While the Brewers did not acquire a big-name reliever, David Stearns and Matt Arnold made some additions to bolster their bullpen depth. From the right side, John Curtiss was brought in on trade deadline day, and the club linked up with the Detroit Tigers to acquire lefty Daniel Norris a few hours earlier.
A former second-round pick back in 2011, Norris was one of the major pieces that went to Detroit as part of the David Price trade in 2015. After an encouraging start to his time in the Motor City, he limped to a 4.96 ERA and 4.53 FIP over 290 innings from 2017 through 2019. Those struggles prompted a move to a long relief role in 2020. This year has been Norris’ first as a more traditional reliever, working 36 2⁄3 innings in 38 appearances all out of the bullpen.
His 5.89 ERA this season may appear discouraging, but the evidence suggests that the former starter has encountered his fair share of misfortune this season. A .354 BABIP is significantly higher than his career mark of .313, and a 3.79 FIP, 3.63 SIERA, and 4.43 DRA all hint at some positive regression in the near future.
The Brewers are banking on more than just better luck, however. They are hoping that some adjustments in how Norris uses his pitches can unlock a new level of performance. His arsenal consists of a four-seam fastball, a slider, and a changeup. The veteran has added roughly two miles per hour to his heater since the transition to relief work, although it still has just league-average velocity. He has been willing to elevate his fastball with two strikes, but he still throws a healthy portion of them at or below the belt.
Expect the Brewers to encourage the southpaw to focus on the upper portion of the strike zone. Throughout his entire career, Norris has generated significantly more whiffs with his fastball when it is at the top of the zone.
He previously dabbled with a curveball as a starting pitcher, but Norris has used his slider as his only breaking pitch out of the bullpen. It has excellent vertical break and has induced whiffs at a strong 35.1% rate. Here’s a nice slider off the plate to fan Brett Gardner.
Norris’ slider seems like it should at least be a decently effective pitch, but it has been hammered for a .325 batting average and .378 wOBA. This is because when Norris throws it anywhere in the strike zone, it gets torched (.471 wOBA). Spoiler alert: he is throwing it in the strike zone—including right over the middle of the plate—far too often.
As you would guess, the slider is most effective when he buries it in the dirt. Norris has held opponents to a .210 wOBA on sliders out of the strike zone. For this reason, the Brewers may encourage him to reserve it almost exclusively for two-strike counts when he can avoid throwing it in the zone.
Norris’ changeup is by far his best pitch, and it is likely what made him an appealing target for Milwaukee’s front office. The Brewers have become increasingly focused on pitchers with excellent changeups. Devin Williams is the most obvious example, but the Brewers have also employed J.P. Feyereisen, Trevor Richards, Brad Boxberger, and Miguel Sanchez in their bullpen throughout various points of the season. All of them possess above-average changeups. Per Statcast, Norris averages an additional 7.5 inches of drop in comparison to a league-average changeup. Here’s what that looks like in action.
Norris’ changeup has held opponents to a .211 batting average and .253 wOBA with a 36.6% whiff rate. It also happens to be his least-used pitch, as he features it just 26.3% of the time. This is the most significant adjustment the Brewers figure to make. Expect him to transform into a changeup-throwing machine over these next two months.
Norris has long had potential. Even though his prospect shine faded long ago, he still has the arsenal to be effective. The plan for Norris in Milwaukee is to feature his excellent changeup more heavily than before and pair it with fastballs at the top of the zone. Instead of using his slider as his go-to secondary pitch, it should now function as a two-strike pitch to left-handers that Norris has in his back pocket. He may not be a flashy addition, but Daniel Norris could easily emerge as a key reliever down the stretch with a few adjustments to his approach.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball Prospectus.