After fighting long-weekend traffic on the 401, I’m back in Toronto after my trip down to Manchester, New Hampshire to see the Fisher Cats. I had originally wanted to get there earlier in the year and was planning on going over the July 1 long weekend but, to make a long story short, real life intervened and I had to postpone the trip.
I’m almost finished the “All-Star Break Supplement” to the Minor League Handbook and I’m hoping to get that out to all of you this week. Unfortunately, the Wi-Fi situation in the press box in Manchester wasn’t the most reliable and so I wasn’t able to get a lot of work done on the trip. There’s your update.
First of all, I highly recommend anyone going to Manchester if you’re interested in seeing some great ball at a really nice, cozy ballpark. Northeast Delta Dental Stadium is one of the most fan-friendly there is with all of the seats having a great vantage point. There’s even a bar and hotel out in left field. Manchester’s proximity to Boston (just over an hour) will enable you to get some city (and maybe even Fenway) action that’s just a short drive away. As someone who’s lived in Boston, I can assure you that there’s lots to do and see. Fellow bloggers Jared Macdonald and Minor Leaguer were (coincidentally) at the park that weekend and took advantage of Boston’s accessibility and I’m sure if you check out Bluebird Banter, you’ll see some great content including an upcoming feature by Jared on Daniel Norris.
The Fisher Cats are a veteran team with a lot of guys who have played at this level before but there are a few players who the Jays have called up this year and are getting their first taste of Double-A competition.
For the most part, the pitching staff has been around. Of the four starters that I saw, Scott Copeland and Austin Bibens-Dirkx are both veterans and have a lot of experience to call upon. These two guys started the double header on Friday and Copeland was excellent, using pinpoint control, low-90s velocity and a very good slider to keep the Reading Fightin’ Phils off balance, throwing a seven-inning complete game. I’ve seen Copeland before and I’m always impressed with his professionalism and consistency time and time again. Bibens-Dirkx definitely wasn’t sharp but still kept the Fightins to just two runs over six innings before giving way to Gregory Infante. Bibens-Dirkx is fairly similar to Copeland: he’s a veteran guy with a solid assortment of pitches who knows how to pitch.
Game three of the trip was started by Taylor Cole in his first Double-A start. Cole was clearly having trouble with his command but he still impressed me by how much he’s grown as a pitcher since the last time I saw him pitch in a game situation in May of 2013 in Lansing. My notes from back then had him throwing his fastball around 87-88 mph with a slider as a primary offspeed pitch. He wasn’t as fantastic in Lansing as he was in 2012 in Vancouver but earned himself a promotion to Dunedin to start this year and was among the minor leagues’ leaders in strikeouts when he was promoted.
On Saturday, I saw a pitcher who has the potential to be a solid, back-end-of-the-rotation pitcher and maybe more if he gets control of his pitches. I’m going to assume that his lack of command (especially fastball command) on Saturday was an anomaly and that Cole just had an off day. Like most pitchers at the Double-A level, consistency and command are the two most important things that will either enable or prevent Cole from getting to the majors. He certainly has solid stuff with a fastball that was sitting in the 90-92 mph range (touching 93 once), a 12-6 slider that has some sharpness to it and a tremendous changeup that he throws at a range of velocities between 81 and 85 mph. The changeup has excellent arm action and, when controlled, has the potential to be a plus-plus pitch. Batters were really fooled by it and it actually enabled him to throw his fastball for three called third strikes because hitters were likely looking for the change. It clearly makes his fastball play up and when he’s sitting at around 92 mph with the fastball, he’ll be just fine at the Double-A level.
Early in the game, Cole really struggled with the fastball, using his slider later in the first inning (after walking two of the first three batters in the game) to help him find his release point. There were several changeups that sailed up and in to batters, something that I’m sure he doesn’t want to make a habit. That said, he still gutted through five and a third innings and definitely wasn’t helped by his defense (despite only one error being charged to the Fisher Cats). I wish I could go back to New Hampshire this year to see some of his subsequent starts and see how he rebounds. Talking to him the next day, Cole was upbeat about the start and saw opportunities to improve and grow as a pitcher.
The next day, we saw probably the most exciting pitcher on the Fisher Cats’ staff: lefty Daniel Norris. As you all know, Norris has really put himself on the prospect map this year with a tremendous start in Dunedin and some solid outings in New Hampshire since his promotion. Since I’ve returned from New Hampshire, it’s been announced that Norris has been promoted from New Hampshire to Buffalo, moving him one step closer to the big leagues.
I’ve seen Norris twice in person before: once in Lansing last August and again during Spring Training in a Double-A game against the New York Yankees’ minor leaguers. This time, Norris started out with some command issues and I was wondering if we’d get a performance like Cole had the day before. Norris quickly found his spots and, after touch-and-go first inning or two, settled in to have an impressive day at the park.
Mechanically, Norris is cross-firing (see above photo), striding towards first base and coming back across his body with his arm. Unlike some lefties (like Chad Girodo in Dunedin), Norris throws from a high-three-quarters arm angle rather than more sidearm or low-three-quarters. Norris was sitting in the 91-93 mph range with this fastball but had another gear to reach back and find when necessary, hitting 94 and 95 several times. The only worry about the fastball is that it doesn’t have a lot of movement. It’s not straight, but it doesn’t have nearly as much arm-side run or sink as other pitchers’ fastballs. His curveball looked awful the first three or four times he threw it, not breaking much and just staying up and outside of the strike zone (fortunately for him). After a couple of innings though, Norris got the changeup working and started to make quick work of the Fightin Phils. When it was on, the curveball, which breaks in the 12-6 angle (or 1-7, since he’s a lefty), was easily a plus pitch, sitting in the 71-73 mph range with a lot of break. He threw a changeup that was solid, in the 81-83 mph range but really didn’t favour the change. It was mostly fastballs and curveballs until around the sixth inning when he broke off an incredible backdoor slider that got Aaron Altherr looking. Despite not throwing many sliders, when he did throw it, it was extremely impressive and could very well be his best pitch.
The only run he gave up was on a home run to start the fifth inning on a fastball up in the zone. He knew it was a juicy pitch and didn’t throw another one like that again. Norris was locating well down in the zone and, once he found his release point for his curve, used that pitch effectively to get swinging strikes when thrown down in the zone and into the dirt. He also used to the curveball to get called strikes, getting a big break on the pitch to end up in the strike zone. Norris threw a few changeups but not enough to really get a good handle on how the pitch was working on that day. It’s normally quite a good pitch for him and it looks like he’s taken something off it since the last time I was really able to chart him pitching, last August in Lansing.
One of the great things about watching a lot of minor league baseball and following certain players over multiple years is that you can really get a good idea of how they’re progressing. What I saw from Norris shows some excellent progression, especially when it comes to his command. Outside of the early innings in which he wasn’t really able to command his pitches, Norris is much better at staying consistent throughout a game although he will have occasional concentration lapses. Norris is a guy who is very competitive on the mound and he really showed this by buckling down with runners on base. Of the runners he allowed early in the game, none came around to score.
I talked to manager Bobby Meacham after the game and he said that, while it wasn’t Norris’s best start with the Fisher Cats, Norris is “starting to inch back” to where he was in his first starts with the Fisher Cats, particularly with the command. Meacham said that Norris “got more ground balls than he had in the past” as well. Meacham said that they were really trying to impress upon Norris that “you don’t try to throw it by people, you don’t try to get a swing and miss — trick people — every pitch he makes, he should be able to get an out on it.”
It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch the rest of Norris’s minor league career. Judging by how the Blue Jays have treated fellow prospects like Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, it won’t be that much longer before Norris is in Toronto contributing with the big club.
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All photos are copyright Blue Jays from Away (2013-2014) and may not be used without permission.