Everyone in the Yankees Universe knows the needs facing the team as they wade deeper into this uncertain offseason. We can all agree that bringing DJ LeMahieu back reigns chief among these concerns, but perhaps more important in determining the team’s viability as legitimate championship contenders is the sad state of the pitching corps.
Beyond Gerrit Cole, the Yankees’ starting pitching cupboard stands quite bare. Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and J.A. Happ are all available in free agency this offseason. The rest of the internal options come with question marks attached.
Is Jordan Montgomery better than his 5.11 ERA from 2020? Should Deivi García and Clarke Schmidt have their innings limited? Will Hal Steinbrenner allow Domingo German to rejoin the team? Can we count on any meaningful contribution from Luis Severino when he returns from Tommy John rehab?
Many of these questions can be voided if the Yankees choose to strike in the buyers’ market of pitching free agents. However, given the deals handed out to Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton, perhaps the starting pitching market will not be as depressed as we first thought. Instead, the Yankees could turn their attention to the trade market, looking for players with years of affordable team control. Joshua Diemert investigated one such pitcher with his thoughtful analysis of Joe Musgrove as a trade target. That inspired me to put forth my own candidate, left-handed pitcher Daniel Norris of the Tigers.
Now, before you get all up in arms about how Norris is an average pitcher while the Yankees need someone they can slot in behind Cole, hear me out. Of course Norris is not going to come in and immediately fill the two-spot in the starting five. However on the back of a resurgent 2020 campaign, and especially at his price tag, he could be a steady option to anchor the back end of the rotation.
Norris is entering his final year of arbitration and is projected by FanGraphs to earn a modest raise to around $3.2 million. When you look at the $11 million Drew Smyly just agreed to with the Braves, given he is four years older and coming off two subpar campaigns in 2018-19 before putting it together in 2020, the salary for Norris looks like an absolute bargain.
It looks even more appealing when you realize the improvements Norris made in his 2020 season. Norris’ last three seasons were largely derailed by injuries, inflating his rate stats after a promising debut and sophomore season, ultimately landing him in the bullpen in 2020. In 14 appearances across 27.2 innings, Norris posted a respectable 3.25 ERA, 2.87 FIP, and 3.39 xFIP.
This rediscovered success is due to a handful of factors. Norris reduced his home run rate by around 60% relative to his previous two seasons. He also posted the highest spin rates on his fastball and slider in his career. Unlike other statistics, metrics like spin rate stabilize pretty rapidly. While not giving an exact stabilization point, in 2016 Baseball Prospectus determined that a 100 pitch sample size was large enough to deem significant with respect to spin rate, and Norris exceeded that threshold with both the fastball and slider in 2020.
The most impressive gains for Norris came in the batted ball department. He cut his launch angle nearly in half relative to his career average, and correspondingly generated by far the highest groundball rate (57.5%) of his seven years in the majors. His is the profile of a pitcher you would want in Yankee Stadium: a lefty groundball specialist. Sound like anyone familiar? I like to think of him as Dallas Keuchel lite.
While he does not possess an overpowering fastball, Norris gets outs with his two above-average offspeed pitches. His slider is decent, generating a 34.7% whiff rate with better-than-league-average movement, but it’s the changeup that really shines. Norris’ changeup exhibits the eleventh-most vertical drop relative to league average in MLB.
Not only is the changeup a filthy pitch, generating a 34.8% whiff rate and -11 degree average launch angle, but Norris is learning how to use it in conjunction with his slider. Norris isn’t afraid to throw either pitch to righties or lefties. Their divergent planes of break mean that a slider and changeup thrown from the same starting point end up on opposite sides of the plate.
Daniel Norris does not quite have the ceiling that a target like Joe Musgrove offers. He is not the guy who is going to automatically slot in as the number two/three in your rotation. However, that does not negate his appeal as a buy-low candidate to fill out the back end of the starting five. He could be one of the more fruitful under-the-radar acquisitions in the last few years, adding stability to very depleted group.