You’ve heard of guys who are post-hype sleepers. Guys who were top prospects at one point but for one even or another faded out of relevancy. Whether it’s a move to a bullpen, an injury, poor performance upon their debut, or a combination of any of the three, these guys have lost the momentum that they had as prospects, but those who believe in them will call them sleepers. Post-hype sleepers are a dime a dozen. Most people can spot them, because all it takes is patience in a young player with potential, which most of us have. Waiting out a guy like Willie Calhoun, Michael Kopech, or Julio Urias may be frustrating, but it isn’t all that difficult. What I’m looking for here is post-post-hype sleepers; guys who are so far removed from the hype that you may not even remember that they’re still playing in the majors. In 2019, two of my favorite post-post-hype breakout picks were Hunter Dozier and Frankie Montas, both of which I was on very early in the season. Identifying breakouts like this can be the difference between winning your league and coming in 4th, so I want to help all of you identify these guys too before it’s too late. Late pitching especially can make a massive difference. For the first installment of this series, I’m going to be talking about a guy who was one of my favorite pitching prospects a few years ago: Daniel Norris.
Whether we’re talking about ‘post-hype’ or ‘post-post-hype’, or anything involving hype, I feel like it’s important to address what the hype was in the first place. Norris was a pretty big name as a prospect, even headlining a trade for then ace David Price back in 2015. Norris had been a big name since all the way back in 2011, where he was considered the top prep lefty in the entire 2011 MLB Draft, where the Blue Jays gave him 1st round money to sign at pick 74. From there Norris Struggled a bit, but he really turned a corner in 2014, which led to him skyrocketing up prospect lists. This breakout spanned three levels, reaching AAA, where he posted a ridiculous 44.7 K% in his short stint. Overall for 2014 in the minors, Norris posted a 2.53 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP across 124.2 IP, included a very impressive 32.5 K% and 8.6 BB% (23.9 K-BB%). As a result, Norris was widely regarded as a top 20 prospect going into 2015, and was expected to be a key part of the Blue Jays 2015 team. His scouting report glistened with talks of a plus-plus slider, a plus changeup, and an above-average fastball that touched 97. Despite decent performance, the Blue Jays, who were looking to compete, traded Norris to the Tigers along with Matt Boyd and another prospect for David Price. While this was expected to help him get more opportunities to start and prove himself, he, unfortunately, has never really lived up to his potential.
As of the end of 2019, Daniel Norris has logged 426.1 career innings, and seems to have established himself as a very average pitcher. Over the last 3 years, his FIP has been fairly consistent, at 4.39, 4.63, and 4.61. His wOBA and his xwOBA also line up pretty well over the last few years, showing that there isn’t some underlying luck holding him back. He also ranks towards the worst in the league in exit velo and hard hit%. He was quietly quite good in 2019, posting a 2.9 bWAR and 1.9 fWAR, but he still lacked much fantasy relevance. On the surface, Daniel Norris looks like a very average pitcher on a really bad team, but if you dig a little deeper, there are still signs for hope.
My main source of hope for Daniel Norris is his pitch mix. Injuries have tampered with Norris’ arsenal quite a bit. While he touched 97 as a prospect, and averaged as high as 93.7 in 2016, Norris now averages just 90.8 MPH on his four-seamer. Despite this, he actually posts elite spin on the pitch, averaging 2,388 RPM. While this is only 73rd percentile among all four-seamers, when you factor in how low the velocity is, it’s actually very high. In terms of Bauer Units, a driveline stat measuring spin-rate divided by velocity, Norris comes in at 26.3, equal to some of the elite fastballs in baseball. Despite this, Norris’ fastball isn’t very good at all, measuring a .401 xwOBA in 2019. While the spin-rate does give me hope that he can improve this pitch, I do think that the real solution is adjusting his pitch usage rates. My reason for this is that Norris possesses an elite changeup, which he just doesn’t throw enough. Among starters who threw 250+ changeups, Norris’ ranks 6th in xwOBA, behind only Stephen Strasburg, Luis Castillo, Jacob deGrom, Wade Miley, and Gerrit Cole. Those are obviously some pretty elite names (and Wade Miley). Despite this, Norris only threw his changeup for 19.0% of his pitches. Of those 5 names, only deGrom and Cole threw less changeups than Norris, but unlike Norris, both of those guys can clearly afford to throw it less.
A guy I would use as a guideline for Norris is Trevor Richards, who throws his changeup 38.5% of the time with an xwOBA of .254. While Norris actually may have a better changeup and easily has a better arsenal with a serviceable slider and curveball, Richards has found more success than Norris. I think this comes down to pitch usage, as Richards does a much better job of utilizing his best pitches than Norris. I think if Norris adjusted his usages to resemble a guy like Richards more, he would be much more effective. I think something like 35% changeup, 20% slider, 10% curve, and 35% fastball would work great for Norris, as it would help him miss so many more bats without doing too much to his walk rate. He currently barely even throws his changeup against lefties, which is a reflection of the Detroit pitching coaches, because there’s no way he should only being throwing his best pitches to righties.
Even if Daniel Norris doesn’t switch up his pitch usage, I think he’s an underrated fantasy option. The White Sox and Indians have better lineups than before, but the AL Central still isn’t great, and Norris has proven himself to be at least an average option. If he does make changes to his pitch usage, however, I think this change alone can skyrocket his fantasy value, as it would lead to more Ks and very likely better performance overall. If Norris throws his secondary pitches upwards of 60.0% of the time, I project something like 150.0 IP, 3.80 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, with a K% around 25.0% and a BB% around 8.0%. For his current price (580 ADP, SP #166), that could end up being a massive steal with next to zero risk.