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Bud Norris, ground balls, and a comparison (or six)

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Just a few days after Ed Wade signed a two year contract extension to remain the Astros' GM until 2012, Wade wasted no time in letting a "key personnel decision" be made known. Upon learning that Bud Norris recently bought a home in the Houston area, Wade quipped to Alyson Footer that:

Bud Norris needs to make this team. I teased him after he bought a house in Houston. I said, do you get good gas mileage? It's a long way to Round Rock.

While I suppose it's possible that Norris could not start the season with the Astros, it would take him severely under-performing or getting injured. Knock on wood neither of those things happen.

In light of a recent two part series on Fangraphs covering groundballs and their relation to other peripheral statistics of pitchers, I immediately thought of Norris and how he fits into the discussion. His ground ball rate in the minors was a solid 47.4%, which paired with his excellent strikeout percentage explained in large part why Bud was a successful minor league pitcher. The issue that comes to mind, as he makes the transition to the majors, is how well can this trend continue?

to gain a little perspective, I found a blog post which detailed the best ground ball pitchers in the minors entering the 2009 season, a number of which made their ML debuts in 2009. Brett Cecil (Toronto), Rick Porcello (Detroit), Brett Anderson (Oakland), Trevor Cahill (Oakland), David Price (Tampa), and Vin Mazzaro (Oakland), all displayed fairly severe ground ball tendencies (50% and up) in the minor leagues, so how they fared in their first substantial tour of duty in for their big league teams could be an decent indicator for things to come for Mr. Norris:

Pitcher MLB IP MiLB GB% MLB GB% MiLB FIP MLB FIP MiLB HR/FB% MLB HR/FB%
Brett Cecil 93.1 60.2% 42.6% 3.11 5.37 6.8% 14.8%
Rick Porcello 170.2 65% 54.2% 3.86 4.77 6.6% 14.1%
Brett Anderson 175.1 56.5% 50.9% 3.23 3.69 9% 11.1%
Trevor Cahill 178.2 59.4% 47.8% 3.20 5.33 5.1% 13.2%
David Price 142.1 50.4% 42.3% 3.55 4.47 11.1% 10.7%
Vin Mazzaro 91.1 53.6% 39.1% 3.85 4.93 5.9% 9.5%
Bud Norris 55.2 46.3% 37.2% 3.67 4.77 5.7% 12.9%

 

Certainly different results for each of these pitchers:

  • Brett Cecil made his last start of the season on September 10th, and also saw the greatest regression in his GB ways after his move to the major leagues.
  • Rick Porcello had a shiny 3.96 ERA in his rookie season, but that mark belied a true performance that wasn't nearly as good. A FB% below 30% is ridiculous for even someone as adept at inducing grounders as Porcello. While he may still be a ground ball fiend in 2010, a below average K/BB rate and BABIP regression means a less than stellar season may be ahead
  • The most impressive of all the young starters is Brett Anderson. He translated his great potential into a rookie season worth remembering. His transition was not bumpy at all, and playing in Oakland's spacious home ballpark is another advantage for the A's starter.
  • Anderson's spectacular 2009 is in stark contrast to his teammate Trevor Cahill. His K/BB rate of 1.25 is especially bad considering that his K/9 rate is a Moehlerian 4.53. It's possible that he will allow fewer home runs this season, but that's about the only bit of optimism I project for the youngster
  • After closing out the defending World Series Champion Boston Red Sox to win Game 7 of the ALCS in 2008, David Price fell well short of expectations in 2009 as a full time starter. His ground ball and fly ball rates were very close (41.5%/39.4%) and he displayed none of the control he had in the low minor leagues. Still, talent like his can usually shine through. He wasn't at the top of the prospect rankings for no reason
  • Vin Mazzaro shared the low K rate similarity with teammate Trevor Cahill, but his ground ball rate actually fell below that of his fly ball rate. In all honesty, I went into this article believing that I would be blown away by the young stable of Oakland pitchers. After looking at their past performances and their projections, only Anderson left me as impressed as I thought I would be
  • In a way, it's not fair to have Bud Norris on this list since he displayed a solid, but not over powering GB rate in the minors. What's more, he totaled only 55.2 major league innings in 2009, a sample size that's not particularly large. Still, we can see that a good ground ball pitcher in the minors becomes a pitcher with average tendencies in the major leagues. I'll say this though, outside of Anderson and Price, i think Norris has the best season of all these pitchers in 2010. Norris may well end up as a relief pitcher before it's all said and done, but his ability to induce swings and misses can overcome to a large extent his wildness. A majority of these other pitchers cannot say the same.

For everything that Bud Norris is, he is not in all likelihood going to be in the company of these pitchers, in terms of ground ball rates. I'm not saying it's impossible, but even the best minor league pitchers see some degree of regression once they make the leap to face major league hitters. Basically, it's difficult to walk up the down escalator if ya catch my drift.

Again, if Norris can avoid injury (knocking on wood again), he should have a good season worthy of mention along side the rest of the hurlers in this article, just don't expect Bud to keep our infielders all that busy.