Detroit — Daniel Norris remembers the first time he shared a living space with Matthew Boyd. It was back in 2013, in Lansing, when they were both pitching for the Lugnuts, the Blue Jays’ Low-A affiliate.
“I told him he could come live with us,” Norris recalled in a Zoom call Monday. “He walked in and said, ‘Where’s your room?’ I said, ‘I’m in the attic.’ I slept on a hammock that year.”
Hard to believe that Norris and Boyd are entering their ninth season together. The two left-handers climbed the rungs in the Blue Jays system. Norris made his big-league debut in 2014, a year before Boyd. Both were traded to Detroit in the David Price trade in 2015.
And here they are, poised to play vital roles in the Tigers’ pitching plans again in 2021.
“It’s kind of crazy in professional baseball to play with somebody continuously like that,” Boyd said Monday. “We talked about how we’ve grown since we met in Lansing. How I was stuck in my own ways back then, stuck in my college ways, and how Daniel was just doing his own thing.”
Though both are deeply spiritual men, both very committed to their faith and beliefs, they have very different personalities.
Norris, born in Johnson City, Tennessee, single, massively bearded, surfer, adventurer, kind of a hippie spirit. Boyd, born on Mercer Island, husband, father, clean-faced, serious-minded. Boyd’s not likely to ever sleep in an attic, if he can help it. He may never drive around the country in a van or surf in Cocoa Beach during spring training or do martial arts training like Norris has and does.
Norris, though charitable in his own way, may never fly to Uganda and open a school and safe house for victims of the sex trade, as Boyd and his wife, Ashley, did. Norris isn’t likely to build a hyperbaric chamber in his house or turn his garage into a mini pitching academy like Boyd has.
And yet their friendship, bonded by a shared passion for worship and pitching and winning baseball games, continues to grow.
“He’s one of my best friends in baseball,” Norris said.
Norris spent a good chunk of last week visiting Boyd and his family at Boyd’s home on Mercer Island outside of Seattle — a far cry from the tiny place they shared in Lansing.
“Beautiful home, lovely family,” Norris said.
“My kids call him Uncle Daniel,” Boyd said, laughing. “They think he’s Santa Claus with that beard.”
They spent a couple hours each day working out, even doing a session at the Driveline Academy, which is just a short drive away. They cooked. They played with the kids. But mostly, they stayed up late talking baseball. Well, baseball and surfing.
“We watched a lot of pitching and highlight videos,” Norris said. “Always dreaming and trying to work on stuff. But I admit, I made him watch a few surfing films. I think he liked them. But then he put in a video of (Mets pitcher) Jacob deGrom. The next day he was working on something he saw in that.
“It’s always fun to hang out. We’re always picking each other’s brain and trying to make each other better.”
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Norris gets converted
The trip to Driveline, that’s something Norris might not have done a year or two ago. Boyd latched on to the analytics and technology much faster. But Norris was a quick convert. The spin rate on Norris’ four-seam fastball is among the top 15 percentile in baseball, but for reasons he couldn’t name, it didn’t have the ride through the zone it should.
“Yeah, my main focus has been on ironing out my fastball,” he said. “Just trying to get more back spin on it. My spin rate is pretty good but the way I was spinning it was not as good as it could be.”
It had to do with spin axis and the placement of his hand on the ball at release point. It took one session at Driveline to figure it out.
“Not to sound too excited, but I made huge progress in just one day,” Norris said. “We were super psyched on that, on how quick a fix it can be. That definitely made the trip worth it.”
Norris, in what was his first fully healthy season since 2017, got his fastball velocity back up to 93 mph in his 27⅔ innings of work last year. He posted a 3-1 record with a 3.25 ERA, with 28 strikeouts and seven walks.
He pitched mostly in long relief, but new manager AJ Hinch said Norris will go to camp next month with a chance to win a rotation spot.
“AJ asked me what I wanted to do and I told him I’ve always been a starter, I want to be a starter,” Norris said. “But having said that, I will do whatever. I’ll play center field if I have to. But I’ve been preparing as a starter.”
Even though his workload, like every pitcher in a truncated 2020 season, was light, Norris isn’t babying himself this offseason.
“I started throwing earlier this year,” he said. “I feel really good right now. As far as workload goes, I think I increased it and with that I feel like I am prepared for whatever.”
Norris said he’s already throwing 40-plus pitch bullpens, three weeks ahead of the Feb. 17 report date.
“I do take pride in my work,” he said. “Waking up every day and working hard and pushing my limits, when you check all of those boxes, you are able to sleep at night. For me, it’s been a long road, with plenty of injuries and ups and downs.
“But in my mind, I know with the work I put in I expect greatness out of myself. I am always chasing that. I always expect myself to do well and when I don’t do well, I know there is more work to be done.”
‘A feeling in the air’
Boyd, looking to bounce back off a season where he battled through hamstring and plantar fasciitis injuries and endured a 6.71 ERA in 12 starts, didn’t change the timing or structure of his offseason regimen, either.
“We have a date and all we can do is prepare for that date and make the most of the days leading up to it,” he said, meaning the Feb. 17 report date in Lakeland. “No one knows what’s going to happen.”
Because reported COVID-19 cases continue to be high in the two spring training states — Arizona and Florida — there is concern that start dates could be pushed back. So far, Major League Baseball has not changed the dates.
“We can plan the best we can and I think we’ve done that,” Boyd said. “Players safety protocols are in place. …We’re just going to operate within that and go full tilt. If we need to adjust, we’ll adjust, but we’re dialed in on Feb. 17 right now.”
Though he did spend more time healing and strengthening his lower body, Boyd said he hasn’t changed his throwing schedule and he’s not putting any restrictions on himself entering 2021.
“We don’t know what lies ahead,” he said. “My job is to take the ball when it’s given to me and just keep going. I look at it like, last year I got more rest than I ever had. I didn’t have to face the toils of 30-plus starts.
“We have an awesome training staff and AJ and Chris (Fetter, pitching coach) will be monitoring it. All our pitchers are in good hands.”
The concept of bouncing back doesn’t resonate with Boyd. He thinks in linear terms, of constantly moving forward. Taking the lumps and the lessons along the way and using them to grow. In that sense, he said he grew more last season than in any year previous.
“So much came last year,” he said. “Just understanding that I may not have my best stuff, I may not be able to throw the way I want to, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have it in me. I am a pitch away from having it. Everything I have is still inside me.
“I need to understand that, and I need to have the patience to bring that out.”
The pain in his lower body forced him to compensate by altering his delivery, which is why his mechanics and his command were uncharacteristically inconsistent. But that’s not what ruined so many of his starts, he said. It was his inability to make the adjustments on the fly.
“I’m good enough to get the job done whether I’m hurting or not, whether I’m pitching off one arch or two arches,” he said. “There was an awareness that I learned. What are my checkpoints? From the ground up, how can I be more astute about that? When things go awry, how can I get things back to where I want them to be?”
With the help of Fetter, with the help of his own technology and analytical savvy, Boyd knows why he lost the shape and feel on his slider. He knows why he left so many fastballs in the heart of the plate. And he knows where the corrections are.
“If you’re not 100 percent focused on the hitter, if there is some percentage before you release the ball that’s focused on something else, there needs to be a regrouping there,” Boyd said. “There has to be an understanding of why that hesitation is there, why you’re not fully vested on attacking the hitter.
“There were times last year when that probably was the circumstance and that is unacceptable. But I learned from it.”
Nine years together, but there is a chance — there’s always a chance — that this could be their last year together in Detroit. Norris is a free agent after this season. Boyd’s name has been bandied about in trade rumors the last two seasons.
“I haven’t even thought about that, to be honest,” Norris said.
Neither has Boyd. Their focus is on 2021 and the renewed optimism that the hiring of Hinch and his staff has ushered in.
“I don’t know, just from talking to Boyd and talking to the guys on our group text, there is a feeling in the air that we are really close (to contending),” Norris said. “It’s just really exciting and a lot of it has to do with the talent we have and the talent that’s coming up and the coaching staff we just hired.
“Everything is perfect for what we’re going for.”