How Much Better Is Bud Norris?

I have been skeptical of Bud Norris, as perhaps others have been, for much of this season. His 3.68 (4.36 FIP, 4.26 xFIP, 4.17 SIERA) ERA isn’t spectacular, but it’s really the first time in his career in which he’s produced results notably better, really even at all better, than his ERA indicators.

Of course, there are a couple of simple things at which to point that could sort of easily help to explain Norris’ 2014 success. He’s posting a career-best walk rate of 7.7%. His fastball velocity is back near its peaks of his break-in seasons. His opponents’ BABIP (.284) and his LOB% (78.4), notably better than his career marks and league average, hint at the possibility of increased fortune for the right-hander this season. I could probably stop there and call it something close to a perfect storm.

He’s still worse than the league rate in K-BB%. His ERA has come with some sacrifice of strikeouts. That tends to turn us off a little. It’s possible that Norris has made a conscious effort to locate and to pitch to contact more often as well as to strike out hitters less often. He’s induced a considerably lower rate of swinging strikes (6.6%, versus 9.4% last year and 9.9% in his career). Hitters have made contact against him 6% more often than in any year in his major league past. But his zone percentage is 50.2%, no different from last year’s and not more than a percentage point greater than his career rate (49.3%).

In his career, Norris has had these tilted platoon splits. Left-handed hitters have consistently had success against him (.266/.355/.444) more often than right-handed batters. The split had been more egregious in some years than others, but it hadn’t been as good as it’s been in 2014 (.249/.328/.395) since his debut campaign in 2009 (.196/.333/.267 in 111 total batters faced). Left-handed batters have hit only .276 on balls in play against him this season but .313 on them in his career. Right-handed hitters, by contrast, have registered a .294 BABIP against him, not far from their .303 career rate. Perhaps it’s all just luck.

Perhaps not just incidentally, however, his changeup, an offering notorious for its aid in neutralization of opposite-handed hitters, has been uncharacteristically effective this season. It has coaxed a modest 10.3% swinging strikes, a tad below the latest benchmarks for that pitch, although a bit better than any other year except for one. But his change piece this year has also accounted for 65.7% ground balls, a significantly greater percentage for him than in previous season and well above-average in this one. He spoke in mid-June about his seemingly increased confidence in the pitch. It seems that he’s learned to command it better. He’s thrown it for strikes a bit more often. Perhaps, then, it’s not all luck.

Norris’ best pitch has pretty much always been his slider. Yet he’s been throwing his fastball about 5% more often this year, despite the fact that for the first time maybe in his career, it’s not really a plus offering. He’s had a little less command of it, and it’s induced a mere 3.7% swinging strikes. But it’s certainly possible that the improved changeup has given him more assurance to throw the fastball, something to provide him with a more distinct contrast between the two this year. He’s seemed to have made a conscious decision to use the slide piece a little less often in the past year and a half. Maybe he’s become aware of the health implications associated with high usage of sliders. Or maybe he just wants to evolve, like most pitchers.

What’s also interesting to me is how well Norris has pitched with men on base. This isn’t just true in terms of results.

His K-BB% with the bases empty has dipped significantly in the past two years, to an ugly 4.6% this season, primarily because there has been about a 5% to 6% dip in his strikeout rate in those situations in those years. His walk rate has remained a steady but disappointing 9% to 11% throughout career with no one on base.

His K-BB% with men on base, by contrast, has steadily and markedly improved in the past two years, reaching 16.9% so far in 2014. He’s continued to fan, consistently, about 20% to 22% of the opposition throughout his career. His walk rate, though, has really improved in the last couple of years while men are on base, and it has declined to a thoroughly impressive 3.7% this year. That’s quite unusual. The league walks hitters 1.6% more often and has a 3.2% drop in K-BB%.

There’s a wide variety of potential explanations for why this occurs, depending on the pitcher, surely. In Norris’ case, he’s thrown the slider about 10% more often to left-handed batters after someone reached this year. It’s the pitch he probably commands best, and that likely accounts for his steady strikeout rate in those situations. He’s also thrown the four-seamer 7% less often to LHBs in those situations but to RHBs 3% more often … and not notably less often overall.

Norris, like most starting pitchers I assume, works from the windup when the bases are clear and from the stretch when they aren’t. At least that’s been the case when I have watched him. Given such drastic differences in the rates at which he’s walked and struck out hitters in one situation versus the other, it’d seem that he’s really improved his command overall and possibly has somewhat of his fastball while working out of the stretch. If that’s true, I can’t help but wonder if he’d be even better were he to pitch from the stretch exclusively.

Norris, 29, is in some ways having a breakthrough season. The results haven’t been stupendous, but they’re not too shabby. They don’t seem to be entirely the product of the default luck, thanks to the development of his changeup. Continuing to command it will probably be important to his ability to retain this season’s gains, since there may be some regression due anyway. The righty has always struggled to prevent hitters from reaching base, too, but this season, and to some degree last, he’s thoroughly improved his command and results once they’re on. Maybe he could be even better if he pitched from the stretch all the time.

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Nicholas Minnix oversaw baseball content for six years at KFFL, where he held the loose title of Managing Editor for seven and a half before he joined FanGraphs. He played in both Tout Wars and LABR from 2010 through 2014. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasMinnix.

3 Responses to “How Much Better Is Bud Norris?”

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  1. Randomdigits says:

    Inducing ground balls is pretty handy with Hardy, Schoop and Machado playing behind him.

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  2. Orsulakfan says:

    I think that most of the Orioles’ pitchers outperform in terms of runs their FIP stats. It’s a key to the gap between their real success and the disdain they receive from the analyst community. At least I hope so… and that it all doesn’t blow up in the last 7 weeks of the season.

    With this info here about his pitching from the stretch it further reinforces what I thought would happen this season, which was that Norris would become a dominant relief option. But he has been solid from the rotation (to my pleasant surprise) and so there’s no need to move him now.

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  3. Baroque6 says:

    I still think Norris is the most logical choice to put in the bullpen when Ubaldo comes back. It can’t be Chen (only lefty in lineup). I guess Miguel Gonzalez could go, too, but I don’t know, I just think Ubaldo himself would be a train wreck coming out of the pen, and might actually be ok ROS in the rotation. He’s good against bad lineups, and even if he gets shelled by good lineups, that still has value.

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