The Houston Astros don’t have much to celebrate these days. The club owns a 16-30 record, with a -73 run differential. They’re old, expensive and franchise players like Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman no longer figure to bring back top-shelf prospects in a trade. Years of player development neglect has left Houston with a dilapidated farm system boasting little outside of RHP Jordan Lyles, SS Jiovanni Mier and C Jason Castro. It could be years before the Astros emerge from the depths of the NL Central standings.
Right-handed starter Bud Norris was supposed to be one of the few Houston youngsters to make a positive impact on the big league club. A sixth round pick out of Cal Poly back in 2006, Norris notched 9.5 K/9 and 3.7 BB/9 in the minors, and he posted a 4.38 xFIP in 11 appearances (10 starts) with the Astros in 2009. Heading into 2010, I mentioned Norris (as well as Felipe Paulino) as a draft day sleeper:
CHONE projects Norris to compile a 4.40 FIP in 2010, with 8.43 K/9, 4.14 BB/9 and 1.14 HR/9. He’ll miss bats, and he could be a nice addition to Houston’s staff if he can rein in the walks and not allow hitters to put that Minute Maid train in harm’s way.
At first glance, it looks like CHONE’s projection whiffed worse than Tommy Manzella at a slider. In 43.2 innings pitched, Norris has a 6.80 ERA. A closer inspection reveals reasons for optimism and continued frustration. The 25-year-old is far from a polished product, but his underlying skills suggest he’s still worth monitoring.
First, the good. Norris has whiffed 11.13 batters per nine innings this season, second-highest among starting pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched (Brandon Morrow is first). Bud’s garnering swinging strikes 10.9 percent of the time (8-8.5% MLB average), and his 73.8% contact rate is well below the 80-81% big league average.
But while Norris has often been dominant, his control remains scattershot. He has issued 5.36 BB/9, with just 43.8% of his pitches crossing the dish (48-51% MLB average in recent years). Bud’s getting behind hitters more than most, with a 56.6% rate of first pitch strikes. The big league average sits around 58%.
Even though Norris is being far too generous with the free passes, his xFIP is a useful 4.00. So, why is his ERA 2.8 runs higher?
For one, Bud has a .400 batting average on balls put in play. His line drive rate (25.6%) is very high, but it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions from that figure at this point. Even if you accept the premise that batters scorch the Norris offerings that they do make contact with, there’s no way that hits on balls in play continue to fall as if Bud were facing a team of Ty Cobbs. ZiPS projects a .334 BABIP for the rest of 2010. Norris has also stranded just 58.9% of base runners, well south of his 78 LOB% in 2009 and the typical 70-72% range for big league pitchers.
Right now, Norris is an aggravating blend of power and imprecision. He has also yet to prove that he can handle the workload of a major league starter — he missed time in 2008 with an elbow strain, was shut down a bit early last September with shoulder fatigue and he’ll apparently miss his scheduled start this Saturday due to biceps tendinitis.
With the injury concerns and inconsistency, Bud’s clearly not worth a roster spot right now. But don’t totally write him off. Beneath all the ugliness, there’s talent here.
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