Since getting his chance to start consistently for the first time in 2010, Bud Norris has been a solid source of strikeouts for fantasy players, especially those in deeper leagues or NL-only players. A bit like Brandon Morrow, Norris’ strikeouts in 2010 came at a cost as he wasn’t particularly rate-stat friendly. He did improve both his walk rate and his BAA in 2011, and it showed as his WHIP fell from 1.48 to 1.33 and his ERA from 4.92 to 3.77, but it came with a commensurate decline in his strikeout rate, which dropped from 9.25 to 8.52. A K/9 of over 8.5 is definitely still playable, but when neither his WHIP nor his ERA actually moved into the “useful” category, fewer strikeouts were a trade-off many owners weren’t willing to make.
This season, Norris has found what seems to be the best of both worlds. For the second year in a row, his WHIP and ERA are down — they sit at 1.31 and 3.34 respectively — but his strikeouts are back up. He’s setting down nearly a batter an inning thanks to a wipeout slider that has opposing hitters swinging and missing at nearly a 23 percent rate. Unlike in previous seasons, Norris’ FIP has come down as well, making his overall profile look even more sustainable; in fact, the biggest thing I see in his performance as being potentially unsustainably high is his WHIP.
His hit rate and opposing average look fine; they might be on the high side of ideal, but while Norris has improved into a strong fantasy option, he’s still not Pedro Martinez in his prime. So that leaves WHIP’s second component as Norris’ bane. Walks have always been a problem for him, perhaps more so when he was giving up more than a home run per nine, but even now that he seems to have that particular vice under control. His walk rate is at a career low this season, and while Ubaldo Jimenez might kill for just 3.19 free passes per nine, it just isn’t that great.
Rather than asking Norris to do his best Jason Marquis impression and simply allow hitters to make more frequent contact, I wonder if eliminating his changeup might be his key to success. It isn’t a common part of his arsenal as he prefers to stick to his fastball, slider, and occasionally his sinker. He throws it for a strike less than 50 percent of the time, and opponents seem to either let it drop for a ball or make good contact with it. He does get a fair number of ground balls with it, but it still generates only the fourth best ground ball rate of his four pitches. The argument can be made that, especially against left-handers, Norris uses the changeup to keep them from keying into his slider, which is probably largely why he keeps using it. His two-seam fastball would almost certainly fill the gap nearly as well, given its good downward action, though the difference in velocity between the sinker and his slider might be enough to render the exercise moot.
Whether he drops the changeup or not — I suspect he will not unless things really take a turn for the worse — Norris has enough going for him that he’s worth keeping or adding as part of a trade. He’s owned in 95 percent of ESPN leagues, which makes him virtually impossible to add off the wire, but Yahoo! players may have a shot at him. He’s available in 36 percent of leagues, and he’s probably as consistent as any pitcher available, especially if strikeouts are an area of need. His wins may ebb a little bit as the Astros cool down from their excellent start, but anyone who ignores Norris to chase wins probably deserves whomever they end up with.