Bud Norris Changes His Way

Bud Norris had kind of a reputation as a hard-throwing but hittable right hander who could rack up some decent strikeouts, but had problems with his control and serious problems getting left handed batters out. The latter was an increasing issue as teams continued to stack their lineups with left-handed heavy approaches, and in fact in 2013, Norris gave up more hits to innings pitched than he had in his entire career.

But in 2014, Norris turned in a fine little season, and a particularly useful one for the Baltimore Orioles, who almost decided to use him as a closer due to his struggles after being traded from the Houston Astros mid-season in 2013. It turns out the choice to let him start was a fortuitous one, as Norris went on to pitch to career lows in ERA, walks, and WHIP. His ERA came in at 3.65 (4.22 FIP), with a 7.6% walk rate, and an actually respectable 1.22 WHIP (career rate was near 1.40). He won 15 games for the Orioles, making 28 starts on the season, missing a short period of time with a groin strain in late June/early July.

His WHIP went from almost 1.50 in 2013 down to 1.22 in 2014, in large part because of increased control, but he also managed to solve some of the problems he had with left handed hitters.

In 2013, Norris gave up a slash line of .309/.381/.509 versus left handed batters — good for a .387 wOBA. He faced left handers in a total of 97.1 innings and gave up 125 hits — 23 doubles and 16 home runs. But in 2014, left handed batters slashed .254/.331/.422 off Norris, for a .333 wOBA. He threw 85 total innings versus LHB and gave up just 84 hits — 12 of them doubles and 12 HR. The home runs still appear to be a bit of an issue, but by and large, Norris was quite effective against lefties in 2014.

He didn’t do this through any particular shift in repertoire either. Versus left handed batters, here’s how Norris approached them in 2014 versus 2013:

2014 2013
Fourseam 37.71% 44.42%
Sinker 19.04% 19.49%
Change 14.64% 12.28%
Slider 27.77% 23.81%

So fewer fastballs, and a touch more on the change and slider end. It’s not insignificant, but it doesn’t scream of some philosophical overhaul. However, the results on these pitches versus left handed batters is notable:

Fourseam 0.302 0.477 0.175
Sinker 0.281 0.561 0.281
Change 0.158 0.263 0.105
Slider 0.214 0.340 0.126

And here’s 2013:

Fourseam 0.306 0.500 0.194
Sinker 0.364 0.727 0.364
Change 0.333 0.417 0.083
Slider 0.272 0.404 0.132

Specifically, check the results on his change and slider. While the batting averages and slugging percentages are down across the board in 2014, the slider and change were particularly tough on lefties, and the change was apparently nasty. And by using some handy data over at Brooks baseball, we can see that he was actually locating the change better in 2014:


You may need to mouse-over to engage the gif-ness, but this is an overlay of his 2013 use of the change against left handed batters versus that of 2014. What you can see is he had more of a tendency to go outside in 2013, and frequently left it up and out. But in 2014, he clustered the change much more down and down and away, and pretty much avoided leaving it up against lefties. Below are the results relative to whiff rates:


So those down and low and away changeups in 2014 were much more effective in missing bats than they were in 2013. There’s not much in the way of a smoking gun in terms of the vertical or horizontal movement of the pitch, but it’s clear that he was much more effective putting the ball where he wanted it and the results were pretty great, small sample size police and all.

This is not to say Bud Norris should be terribly high on your list as a fantasy starter in 2015. There are red flags relative to his home run rate which is in large part why FIP isn’t particularly thrilled with his 2014 performance. However, Norris will still just be 30 when the season starts (it seems like he’s been around forever) and if he continues to build upon his improved control and he can keep left handed batters in check for another season, he might be a sneaky little pick to hold down the back end of your rotation — and one who won’t kill you in strikeouts either.

Michael was born in Massachusetts and grew up in the Seattle area but had nothing to do with the Heathcliff Slocumb trade although Boston fans are welcome to thank him. You can find him on twitter at @michaelcbarr.

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baltic wolf
baltic wolf

According to Jim Palmer who does color commentary on Orioles broadcasts, Bud Norris was instructed by the pitching coach to focus less on striking batters out and more on inducing weak contact.
Did he change his approach to hitters? His ground ball rate went up only marginally. His strand rate was the best of his career.
He also benefitted from great IF defense when ground balls were hit. Hardy, Schoop and Pearce all played outstanding defense. Machado was Machado when he was in there.
But it was a much cooler than normal summer in Baltimore. Will almost certainly higher temps and humidity next year affect Orioles pitchers performances?