Making sense of Bud Norrisby Vince Caramela
May 13, 2011
Bud Norris was taken in the sixth round of the 2006 Amateur Draft by the Houston Astros. By most reports it was a curious pick since his junior season at Cal Poly was a bit underwhelming with a terrible 61/57 strikeout-to-walk-ratio in 118 innings. Seen as probable reliever in a body more inclined to horizontal growth, Norris quietly established himself as a legitimate prospect as improvements were made to his slider along with a promising "power" change.
Despite an elbow strain that sidelined in him for a couple of months in 2008, Norris was fast-tracked and saw his first big league camp in the spring of 2009.
Bud Norris – early season fantasy stud?
Being one who likes to dabble into the dark realms of fantasy baseball, I must admit to first noticing Norris last season, but my notes were sadly slim:
Good strikeout totals, lousy control—possible spot-start against the Cardinals...
Since that time I've been fairly ignorant about Norris, I always saw him as a future reliever plagued by inconsistencies on a below-average team. Not the best set of combinations. It wasn't until his start on April 20 of this year against the Mets that I figured he was someone worth looking into.
All solid stats across the board and with the ERA and both FIPs trending nicely, one doesn't have to assume that any drastic regression may occur. Compared to his previous major league seasons we can see sustained growth in his strikeout totals while obvious improvements have been made to his command.
Looking over his batted ball and other advanced data, again, nothing sticks out in terms of warning signs.
The decrease in line drives this season shouldn’t be expected to last, but the slight rise in his groundball percentage looks promising.
The other metrics hover around league average as his home run-to-flyball ratio (HR/FB) and strand rate (LOB) don’t lean toward the unlucky or lucky side of the scale. His BABIP could classify as a bit high since the average falls around .302 for pitchers, but a good portion of this could be attributed to the atrocious Astros infield defense.
Norris’ repertoire and splits
Since becoming a professional in 2006, Norris has relied heavily on a fastball/slider combination with the occasional change-up. Incredibly there isn’t much variety in terms of his arsenal as his combinations tend to resemble that of an average major league reliever. Data below provided by Baseball Info Solutions.
According to Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM), which provides the real time data for MLB’s Gameday, Norris’ fastball registers as a four-seamer, which is your classic lean back and fire pitch. Of course, the data are never perfect since corrections are still being made to accurately describe and distinguish new or rare pitches, but, for now, I will recognize this as a four-seam fastball until mocked and/or corrected in the comment section.
Most pitchers with a limited arsenal consisting of two main pitches are relegated to the bullpen due to heavy platoon splits. Looking at Norris’ career against right-handed and left-handed hitters, we do see some apparent splits:
vs. LHB: 529 total batters faced (TBF), 10.25 K/9, 5.43 BB/9, 4.52 FIP
vs. RHB: 583 total batters faced (TBF), 8.71 K/9, 3.01 BB/9, 3.73 FIP
Looking at career batted ball data, Norris tends to get a few more ground balls off the bats of righties (43.2 percent compared to the 39.9 percent from lefties). Fly balls tend to be nearly identical across the plate: Righties have a career 39.3 percent while lefties are slightly higher at 40.6 percent. Line drives tend to be problematic for Norris when facing left-handed hitters:
|Total LHB||LD% LHB||Total RHB||LD% RHB|
Other odd splits this season: Right-handed batters have had some trouble “barreling up,” as Norris has kept them to a 7.8 percent line drive rate, 51 percent are ground balls, and only 4.8 percent of fly balls have found their way over the fence.
Since Norris has faced only 92 right-handed batters this season, I don’t expect this trend to continue but, on the flip side, Norris’ lower walk rate this season can be attributed to the 2.43 walk rate per nine innings against left-handed batters. However, this could be due to lefties finding Norris to be rather hittable: They are currently enjoying a BABIP of .421 and a home-run-per-nine ratio at 1.96.
Below are charts looking at Norris’ 2011 repertoire against both sides along with some outcomes. Data below from Joe Lefkowitz’s PITCHf/x tool:
2011 data vs. LHB
|#||Swing rate||Whiff rate||LD%||GB%||FB%|
2011 data vs. RHB
|#||Swing rate||Whiff Rate||LD%||GB%||FB%|
It’s not too hard to see why Norris is so in love with his slider, since it looks like a genuine bat-misser and if contact is made, chances are good it will end up as a ground ball into somebody’s glove (although, I must again remind you that we are dealing with the Houston Astros, who currently rank second from the bottom in terms of UZR this season. So nothing is guaranteed, but the chances are still good that the ball will stay in the park).
Recent drop in velocity
Upon deciding to write about Norris I did come across this chart showing his velocity. It seemed troubling.
Since his third start on April 14, his average fastball velocity has steadily dropped from 92.4 to 91.4. This may not seem like a lot, but keep in mind that Norris’ highest average fastball velocity registered at 93.4 on April 9. That is a drop of nearly two miles per hour in one month and according to Mike Fast’s study on fastball velocity decrease, a starting pitcher tends to allow one more full run per nine innings for every four miles per hour lost off his heater. Norris isn’t at this stage yet, but it is worth monitoring.
Looking over his velocity via Gameday, I have noticed that Norris would easily hit between 95 to 94 miles per hour with his labeled four-seamer earlier this season. Compared to his previous two starts, Norris’ fastball has rarely touched 94 mph while a steady drop in fastball velocity is noticed throughout the game.
Fastball velocity May 1, 2011 vs. the Brewers
|MPH||1st Inning||2nd Inning||3rd Inning||4th Inning||5th Inning||6th Inning||7th Inning||8th Inning|
Fastball velocity May 7, 2011 vs. the Pirates
|MPH||1st Inning||2nd Inning||3rd Inning||4th Inning||5th Inning||6th Inning||7th Inning|
During this same span, Norris has increased his slider usage to where it has become his primary pitch as we can see when we combine his previous two starts.
Breaking this down, Norris threw 115 pitches on May 1 at home against the Milwaukee Brewers. Among those pitches, 41 were classified as fastballs, 64 were sliders and 10 were changeups.
On May 7 at PNC Park against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Norris threw 97 pitches where 38 were fastballs, 48 were sliders and 11 were changeups.
It’s possible that Norris is using his slider more as a way to counter his diminishing fastball. As we can see from the charts above, it is a true swing-and-miss pitch, but with more studies questioning the link between arm trouble and excessive slider usage, it is a situation worth keeping an eye on.
References and Resources
I want to thank Joe Lefkowitz for providing some of the PITCHf/x data as well as Josh Smolow, Mike Fast and Will Carroll for being incredibly helpful and patient by answering my semi-obnoxious twitter questions.
Vince has his own blog, The League of Transparency, and has also written for SBNation.