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Will Bud Norris' arm fall off? Not literally, but Astros fans should be worried

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Hearken back to the dog days of summer. If you're like me, there is snow on the ground outside and thinking back to those days is a more pleasant thought. Dreams of warmth and sunshine aside, let's focus on late July and the emergence of Bud Norris on the 25-man roster. His usage in the majors raised many questions, like:

  1. Should one of the Astros only starting pitching prospects be allowed to dangerously rack up IP in a lost season?
  2. Where should the Astros look to set the bar in terms of shutting Norris down?
  3. Why are they letting him throw this many innings?
  4. Will he get hurt?
  5. Why did they wait until he was "fatigued" to shut him down?
With the exception of number five, we at least attempted to answer every one of those questions with a front page story from either HLP, clack, or myself.  By the time Norris did exit stage right in September, we were too depressed for words (seriously, we were in a rut in terms of content) and we didn't give it the attention it deserved.  

While we missed an opportunity to have a constant meme this offseason on Norris' health in 2010—and beyond—Will Carroll's Team Health Report Matrix has jogged me from my denial.  Norris gets flagged as yellow, but is closer to a fringe red player.  The day these were released, I tweeted Will Carroll to ask how worried we should be about Norris.  His one word response of "Very" was all I needed to really assess what we should expect from Norris' health.

"What's all the fuss about?" For those off us with shallow memory banks or excellent repression skills, the fact that Norris missed a substantial portion of 2008 with an elbow injury may have slipped by the wayside. I can't find a link to corroborate this, but I remember reading that Norris' elbow strain was so serious that doctors initially advised surgery to repair it, but also gave Norris the option to see if good ol' fashion rest would work as well. Like I said, no link, but I'm so sure about it that I'm throwing it out here.

When Norris came back in 2008, the Astros slotted him in as the closer of the Hooks.  Prior to that, Norris had been a starter. Ostensibly this move was to save his arm and a policy preference that obviously had limited permanance for the Astros. He racked up 80 IP during the regular season for the Hooks, and then went to the Arizona Fall League, where he racked up another 19 IP. His total for the year? 99 IP.  His highest inning total to this point was 110 2/3...from college (source).

Now, this isn't to say Norris should have been limited on the number of innings he threw in 2008. Rather, he shouldn't have been allowed to pitch a tremendous number over his 2008 level the next season.  That fact had us all concerned in July, August, and September. To add numbers to the discussion,HLP brought the Verducci effect to our attention back in July.  The crude rule is that if a young pitcher increases their innings by over 30 in one year, prepare yourself for the misery of his ineffectiveness/injury the following year.  

To be fair, there are plenty of exceptions to the Verducci effect, but many more examples as well. Also, we should keep in mind that Norris threw 99 IP in 2008 and a combined 175 2/3 IP in 2009. For those slow on the mental math, that's an increase of 78 2/3 innings, or more than double the threshold of the Verducci effect.  That's enough to send up a warning flag.  However, the Astros brass seemed to think that Norris could handle the added work load (see the previous link).

We should credit the Astros for one thing: they were effective in limiting the amount of fatigue that Norris could experience at the big league level.  Norris had nine category one starts, and only one category two start in the majors.  That's important, because it limited the number of Norris' Pitcher Abuse Points, which have a strong correlation with injury.

The fact that he was effectively managed last year doesn't mean we got to write off his massive jump in innings.  As Will Carroll elaborates, his concern is that:

Norris is facing a huge innings increase, not only year over year, but coming back from a year where his elbow was just returning to form. He's good, but he's very risky and I worry that a complete season from him will result in a breakdown along the way or worse, [that] he fatigues hard in the second half. Then again, with all those issues, [the Astros] have to try and get some value out of him, right? He's never going to be a [No.] 1 [starter] or even a two, so you run him out there and see what happens. Maybe Ed Wade is crazy like a fox and this team contends. If so, Norris could be a big part of that ... but I don't think so.

The first thing that jumped out at me was Carroll's fear that Norris will fatigue hard in the second half of 2010, a la Chris Sampson in 2009. Why? Because Norris was already shut down in 2009 due to fatigue.  No one knows to what extent he was battling that issue, but I imagine that twenty-four year old pitcher in his rookie season probably held his cards too close to his chest in terms of his overall well-being.  The point is, there could already be substantial damage done. Even if there wasn't in 2009, Carroll cautions that a full season of Norris in 2010 is likely to result in some more damage.  My guess is that Norris probably can get through 2010 relatively intact. What I think Carroll alludes to is that 2011 and 2012 could be a wash as Norris battles injuries.

As I mentioned earlier, the Astros felt like Norris had the body size, mechanics, or possibly just a pact with the devil to keep him healthy through his innings jump.  They may be right.  The best quantification of Norris' risk, I believe, can be viewed from his PECOTA projection. His Beta score, which measure's the system's observed variance in Norris' projection stands at 1.14.  Average starts at 1.00, and anything above one means there's more risk in the observed variance and projection.  A 1.14 is high.

Of course, with injuries, no one really knows. There's a chance everything I've written here is meaningless because Norris is a Clydesdale that can just power through his work. I'm not convinced of that. He's in the prime of the injury nexus and already suffered an elbow injury in 2008. There are too many reasons for concern, too many numbers that can be quoted, mechanical issues cited, etc. for the Astros to say they felt Norris could handle the work load—based on their knowledge of him—to hold up.

It's distressing, too.  Norris' contribution to the Astros in 2010 and beyond is a necessity.  Even if Norris is no more than a solid No. 3 starter, as Carroll postulates, the Astros need that.  Hopefully Norris' 2009-2010 seasons aren't laying the foundation for a full system breakdown, but it's hard not to see the storm clouds forming.