Norris looks to turn strong finish into breakout year

Tigers lefty posts 3.04 ERA over final 10 starts in '16 after injury woes in first half

Norris looks to turn strong finish into breakout year

DETROIT -- Unlike last winter, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus hadn't received any surfing photos from Daniel Norris as of a couple of weeks ago. However, the young left-hander has reprised his offseason travels, searching for the perfect coast.

Once he returns to Florida in February for Spring Training, he'll be looking to ride the wave from his 2016 stretch run into '17 as a critical piece of the Tigers' rotation.

What Michael Fulmer meant to Detroit's pitching staff this year, Norris could be next.

Really, before Fulmer began dominating American League hitters last summer, Norris was supposed to be the young starter to give the Tigers a boost. He entered Spring Training as the favorite to win the open spot at the back of the rotation, but a back injury diagnosed midway through camp sent him to the disabled list and a half-season of frustration.

Aside from a brief appearance as an extra reliever, Norris spent the first three months of the season in the Minor Leagues -- first on a rehab assignment, then he was optioned to Triple-A Toledo. He made a couple of June fill-in starts in Detroit, but didn't stick in the rotation until early August.

From there, Norris looked like the promising left-hander whose electrifying delivery made him the prized prospect the Tigers received from Toronto in the David Price trade a year and a half ago. Norris posted a 3.04 ERA over his final 10 starts, averaging just under six innings a start while striking out 55 batters over 56 1/3 innings.

Norris' 11 K's in 11 seconds

Much like 2015, high pitch counts kept Norris from pitching deeper into games. The velocity and the movement on those pitches, however, showed plenty of promise. The adjustment, manager Brad Ausmus suggested, is a matter of process.

"I think Daniel wants to be successful and get guys out," Ausmus said during the Winter Meetings. "And, quite frankly, he wants to win a World Series, right this second. He's done a nice job of slowing it down and taking it one pitch at a time. It's the old adage. I thought that was the difference, allowing him to concentrate, make better pitches.

"... [Pitching coach] Rich Dubee did a good job with him of getting him to slow down, and a lot of it is in his head. He so badly wants to get the ball and get the guy out. I think what Rich did with him, especially on the side sessions, is kind of break it down step by step, get on the rubber, get your sign, get your set, deliver the pitch. Pick your target. Try and impress on him you can't pitch before you've done these other things."

Norris, too, noted the learning process. As he told his hometown paper, the Bristol Herald Courier (Va.), during a ceremony retiring his number at his high school earlier this month, "It's probably the best I've ever thrown a baseball."

Norris heads into 2017 without a rotation spot assured -- Fulmer, Justin Verlander and Jordan Zimmermann have that -- but the Tigers have two open spots that Norris and fellow lefty Matt Boyd clearly can take with solid springs. If Norris can stay healthy and relaxed, he has the chance to give Detroit another breakout young starter.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.