Daniel Norris came into 2014 with mixed expectations. On one hand, he was the Toronto Blue Jays' No. 4 prospect and a second-round Draft pick. On the other, he was still just 20 years old, less than two years removed from high school and coming off an uninspiring season in which he went 2-7 in the Class A Midwest League.
Assigned to the Florida State League and unranked among MLB.com's Top 100 prospects, Norris wasn't Dunedin's Opening Day starter. He didn't take the hill in the club's second game, either. Or the third.
Now fast forward six months. From pitching in front of 2,209 people in Clearwater, Norris was called out of the bullpen to face David Ortiz in front of 35,667 fans at Fenway Park. After falling behind the perennial All-Star, Norris froze the slugger with a 71 mph curveball to strand the potential tying run on second base.
That ball from his Major League debut is now at his parent's David and Sandra's home in Johnson City, Tenn., along with other mementos from a season of highlights, including his jerseys from June's Florida State League midseason All-Star Game, July's Futures Game in Minnesota and his first day in 'The Show'.
That's four levels in five months for a pitcher who entered Minor League Spring Training with a career 5.40 ERA in his first two years in pro ball.
"It was an exciting year and I never really got settled in anywhere, which was probably a good thing," Norris said. "I was always on the go. I had a few different stops, which was exciting, and I ended up with my ultimate goal of getting to the big leagues.
"Looking back, that was what showed me how crazy it was. Just over a year ago, I was in Low-A. I don't think I've even realized it yet, just how surreal of a year it's been. It's crazy to look back and think how far I've come and how many people have helped me get there."
"Crazy" is a fitting word to describe Norris' season. He went 6-0 with a 1.22 ERA in 13 Florida State League starts with the Class A Blue Jays, and he was 3-1 with a 4.54 mark in eight Eastern League appearances with the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats. His Minor League season concluded with a 3-1 record and 3.18 ERA at Triple-A with the Buffalo Bisons.
In total, he was 12-2 with a 2.53 ERA in 26 games, including 25 starts. He struck out 163 batters, issued 43 walks and held opponents to a combined .212 batting average over 124 2/3 innings. Norris trailed only Kendall Graveman (14) for the most wins in the organization, and he ranked second in K's behind Taylor Cole, who topped the list with 181. Norris' 2.53 ERA was also the second-best among full-season Blue Jays hurlers, behind Graveman, who was 14-6 with a 1.83 mark.
• More from Norris' breakthrough season
"I had high expectations for myself, but at the same time, I had to be realistic about a lot of things and just controlling what I could control," said Norris, who has climbed to the 25th-ranked prospect in baseball by season's end. "Going into this year, realistically, I thought I had a shot to get to Double-A if I pitched well.
"I haven't taken it in, but I'm looking forward to that moment. I'll give myself a brief pat on the back, then I know I have a job to win back next year."
As quickly as Norris rose through the organization, there was still plenty of time for him to learn new things at each step of the journey. Each element in itself was important, but it was the combination of how quickly he picked up each new concept that ultimately led to him flying through the system.
Dalton Pompey, Toronto Blue Jays
Much like Norris, Dalton Pompey climbed three Minor League levels to reach the big league Blue Jays this year. Across Dunedin, New Hampshire and Buffalo, the switch-hitting outfielder hit .317 with 43 stolen bases in his fifth season in pro ball. He climbed from No. 19 among Toronto's top prospects to No. 3 and he also broke into MLB.com's Top 100 rankings at 90th overall. Voting results »
In Dunedin, it was all about ironing out some mechanical kinks in his delivery and learning how to throw his curveball more effectively. In New Hampshire, it was adding a slider into the mix and learning to sequence pitches. Then in Buffalo, it was about learning how to throw any pitch in any count and then putting it all together.
"My gosh, he was pretty dominating to say the least," Dunedin pitching coach Darold Knowles said. "He was dominating in the Florida State League. My whole thing was trying to teach him how to throw what he needed to in certain situations and not just rely on his outstanding stuff. When you get to that higher level like he did, it just doesn't matter if he has a great curveball or slider, if the situation doesn't call for it. The situation of the game will tell you what you need to throw and I think he got so much better doing that.
"I don't think there was ever any question he was going to wind up in the big leagues. I think it was just a matter of him getting there a little quicker than people thought. In my day it was very rare that anything like that would ever happen. But this kid has a tremendous amount of talent and ability and I applaud the Blue Jays for recognizing that, moving him up and realizing he can handle it."
Control of all four pitches, combined with a little uptick in velocity over the summer, helped propel Norris to new heights. Though his fastball usually sat between 92 and 94 mph, Norris had a stretch, from his last start in Dunedin through the end of his time in Buffalo, where he was hitting 97 with regularity.
Norris said having that little bit extra allowed him to pitch up in the zone and get away with it more. It helped set up the curveball, and that helped his fastball-changeup combination play better at each level.
"I don't think there was any doubt that he had a special arm, but seeing him put it all together so fast was very impressive," New Hampshire pitching coach Jim Czajkowski said. "From an early age we knew he had a terrific arm and that his arm works extremely quick, but the problem was that is delivery was unorthodox. His learning curve may have been sped up by the moves; his talent took over the learning curve."
Whether it was the four-pitch mix, his coachability, sequencing or maturity, Norris continued to grow with each outing. But when Buffalo manager Gary Allenson told the left-hander on Aug. 31 that he was getting called up to the Majors, Norris had two immediate thoughts, neither or which was about pitching.
The first was that he needed to call his parents. The second was that he didn't own a suit.
"It obviously all came together for him," said Allenson. "I first talked to him at Spring Training. He drives a 1970s Volkswagen bus and I just had to find out who he was. I thought, 'What's he doing driving a bus?' He's a top Draft pick so he's got a lot of money and he drives a bus that was popular when I was in college. He was at A-ball and I was the Triple-A manager, so it didn't dawn on me that I would have him this year."
Asked what he would have said if somebody had told him in March that the driver of that bus would be pitching in the Majors six months from then, Allenson -- now in his second year in the Blue Jays' system -- said, "Nah, I wouldn't have believed you. You don't usually get guys in A-ball then playing in the big leagues -- you can count probably on a couple fingers. For a kid to come up and do what he did was pretty special."
Norris flew out to Tampa where the Blue Jays were starting a three-game set with the Rays to begin a six-game road trip. The whirlwind through the Minors was nothing compared with what the 21-year-old encountered over the next three weeks.
"I had to go out and get a suit for traveling," said Norris, who has spent weeks at a time living in his vintage 1978 bus, which he calls Shaggy after the Scooby-Doo cartoon. "I didn't have any new desires or wants because I was in the big leagues. I was content with just being there. But when I was in Triple-A, some of the veterans told me you'll probably have to get a suit. We met the team in Tampa and before I went to the park, my agent and I went shopping -- just a gray suit, jacket and pants and an additional vest. No ties or anything like that.
"It felt unreal, just the way you get treated," he continued. "I remember calling my mom and saying I almost feel bad that they won't even let me carry my bags up to my hotel room. It kinda blows your mind, but it's cool. People told me not to feel bad and that I've earned it. It's the big leaguers and the big leagues are about more than just baseball. It's a lifestyle. At the same time, I didn't really let it change who I was as a person or who I'm going to be or who I was growing up."
| "I had a conception of what the big leagues were, because you always dream of it. It consumed my mind for my entire life, the dream of getting there and dreaming about what it would be like and feel like and now I'm letting that dream play out and it surpassed anything I could ever imagine."
-- Daniel Norris
Norris made his debut in Boston on Sept. 5, striking out Ortiz to strand the potential tying run on second base. Big Papi was the only batter he faced that day, but he didn't mind.
"I've been calling it a storybook moment," Norris said. "I like to write, and I couldn't have written it any better than how it happened. It was pretty spectacular, the situation I was thrown into, and I was very fortunate for that opportunity. There was a lot going on, that's for sure. I was unable to slow it down, but that's okay because I was enjoying it all."
Norris made four more appearances over the final two weeks, including a scoreless inning of relief in his home debut against the Cubs on Sept. 9 and his first big league start against Seattle on Sept. 25, his season finale.
Those outings will always have a place in his heart, but few things compared to how he felt Sept. 21.
Picture the scene. Yankee Stadium. The penultimate home stand of Derek Jeter's career. The captain had just ripped an RBI double into the left-field corner and the Bleacher Creatures were leading a standing ovation. Norris entered out of the left-center field bullpen, an atmosphere unlike any he'd ever known.
"Just the moment in itself was something," Norris said as he toed the rubber. "I stepped off and just took it in. I wanted to remember it for the rest of my life. There he was, Derek Jeter on second base. Seeing him there on the same field as I was, it was crazy. I grew up watching this guy and now I'm playing him and he stole third on me. It was pretty surreal to realize I'm playing against Derek Jeter, I'm competing against him."
Norris served up a homer on a 3-0 fastball to Brian McCann moments later, but that was just a side note in a season of highlights.
"Nothing can compare -- it was a whole other world," Norris said about his stint in the Majors. "It's the same game, but the stuff that goes on outside the lines is absolutely night and day. ... You don't want to let it affect what happens on the field and I can honestly say it didn't, but it was very cool to see so many different people there putting time and effort into making things happen for you as a player that you don't even think about. It's crazy.
"I'm extremely thankful and appreciative of the opportunities the Toronto Blue Jays gave me. It was above and beyond whatever I could have expected, but they believed in me and I believed in myself, and with that I achieved the ultimate goal."