Bud Norris is heading to Baltimore, it looks like. Ken Rosenthal is reporting that the Orioles will send the Astros the much-traveled LJ Hoes along with a second prospect and a draft selection to Houston in exchange for Norris, who is under team control through 2015. At first, it may seem like a flawed prospect isn’t much to pay for a proven, cost-controlled starter who has struck out over 21% of the batters he’s faced so far in his career, but on the other hand, Norris has deep flaws that make his acquisition less of a steal and more of a gamble.
Even focusing just on his strikeout rate, Norris is already in decline. In 2010, he threw 93.6 mph and struck out 23.1% of the batters he faced. This year, he’s down to 92.4 and 16.6% respectively. From what we know about pitcher aging curves, his velocity loss fits the pattern.
Some starters manage to avoid losing the strikeouts along with the gas. Some focus on a new pitch. Norris has, for many different reasons. It just hasn’t worked out.
Norris throws a fastball or a slider more than 90% of the time against right-handers. Those are his two best pitches. The problem is, of course, that the slider has a platoon split and isn’t very useful against lefties. That’s why Norris’ FIP is a full run higher against lefties over his career. His walk rate doubles because he’s trying to put that slider in very specific places, and his home run rate is 20% worse against lefties because when he misses those spots, the ball gets punished.
He does have a changeup, and he throws it to lefties. Last year, he threw it around 10% of the time to lefties, and this year, it’s more like 18%. He knows about the slider, and platoon splits, so he’s giving it a go. Too bad, because now his strikeout rate against lefties has tanked (20.1% career, 12.5% this year), and he’s giving up even more home runs to lefties. The changeup gets about half of the whiffs of a league average changeup. He’s always used his sinker more against lefties, a little like Justin Masterson. Except that Norris’ sinker gets fewer whiffs *and* fewer ground balls than his changeup.
He’s 28 years old, and even trying new tricks isn’t helping. Bud Norris has a weakness against lefties. By our park factors, Norris is leaving a park that augments homers by lefties by 2% and going to one that augments the same by 24%. That’s a little scary.
Bud Norris has a reliever’s arsenal, and even if he is projected to be slightly better than the man he may replace in the rotation — Jason Hammel — he would be an iffy start against a lefty-heavy team in September. In October, he’s more likely to move to the bullpen than anyone else in that rotation. He may even be in the bullpen next year, when Kevin Gausman is a year more developed, and Dylan Bundy is on his way to the big league team.
The only mitigating factor is that the cost wasn’t high. LJ Hoes was the fith-best prospect on Marc Hulet’s Orioles list going into the season, but he’s played in the corner outfield this year, and since he doesn’t have any power, and even his work on the basepaths is problematic, he just doesn’t fit the plate profile to be a major league right fielder. So he’s on the move again.
The Astros will also get a second prospect — Josh Hader has been discussed, but his medicals may or may not require a substitution — and that can always change things, and the value of the pick they receive is also hard to suss out completely, but continues the asset collection plan that Jeff Luhnow and his team have had in place.
The Orioles? They just wanted to work around the peripheries, improve their depth, and leave their core prospects intact. They did that, but don’t expect Norris to be any kind of savior. He’s a decent enough back-end starter, but there’s not a ton of extra value here, and long term, he might be best served converting to bullpen work.
In the end, this was an exchange of flawed pieces. Norris’ platoon problems and declining strikeout rate suggest that he won’t help the Orioles that much, while the prospects they gave up weren’t likely to be part of their success in the near future either. The Astros collect more youth while the Orioles make a marginal improvement and hope it works. This is the 2013 trade deadline in a nutshell.
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