If you look at some of the numbers, the Toronto Blue Jays pulled a surprise Friday afternoon when they optioned top pitching prospect Daniel Norris back to the Buffalo Bisons.
After all, Norris was 1-1 in five starts with a 3.86 earned run average – the best on the Toronto rotation. But the 22-year-old left-hander had other numbers that indicated trouble was brewing.
Norris had thrown 23∑ innings, allowing 23 hits and 12 walks. During an April 19 start against Atlanta, he lasted just 2∏ innings and threw only 33 of his 66 pitches for strikes. He complained afterward of a dead-arm feeling. The arm bounced back but Norris’ control didn’t.
In what turned out to be his final start for the Blue Jays on Thursday in Cleveland, Norris pitched three shutout innings. But he was lifted because he had already tossed 78 pitches, with only 42 going for strikes.
“He just needs to go down and iron it out a little bit,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons told reporters in Cleveland’s Progressive Field prior to Friday night’s game against the Indians. “He’s too inconsistent right now. It’s for his own good. Go down and get back on track, and we’ll get him back here.”
Tweeted Norris early Friday night: “Challenge accepted.”
The Bisons’ homestand concludes Saturday and Sunday, so Norris won’t pitch in Coca-Cola Field before the team hits the road. It’s likely he’ll make his season debut for Buffalo either Tuesday or Wednesday in Durham.
“It’s not the first guy that happened to that ended up being a pretty good big-league pitcher,” Buffalo manager Gary Allenson said after the Herd’s 9-7 loss to Louisville at home Friday night. “We know he’s got good stuff. It’s just getting ahead, down in the zone, and then expanding.”
Norris rocketed through the Blue Jays’ system last year, pitching at every level. He went 6-0 with a 1.22 ERA in 13 starts at Class A Dunedin, 3-1, 4.54 in eight starts at Double-A New Hampshire and 3-1, 3.18 in five outings with the Bisons (four starts). At those three minor-league stops, he struck out 163 and walked just 43 in 125 innings.
Norris then got a September call-up to the big leagues, posting a 5.40 ERA in five outings (four in relief).
Norris broke camp this year as a set member of the rotation and posted his first big-league win April 9 in Yankee Stadium, but never seemed entirely comfortable. He was continually behind hitters and the Blue Jays were also concerned that he was overly hard on himself when he had control trouble or gave up hits.
“He gets himself in trouble with being angry at himself and tensing up a bit,” Toronto catcher Russell Martin said after Thursday’s game, a 5-1 win. “I’d like to see him breathe a little bit, and relax, and not put so much pressure on himself.”
Norris might be following the same path of Marcus Stroman, who started last season in Buffalo, went up to Toronto, returned to Triple-A for two weeks and then became a mainstay in the Toronto rotation with 11 wins.
“Just from watching him the time he was here last year, he’s right there with Stroman as far as stuff,” Allenson said. “He’s got four major-league pitches. It’s just a command issue there where he has to get back in a rhythm and not overthrow. It doesn’t have to be 94, 95” mph. “It can be 92 and well-located.”
Norris, Toronto’s second-round pick in 2011, quickly became a national media darling in spring training for his free-spirited ways that fly in the face of the $2 million signing bonus he received when he was drafted. As chronicled by The Buffalo News last August, Norris enjoys driving – and living – in his 1978 Volkwsagen camper van. The Tennessee native has traveled extensively and even taught himself to surf in locales around the United States and Central America.
Andrew Albers, a Canadian who was Buffalo’s Opening Day starter, had his contract purchased by the Blue Jays and will pitch out of the bullpen. Marco Estrada will replace Norris in the rotation.