point where I was going to pass out. Because in my head, I just knew it was going to pay off. I knew I was going to be better for it. I'd finish pitching and I'm like, 'I can't wait for tomorrow to get to work out.'
“I've always worked the same. I've always probably done too much. But it was almost the mental aspect of it. I think in the past I was working out to stay healthy, I was working out to get bigger or whatever. But in 2019 I was working out so I had zero doubt. My biggest thing this year was the night before and the day of my start. Of course you wake up and have different anxiety than the other days.
"In 2019 it was like if I ever started feeling an ounce of doubt, I'd be like, 'You know what, I trained hard.' And as soon as I uttered those words in my head, that doubt and fear was gone, and I'd just walk to the field. I trained hard. I checked every single box. Whatever happens, happens. I have zero fear. Nobody can knock me on that. If I go out there and give up 15 runs, that doesn't matter because I worked my butt off every day.”
With Norris’ season over, the workouts will pick up again, transitioning to the 2019 offseason. He again plans to work out in California, trying to build towards a 200-inning season. That might be a tad ambitious, especially since the Tigers haven’t determined whether he’ll open in the rotation next year.
“I think he's going to go and fight for the rotation,” Gardenhire said. “Depending on how it all breaks down, he's a valuable asset either way, whether we use him as a starter or bring him out of the pen. He can chew up innings just like that coming out of the 'pen, too. He can pitch to righties and lefties. He's already proven that. Those guys are going to be very valuable no matter which way we go. I think he's done very well this year.” (Beck - mlb.com - 9/27/19)
2019 Season: Norris did not have to file a report, handwritten or typed, to describe his season when it was all done. But it was clear that the stretch run he pitched made a huge difference. As he heads toward 2020 preparing to compete for a rotation spot, he’s much better off for it.
“I think it's a step in the right direction,” Gardenhire said. “I think he feels good about himself.”
Norris has a lot of reasons for that: In many ways, this was the best of his four full seasons as a Tiger. He finished second on the team in WAR, according to Baseball-Reference.com, trailing only Matthew Boyd. But he also has plenty he can improve upon if he’s going to use his 2019 campaign as a springboard to his long-awaited vault to full-time starter.
What went right?
For Norris, it always starts with health. He had been on the injured list every season since joining the Tigers in 2015, including core surgery that cost him four months in 2018. Norris' rigorous training program last winter paid off with his first full, healthy season, as he set career highs with 29 starts, 32 games and 144 innings. It was the Tigers’ caution over the injury risk, rather than any actual injury, that limited him down the stretch.
“My biggest thing this year was the night before and the day of my start,” Norris said. “Of course, you wake up and have different anxiety than the other days. This year, if I ever started feeling an ounce of doubt, I'd be like, 'You know what, I trained hard.' And as soon as I uttered those words in my head, that doubt and fear was gone, and I'd just walk to the field. I trained hard. I checked every single box. Whatever happens, happens. I have zero fear. Nobody can knock me on that. If I go out there and give up 15 runs, that doesn't matter because I worked my butt off every day. That was the biggest thing, because it alleviated a ton of stress for me.”'
By staying healthy all year, Norris found a long-sought routine as a starter. That made a big difference for him, which is why he argued he was better off making three-inning starts through season’s end rather than regular starts in August before packing it in for September. He slashed his walk rate from 3.9 per nine innings in 2017 and 2018 to a career-best 2.4. Even with a drop in his strikeout rate, his 3.29 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the best of his big league career.
What went wrong?
Though Norris was limited to three-inning starts from mid-August on, he struggled to pitch deep into games before that as well, working into the seventh inning in just four starts all season. High pitch counts were an occasional issue, highlighted by the 80 pitches he threw over three innings against the Royals on Aug. 11 in the first of his abbreviated starts.
Though Norris has always been prone to hard contact on his fastball, the .613 slugging percentage and 92.1 average exit velocity off his heater in 2019 marked career highs. The pitch accounted for 17 of the 25 home runs he allowed, including a tape-measure drive from Juan Soto off the right-field upper deck at Comerica Park on June 28. His curveball, once a nice change-of-pace pitch for him, was not nearly as effective this year, yielding a .353 average and .412 slugging percentage.
On July 31, the day the Tigers traded Nick Castellanos and Shane Greene just before game time, Norris tossed five scoreless innings with five strikeouts at Angel Stadium to help the Tigers to a 9-1 win over Los Angeles. It was Detroit's first series victory since May and its last series win of the season.
Though Norris is eligible for arbitration for a second time, setting him up for a raise from his $1.27 million salary this year, the rebuilding Tigers want to stick with him and see what he can do with another offseason to get even stronger and work on his game. He won’t have a rotation spot guaranteed, but he could end up Detroit’s No. 2 starter if he shows enough in Spring Training to earn Gardenhire’s trust.
“I think he's going to go and fight for the rotation,” Gardenhire said. “Depending on how it all breaks down, he's a valuable asset either way, whether we use him as a starter or bring him out of the 'pen. He can chew up innings just like that coming out of the 'pen, too. He can pitch to righties and lefties. He's already proven that. Those guys are going to be very valuable no matter which way we go.” (J Beck - MLB.com - Oct 25, 2019)
Norris and his coffee. The coffee pot sits inside Daniel Norris’ locker every morning. It’s usually about empty by the time the Tigers take the field at Tigertown to work out. Teammate Michael Fulmer, who has the locker next to Norris, still hasn’t tried it because it’s gone by the time he grabs his post-workout java.
“I don’t know if it’s any different from the coffee in there,” Fulmer said, referring to the food room.
Manager Ron Gardenhire can attest that it’s different. Gardenhire accidentally grabbed a cup of Norris’ coffee blend last season when it was sitting in the clubhouse food room at Comerica Park. It didn’t cause the allergic reaction that knocked him out of a game last May, but it was strong.
“That made my lips curl,” Gardenhire joked. “Once I drank that coffee, there was something in it that caused my face to contort.”
For Tigers players, though, it’s a popular brew. And Norris, whose energy and enthusiasm have always been contagious, is now literally a source of energy around the clubhouse.
Baseball player. Surfer. Photographer. Barista?
“Except I don’t know how to make cappuccinos,” Norris said. “I just like coffee. That would be cool, though.”
Norris has always been a coffee aficionado. He likes to find independent coffee shops on the road, and he has been known to stop in the coffee houses of Royal Oak while the Tigers are at home. He and ex-teammate Tyson Ross began the concept of an in-house coffee machine last season, setting up a pour-over coffee maker in Matt Moore’s old locker. A handful of teammates picked up on the concept and started asking for cups. The coffee made the locker into a hangout.
“Especially day games, in the morning, guys would all kind of circle around and just chat,” Norris said.
When the season ended and Norris went out to California for his workouts, he picked up some new brews and ordered more to bring to Lakeland. The coffee is not for the faint of heart. It’s stronger and tastes a tad more acidic, partly for the beans, partly for the pour-over method Norris uses to capture more flavor.
“This is like a shower head instead of spigot,” Norris said. “It just gets all the beans.”
Norris does not brew the coffee on game days when he’s scheduled to pitch. But for these early days of camp, it’s not a worry. The only limit each morning is that he has a small coffee maker and a cluttered locker, so he can only make so much. Thus, unlike the many coffee shops of Lakeland, the hours at Café Norris are short. (Jason Beck - Feb. 16, 2020)
May 9, 2020: Norris on his mom, Sandra, on Mothers Day.
Daniel has become known as a big coffee drinker over the last couple of years, both in the Tigers clubhouse and around town. But when Norris was playing in Little League back home in Johnson City, Tennessee, he and his mom had a pregame ritual with soda.
“It was funny, before every game when I was younger, I would be walking around getting ready and my mom, she would give me a little bit of Mountain Dew, just a jolt of Dew,” Norris said. “I don't think I've had a soda since this, but it was a good luck charm.”
It wasn’t just soda that his mom would provide. With his father working hard through a lot of weekends to support their bicycle shop, mom was also the chauffeur for most of Norris’ youth baseball career.
“My dad had the bike shop when I was younger and when we would have travel ball in Knoxville or wherever, the sacrifices my mom would make to take me and leave the sisters,” Norris said. “I just think about the sacrifices my mom made.” –Jason Beck
June 2011: The Blue Jays chose him in the second round, the 74th player picked overall, out of Science Hill High School in Johnson City, Tennessee. And Daniel signed on the August 15 deadline for a bonus of $2 million.
July 30, 2015: The Blue Jays sent three lefthanded pitchers to the Tigers: Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, and Jairo Labourt. Toronto received LHP David Price.
March 5, 2016: The Tigers and Norris agreed to a contract.
Jan 11 2019: Norris and the Tigers avoided arbitration, agreeing on a one-year deal for $1.3 million.
- Jan 10, 2020: Norris and the Tigers avoided arbitration, agreeing on a one-year deal for $2.9 million.