Daniel Norris threw 33 pitches in the first inning of his April 19th start against the Braves, back when he was a member of the Blue Jays. He threw 38 in the second inning on April 30th. After that start, he was demoted to Triple-A, and he didn’t make it back to the majors until after the Jays traded him to the Tigers in the David Price deal. In his second start for Detroit, on August 7th, he threw 39 pitches in the first frame. Last season, working mostly in relief as a September call-up for Toronto, Norris faced 30 batters and needed 138 pitches to dispense with them—an average of 4.60 offerings per plate appearance.
In other starts, Norris has flashed not only dominance, but efficiency. He has the potential to start successfully in the majors for years. Tuesday night was another one of those rough nights, though, when that future seems less likely. He threw 54 pitches in the first inning, and Brad Ausmus not only permitted that to happen, but sent Norris back out for the second inning. Norris proved that he simply didn’t have it, though, and failed to escape that frame. He finished with 71 pitches thrown, and as many runs on the board for the Rangers as outs recorded (five apiece).
There was considerable outrage, as there so often is, over Ausmus’s decision to leave Norris out there to struggle and strain in a game that meant little to the Tigers. The word “abusive” showed up a lot, and it probably wasn’t terribly out of place. Even if what we call pitcher abuse today wouldn’t have qualified 15 years ago, the tallest wheat is the first to be reaped, and relatively high usage leads to relatively high injury risk. I found fault with the (relatively) heavy use of Matt Harvey when he hit the surgeon’s table, and I stand by what I said then. To whatever extent keeping Norris healthy is the Tigers’ priority right now, it was a mistake for Ausmus not to go get him sooner.
The thing is, it might not be the Tigers’ priority to keep Norris healthy. A major contributor to the problem of pitcher injuries is that the incentives for teams to prevent them can’t always meet the competitive incentives. Teams are tempted to train, coach, and deploy pitchers in ways that sacrifice the individual's long-term interests for the club's immediate interests. Specifically, as it applies to Norris: This is Norris’s big problem. If he’s not going to make it as a starter, this is going to be why. He’s inconsistent, and he’s vulnerable to long at-bats, long innings, long, bad sequences.
The Tigers need to know whether that’s something Norris is going to be able to overcome. They need him to practice overcoming it. They need to know that defensive lapses and tight strike zones aren’t going to rattle or derail him. Crucially, if they can’t verify those things, they have very little reason to worry about Norris’ long-term health, because if Norris can’t fix this problem wherein he loses his command, his efficiency, and his ability to minimize damage, he's going to end up a reliever. In that case, Ausmus won’t have a whole lot of concern for whether long, stressful outings wear Norris down. The only concern will be whether Norris can find a comfort zone in that role and get important outs.
Maybe this all sounds a bit harsh. Certainly, consistency is a thing pitchers can learn. The specific blend of mechanical repetition, mental mastery, and confidence in a certain putaway pitch is a skill set many pitchers need to hone in their early exposure to the majors. Norris’ inability to corral runaway opponent rallies as a 22-year-old rookie isn’t to be taken as a permanent sign that he lacks the makeup or any other essential quality of a starting pitcher. There’s an argument for removing him from that situation, figuring that a trial by fire isn’t a very fair one, and that there must be some less dangerous way of helping Norris sort through this specific problem. I’m open to that argument.
At the same time, some things are best taught by experience, and Norris actually seemed grateful that Ausmus allowed him to accrue experience in this regard on Tuesday night. His words, per Anthony Fenech (the Tigers beat reporter for the Detroit Free Press):
“I’m glad he left me in, regardless of what other people think,” Norris said about Ausmus. “That shows the confidence he has in me.”
“I appreciated that, for sure,” Norris said.
Maybe that’s just good clubhouse diplomacy from Norris. It counts for something, though, and Norris’ word choice, tone, and history of candor suggest it comes from a sincere place. In particular, if Ausmus successfully conveyed to Norris that he left him in because he trusts the kid and felt more exposure would only help him, that’s a win. Twitter jokes came fast and furious after the accumulation of all those pitches, and many of them were aimed at Ausmus, but there’s a case to be made that he managed a very difficult situation very well. He’ll be Norris’ manager again next season, so while he shares the team’s incentives to push Norris and find out what he really has to work with, Ausmus also has reason to try to ensure Norris will be available to him all of next year.
Are pitch counts north of 40 (or 50, or any magic number in particular) provably damaging? It’s not clear. Stan Conte is the loudest and most learned voice from inside the baseball establishment on this subject, and he’s repeatedly talked about avoiding things like what happened in Texas on Tuesday. He believes innings lasting north of 25 pitches are problematic, and specifically, he’s a proponent of using situational leverage to approximate situational stress and injury risk. Conte didn’t publish data in support of those notions, but they make some intuitive sense, and Conte’s not exactly incentivized to spill his guts about these issues if he doesn't believe in them. I suspect the effect is slightly overstated (and thus, that Twitter’s reaction was slightly overzealous), but it’s likely real. The problem is that a real increase in injury risk isn’t always enough to make a decision to leave a pitcher twisting in the wind the wrong decision. On Tuesday night, things only got worse as the situation unfolded, but the Tigers probably made the right choice to at least press the issue, asking their young hurler to prove himself worth protecting.
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