By Jeff Keeling
His ERA may be high or it may be low. His WHIP may be phenomenal or ordinary. 2011 Science Hill High graduate and major league pitching prospect Daniel Norris keeps his focus on a different three letters: JKL.
The words keep him grounded outside of pro baseball, a place where a seven-figure signing bonus can go to a youngster’s head. He wakes up early, heads to the beach with coffee and reads. He explores the league’s towns on road trips and, always an outdoors lover, surfs, kayaks and hikes around the Sunshine State’s wilder areas. He makes friends with teammates and joins those of like mind at “baseball chapel” on Sundays and Bible study on Tuesdays.
JKL. Just keep living.
Norris is living the life he dreamt of in high school. The Toronto Blue Jays picked him in the second round of the 2011 draft, and gave the son of a Johnson City bicycle shop owner (David) a reported seven-figure signing bonus. The team went right to work helping Norris improve his mechanics. For his entire first season and part of the second (2013), Norris had his ups and downs, numbers-wise, but midway through last year, the numbers came around – and boy have they looked good this season.
Norris is 4-0 with a 1.12 earned run average, 66 strikeouts in 56 innings and no home runs allowed. Until allowing three earned runs in six innings Monday night, he hadn’t given up more than one earned run in any of his first 10 starts, and he has walked just 14 batters.
It earned him a spot on the Florida State League All-Star team (announced Tuesday) and this comment in a league news release:
“On the North Division squad, Blue Jays affiliate Dunedin placed a league-high seven players on the roster. The most notable is without a doubt No. 4 Toronto prospect and MLB.com’s No. 99 overall prospect Daniel Norris.”
In a phone interview May 31, Norris sounded happy with the season he was having, but asked whether his lofty numbers added pressure – his ERA at that time was an even more ridiculous 0.72 – Norris said no, and he seemed to mean it.
“I just don’t worry about numbers,” he said.
He credited the entire pitching staff with the Blue Jays organization for his progress.
“As soon as I came into the organization they saw some things I could change. They said, ‘you have a world-class arm, now it’s just a matter of learning how to pitch and learning how to control your delivery, control your body.
“Ever since then it was just continuing that process and hammering out one thing at a time.”
Norris could have let the numbers get to him. In 2012, he pitched 42 innings and had an 8.44 earned run average in a combination of Rookie League and Low A ball.
He spent most of last year at Class A Lansing, MI. After a particularly rough outing against the Dayton Dragons May 8, Norris seemed to turn a corner and finished out the season strong. His ERA was 4.20 and he had struck out 99 in 84 innings, and walked 44. The Blue Jays sent him to Dunedin for one start, Aug. 30, where he baffled the Clearwater Threshers, tossing five innings of one hit scoreless ball. That trend has continued this season at his highest level yet.
“I think more than anything it was learning to get my hand on top of the ball and create a downhill plane when I released it, and kind of create a tougher angle for the hitters to see,” Norris said of his progress, which he attributes in great measure to pitching coaches throughout the Blue Jays organization.
“They’re patient and they really seem to care about my development. That really says a lot to me.”
Norris said he often talks to his agent, Matt Laird, about baseball.
“He’ll call me after he sees my numbers for the night and say, ‘man, you did a great job, how’d you feel?’ I’ll be like, ‘honestly, I felt fine but I just know there’s still a lot more work to do.’ I’m still waiting for it to click I guess.”
Lately, Norris has been thinking about his friend and, until May, roommate Arik Sikula. The Marshall graduate was an undrafted free agent, and this season he was leading the Florida League in saves when the Blue Jays sent him up to Double A New Hampshire.
“That was them saying, ‘we see you’re for real and we’re going to give you the opportunity,’ so I was really excited for him,” Norris said.
He said the pair have become close over the past couple years playing at the same level and, this year, sharing a room.
“Both of us are happy not being around a lot of people, we just kind of clicked together. We’ll go out and eat together and hang out, but at the same time both of us like our alone time.
“In the mornings I wake up really early and I’ll walk out to the ocean and have my coffee and read. He’ll sleep in but then we’ll grab lunch together – it’s a good friendship.”
“We don’t have a ton of free time, but in the mornings is when I get the most free time, or an off day. Every morning I wake up around 7. We live right on the water and the dock’s right there, so I walk out there and have my coffee and read and it’s really peaceful. I enjoy that.”
An avid outdoor adventurer, Norris is also spending some time on, and in, the water. “I’ll take the paddleboard out or the kayak and play around in the water. There’s a guy with a boat and on off days we’ve taken that out and run around, seen some different beaches and pretty cool islands.”
Norris also took advantage of a road trip to Daytona to get in some Atlantic surfing (Dunedin is on the Gulf of Mexico). He and some buddies hit the beaches of Nicaragua in the offseason.
“That’s part of who I am. I really love being outside. Whenever I’m inside it’s usually just to sleep. I don’t watch a lot of TV. Even when I’m in a hotel room on a road trip I don’t usually turn the TV on.”
Long a committed Christian, Norris said staying disciplined in fellowship is a challenge during a long season filled with almost daily games.
“Every Sunday we have baseball chapel, which is really nice. We try to have a Bible study every Tuesday with some guys on the team. We work it out whenever we can and still get a good Word in.”
Norris said he likes walking around the smaller cities in the Florida league while on road trips, finding coffee shops and seeing the different downtowns – when that is an option as opposed to walking around the area surrounding a typical interstate off-ramp.
If all goes according to his plan, and that of the Toronto Blue Jays, Norris said he is looking forward to exploring bigger cities someday.
“I was talking to somebody recently and I said ‘I just imagine being in the big leagues and instead of walking down an exit looking for food, walking downtown in a big city looking for something to eat.’”
The way Norris is pitching right now, those days are looking closer all the time.