It’s not something I’ve ever officially written down, but I’ve tried to observe a personal policy of not bothering to write about Bud Norris. Do I really need to explain? I assume you get it. The level of interest you’ve had in reading about Bud Norris — that’s more or less been my level of interest in writing about Bud Norris. And I certainly didn’t think I’d be writing about him this year, not given his employer, and not given how he started.
But don’t go away! For one thing, Norris is generating some attention on the trade market. And, yeah, I know, it’s a lousy trade market, for starting pitchers in particular. That fuels some of this. Yet Norris, also, deserves whatever amount of respect that confers. Quietly, Norris has gotten up to something. For the month of June, he’s tied for fourth among qualified pitchers in WAR. He’s right behind Jose Fernandez and Clayton Kershaw, and even with Jacob deGrom, Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer, and Zachary Davies. Norris has become a ground-baller, which is new. Bud Norris is making something of himself — again? — and there’s even what feels like an easy explanation.
Following, I’ve plotted all of Norris’ pitches, grouped by velocity and spin axis. There are two plots which you’ll see: Norris’ pitches through the end of May, and Norris’ pitches since the start of June.
See the group that increases in number around the middle? That’s a cutter. And the group that all but disappears more toward the middle right — changeup. Norris has gotten comfortable with a cutter, and he’s abandoned his changeup, and this makes sense for a pitcher who’s long struggled against opposite-handed hitters. He’s been searching for a solution, and maybe borrowing from Brooks Baseball is a cleaner way to show this. Norris’ changeup and cutter frequencies against lefties, by month:
Lots of cutters, recently, and the changeup is dead. Pitchers want a useful changeup to show when they have the platoon disadvantage, but cutters can work, too, and it’s not like the changeup was ever much of a weapon before. Norris has embraced this in his return from the bullpen, and here’s an idea of what the cutter looks like:
More important than a hand-selected video of one pitch are bigger-picture results. Against lefties this year, Norris has thrown his cutter for a strike 72% of the time. It has yet to be hit for a fly ball. It’s generated 22% whiffs, and lefties have batted .105 against the new wrinkle, slugging .158. I can make this more dramatic. Check out Norris’ seasonal lefty splits. This is stupid.
Bud Norris vs. Lefties, 2016
SOURCE: Baseball Savant, Baseball-Reference
Obviously, the samples are pathetically small, but the samples are also substantially different. Before embracing the cutter, Norris was a complete disaster against left-handed bats. He could barely get them out, and they were hitting him for excellent contact. In June, however, those fortunes have reversed, as Norris has found a way to pitch well in what had been difficult situations. Norris has thrown strikes to lefties. He’s made them miss. Even the contact quality has improved. All right, Bud Norris!
Who knows what the future holds? Maybe opponents just need to adjust to this, and then he’ll go back to being the pretty boring Bud Norris. Yet pitchers change ability levels pretty quickly from time to time, and all of a sudden, Norris looks like he can pitch to righties and lefties. That makes him a usable starter on a bad team, which makes him a modestly appealing trade candidate. There’s actually a reason for a team to want Bud Norris.
I’m not saying it’s the best idea in the world. I’m just saying, hey, look at that. He’s done something. It’s a pretty cool something.