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Astros Starter's Week: Meet Bud Norris

ST. LOUIS - MAY 13: Starting pitcher Bud Norris #20 of the Houston Astros throws against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on May 13, 2010 in St. Louis, Missouri.  The Astros beat the Cardinals 4-1.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS - MAY 13: Starting pitcher Bud Norris #20 of the Houston Astros throws against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on May 13, 2010 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Astros beat the Cardinals 4-1. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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Well, Day 2 of Starter's Week has to go better than Monday night, right? I'm almost afraid to talk about things now, because it seems that the opposite of whatever I say happens. Keep that in mind if I'm overly negative in this Bud Norris piece.

What has BudChuck done this season? In his second season with the big league club, Norris is 2-4 in seven starts. He's thrown 34 1/3 innings while giving up 38 hits and 26 runs, striking out 41 and walking 20. He's now started 17 games in the majors and thrown 90 innings. During that time, he's struck out 95, meaning his K rate has stayed above 9 even when he's struggled in other areas (like getting people out).

Here's what Baseball Prospectus said about Norris before the season:

"Norris's debut was spetacular, given the modest expectations that attend most Astros prospects, as he started 10 games for the Astros in the final two months. Despite his lack of height and his chunky build, he has, thanks to a mid-90s fastball and an improving slider, put up solid K/BB numbers throughout his minor-league career. Rather than settle for genetic destiny as an undertail hurler, he has worked on his delivery to multiply the number of angles at which he comes to hitters, improving the tilt on his slider and making his fastball that much more effective. He should be locked into a rotation spot starting now."

BP also projected Norris to start 29 games with 135 innings, 113 strikeouts and 65 walks. He's currently on pace for 144 innings pitched, 29 starts, 145 strikeouts and 76 walks. At least he's beating his projections...

As a comparison, let's read what Baseball America had to say about Norris before the 2007 season, when he was the No. 22 prospect in the Astros organization. 

Norris pitched at 90-93 MPH as a starter during the spring, and his velocity rose to the mid-90s and topped out at 97 when he worked out of the bullpen. His heater has late hop at the end, making it difficult for hitters to square up. His No. 2 pitch is a power curveball with 12-to-6 break, though he doesn't command it effectively. He needs to do a better job of working all four quadrants of the strike zone. He throws his changeup too hard and it doesn't have enough separation from his fastball. In the long term, Norris' stuff and bulldog attitude will probably fit best in the bullpen.

What a difference three seasons can make, huh? Obviously, Norris had to junk that power curve because of control issues. it also looks like his fastball has gained some nice velocity over time, as he now averages 93 and reguarly touches 95 in starts. Let's see what he's throwing now, thanks to Texas Leaguers.

Type Count Selection Velocity (mph) Vertical (in) Horizontal (in) Spin Angle (deg) Spin Rate (rpm)
FF 348 55.9% 93.1 8.64 -5.31 212 2,059
SL 196 31.5% 87.4 2.30 1.77 143 702
CH 78 12.5% 87.7 2.99 -4.55 226 1,149

As we've said before, Norris works off three pitches: his four-seamer, his slider and sometimes, his change. As his fastball has gained velocity, his change now has a nice difference between the two speeds. There's also a very similar movement pattern to the fastball and the change, with the change just dropping almost as much as the slider does. The change also has a similar spin angle, but is spinning much slower than the fastball. Compared to Wandy's four-seamer, you can see that Norris gets good natural sink to his four-seamer. That could be the "late hop" BA alluded to in the scouting report. It also explains why Norris has thrown it so often.

Type Count Selection Strike Swing Whiff Foul In Play
FF 348 55.9% 57.2% 38.5% 6.6% 18.1% 13.8%
SL 196 31.5% 63.3% 51.5% 18.4% 15.8% 17.3%
CH 78 12.5% 60.3% 51.3% 16.7% 24.4% 10.3%

One of my big complaints when we look at Norris start-by-start is his control seemed to come and go. Here, we can see that his strike percentage is actually pretty good. Certainly, he doesn't throw strikes as often as Brett Myers. But, he does get strikes about 60 percent of the time with all three pitches. The only problem is batters are not swinging at his fastball as often as they need to be. When they do swing, he gets a pretty solid whiff rate and doesn't give up many balls in play off the fastball. His slider is actually one of his most contacted pitches, but it's also a great swing-through pitch. 

Because he relies so heavily on the fastball, his fly ball rate is pretty high at 39.1 percent. Unlike Wandy, only 5 percent of those fly balls are infield flies, meaning he's giving up a lot of hits to the outfield. Conversely, though, he's giving up just 5 percent of his fly balls as home runs. That could be from a little bit of late sink on the fastball keeping batters from centering up enough. They can still hit it a ways, but by not squaring it up, they are hitting it to Michael Bourn in deep center field. 

His pitch values show that his slider is his best pitch. It's worth 4.0 runs above average, while the change is at 0.2 runs above average and his fastball is -7.1 below average. When you normalize the pitches, his slider goes down to 1.63 while the fastball rises a bit to -1.91. His change also rose a bit to 0.61.

What did all of that mean? Norris has some quality pitches, but the level of effectiveness isn't there yet. Yes, his slider is a good pitch, but it's not great. He may throw his fastball a lot, but it's not good enough to rely on just yet. One positive sign is that Norris has the highest percentage of swings outside the strike zone in the Astros starting rotation. So, even with a relatively small repertoire, he's still been pretty effective and can get guys to chase.

His BABiP is a ridiculous .392, which means that he's been exceptionally unlucky. That could be a product of the defense behind him, but it's indicative of why a strikeout pitcher can get hit around. Usually, guys who get a ton of strikeouts are less likely to be affected by defense. Norris is an exception, I guess.

Another positive sign? Norris' WAR is 0.1 behind Brett Myers and tied with Wandy Rodriguez. It's too early to use WAR effectively, but would you have expected Norris to be so close to Myers? I've groused after some of Budly's starts that he might be better suited for the bullpen. Looking at the numbers? I'm forced to give up that refrain until the offseason. Someone with this kind of stuff needs time to refine his craft as a starter.