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Should Bud Norris Close?

One of the best parts about the winter is obviously tracking all the latest player movement, but sometimes when that rumor mill starts churning, the fantasy nerd in me can’t help but start thinking about making some oddball offseason moves with the hope that the whispers pan out to be truths and I’ve somehow stolen what could blossom into a killer fantasy commodity. Some of the rumors are bigger than others, but a sneaky one that recently popped up sort of intrigues me as a fantasy player who likes drafting closers with upside and hates chasing saves throughout the year. That rumor has the Orioles turning last year’s trade deadline acquisition, Bud Norris, into their full-time closer.

Now, if you read the article, or at least skimmed down to the bottom where it’s mentioned, you’ll know that this rumor is in its infantile stages and the Orioles also added that it would only be a fall-back option for them. They remain very much in the hunt for names like Grant Balfour, Fernando Rodney and even Joaquin Benoit and would ideally like to replace Jim Johnson with an experienced closer. While the move of Norris to the pen seems unlikely, it got me to wondering just how far-fetched a move this would be. We’ve seen plenty of starters find success in the bullpen, particularly guys with strong strikeout numbers, and in truth, it’s not like Norris has been dazzling from a starter’s standpoint.

Two things I wanted to take a look at were, first, how effective a pitcher Norris was in the first inning of games he pitched and second, if there was anything interesting about his pitch mix in that first inning compared to the rest of his time on the bump. I employed the help of our friends over at baseball-reference.com for the first and then hit up everyone’s favorite stat-hound Jeff Zimmerman for the second. Not that this is an ideal way to make determinations, because let’s face it, a closer tends to go out there and throw as hard as he can right from the onset while a starter tends to hold a little something back with the intention of coming out for at least a few more innings.

In looking at the innings breakdown for Norris’ career, it’s apparent that the first inning is far from his best. Opposing batters may only be hitting him at a .244 average the first time they face him in a game, but over 126.2 first innings for Norris, he has a cumulative ERA of 4.83 and opponents have a .270 average against him with a .346 on-base percentage. The 2.41 K/BB is actually a nice bonus but hey, a guy can strike out the side and still give up four runs on five hits in any particular frame. But based on the totals, the first inning still looks a bit rough. It’s not until the second or third inning when he finally settles down.

So that brought me to the pitch mix. Was it nerves or first-inning jitters that maybe affected his performance, or could it have been his overall approach. While I would love to share the data with you that Jeff sent my way, I wouldn’t even know how or where to begin to make it happen. Blame the age, blame the lack of computer classes growing up, blame the fact that I’m typing this article out on a Commodore 64; all of the above in my case. But what I can tell you is that he does seem to pull back on his fastball in the second and third innings and turns to his slider and changeup a bit more often. He’s still throwing his fastball the majority of the time, but the inclusion of his secondary pitches is definitely higher than it is in the first inning. And with that, the opposition’s batting average dropped while his K/BB increased steadily. He actually exhibited more control in those second and third innings than he did just rapid-firing his fastball in there during the first.

So maybe if Norris implemented the use of his secondary pitches a little more in that first inning, while also employing the mentality of not holding anything back from his fastball, perhaps he could blossom into a decent ninth inning option. One inning of 92 mph heat with some extra sliders in there would probably help raise that ground-ball rate, so long as he doesn’t leave everything up in the zone. Of course, maybe just a simple adjustment towards this would help him as a starter too. He does seem to struggle in the first inning quite often, so maybe a few adjustments here and there could help him to be more effective early on and not fall behind as quickly as he tends to.

It’s a huge longshot, Norris closing, that is, but I suppose not only totally off-the-wall. This is probably all a moot point anyway as the O’s are still expected to be active on the free agent market, but something that may have warranted a cursory glance since it was mentioned. One thing I do know though, is that I will not e making any offseason moves for him.