With a handful of non-contenders reportedly deciding to hang on to their best trade chips, the supply of quality pitchers on the market is quite thin. As a result, teams in the playoff hunt are having to look at players they wouldn’t otherwise be interested in, and tarnished pieces start looking more attractive given limited options. However, even for a contender in need of a rotation boost, Bud Norris should not be viewed as the answer to anyone’s problems.
The Astros 28-year-old right-hander will have some superficial appeal due to his 3.93 ERA and multiple years of team control, as he isn’t going to be free agent eligible until after the 2015 season. Unlike other pitchers changing teams this summer, Norris would not just be a rental, and could be penciled into a team’s rotation for the next few years. The only problem? Bud Norris isn’t particularly good, and shouldn’t be trusted to start a game in the playoffs.
His 3.93 ERA is mostly a mirage, based around an unsustainably low rate of fly balls flying over the fence. From 2009 to 2012, Norris posted an 11.4% HR/FB ratio, a little bit higher than the league average. This year, his HR/FB rate is just 6.9%, the 13th lowest mark of any qualified starting pitcher in the Majors. While not giving up home runs is definitely a positive, history has shown that HR/FB ratio is not very predictive, and Norris is more likely to go back to giving up something closer to his career number of home runs per fly ball over the rest of the season.
When he does, that ERA is going to go up in a hurry, because Norris’ strikeout rate has taken a dramatic turn for the worse with the move to the American League, going from 22% down to 17%. For reference, a 22% strikeout rate would put him in the same range as Justin Verlander, Cole Hamels, and Derek Holland, while a 17% strikeout rate actually makes him the equal of guys like Miguel Gonzalez and Jarrod Parker. Strikeouts aren’t an absolute requirement to be a quality starting pitcher, but Norris hasn’t off-set the reduction in strikeout rate by limiting his walks or his fly balls, so he’s basically just pitching worse, not differently.
Beyond just the strikeout decline, though, is another significant problem, especially for a team considering handing him the ball in October: his platoon splits.
Because Norris relies heavily on his slider, he’s able to dominate right-handed batters but is much less effective against left-handed hitters. This season, RHBs are hitting .240/.305/.315 against him, while LHBs are at .300/.365/.494. Of the 117 qualified starting pitchers this season, Norris’ .372 wOBA allowed versus left-handers ranks 104th, putting him squarely between Jon Garland and Jason Hammel. Allowing a .372 wOBA is essentially the equivalent of turning every left-handed batter he faces into Andrew McCutchen.
And no, it’s not just bad luck. Norris’ strikeout rate against left-handers is a paltry 12.5%, and 10 of the 11 home runs he’s allowed this season have been hit by a left-hander. His slider is a knockout pitch against right-handed batters, but just tilts right into a lefties wheelhouse. There are a lot of pitchers in Major League Baseball just like Norris, but most of them are pitching in relief, where they can be selectively used against right-handers in order to maximize their effectiveness.
As a starter, Norris simply has to face whatever group of hitters the opposing manager decides to put in the line-up that day. If that line-up happens to be stacked with good left-handers, he’s in trouble, and every potential playoff team in both leagues has good left-handed hitters to throw at pitchers just like Norris. Unless someone is planning on playing the Angels in October, handing Norris the ball probably isn’t a great idea.
Anaheim is exactly the kind of club that Norris’ skillset works the best against. They’re very right-handed, with their only four hitters posting an OPS over .700 — Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Mark Trumbo, and Howie Kendrick — all hitting from the right side. Norris has made four starts against the Angels this year, thanks to his new home in the AL West, and he’s allowed exactly one earned run in 28 innings over those four starts, a sparkling 0.32 ERA.
His ERA against every other team he’s faced? 4.95.
Here’s how he’s performed against a few teams he might actually have to face in the playoffs, if he’s traded to a contender.
BOS: 6 IP, 5 R, .346/.393/.538
OAK: 12.2 IP, 14 R, .278/.371/.519
DET: 12 IP, 9 R, .292/.346/.500
STL: 5 IP, 7 R, .478/.500/.739
These teams all have good left-handed hitters, and Norris has been terrible against all of them. That isn’t likely to change in October, and any team facing him is going to stack the line-up with as many lefties as they can manage. Starting Norris against a bunch of left-handers with the season on the line is not a great bet.
Norris is good enough against right-handers to be a useful #5 starter, and he could probably be an effective weapon out of the bullpen in the playoffs if a team was willing to use him in that role. But that’s what he should be viewed as; a right-handed specialist who could be used situationally in October. If a contender put him in their playoff rotation, don’t be too surprised when a lefty heavy line-up makes it end poorly.
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