Note: Norris has now signed with the Padres.
Hey, remember Bud Norris? The guy who was an opening day starter for the 2013 Astros (although that team lost 111 games, so that might not be something to brag about). He then was traded for prospect Josh Hader (who was just traded for Carlos Gomez), and a replacement level player in L.J. Hoes and a compensatory 1st round pick. The draft pick turned out to be Virginia’s Derek Fischer who has hit 19 dingers for the Astros single-A club in 2015. He won 19 of his first 35 starts with the Orioles. This O’s pitcher got released on August 8th after clearing waivers. He is now free to sign with any team willing to take on his services. Norris has been a huge disappointment in 2015 — actually huge disappointment would be an understatement. The Orioles signed Norris to a one-year, $8.8 million contract last winter to avoid an arbitration hearing. He was slated to solidify the middle/back end of the O’s rotation. A solid veteran who over his first five full years in the league averaged a WAR right around 2. He has never been flashy but always solid, until 2015. 2015 is the year of the Bud Norris Apocalypse. Norris sported an ERA of 7.06, and a Win-Loss record of 2-9. So is Norris this bad, or is he a victim of bad luck, and is picking him up for a pro-rated portion of the league minimum worth it?
What changed in 2015 versus the rest of Norris’ career that saw him deliver an average ERA of 4.20 over parts of six seasons? There’s a few factors that snakebite Norris in 2015. The first is Norris had a brutal increase in his FB/HR rate. For his whole career (2015 included), 11.4% of the fly balls hit against Norris went over the wall. This year that number ballooned to 17.7%. That is over a 55% jump. Why the huge jump in FB/HR rate? Well, it is not that his fastball velocity dipped, in fact his fastball velocity is over .6 mph faster than his career average of 92.9 mph. Norris is throwing the same rate of strikes vs. his career rate (63%). He has not been throwing in the middle of the plate any more than usual either. In fact, on pitches in the middle third of the strike zone he has thrown 0.7% less pitches than his career average.
Perhaps the reason behind the change in FB/HR rate is luck, but Norris is also throwing 7% more fastballs than the career average. Batters may have been sitting on his fastball more than usual and were teeing off. My thinking is that when a pitcher does not have a huge drop in velocity or major change in strikes thrown, the huge increase in FB/HR rate must be something of a fluke. Norris also got snakebitten by an awful LOB% of 59.5%. His career rate is 72%. Maybe this is just a product of being unlucky. But Norris has been miserable in situations with men on base; with runners in scoring position, batters were hitting .313. No pitcher on earth is going to have a good ERA when batters are hitting over .300 with RISP.
To recap, it seems that Norris may have been much more unlucky this year than other years in his career. He has not been good by any means, but he is not as bad as the 7.06 ERA he has this season. The xFIP and SIERA projections give Bud an estimated ERA of 4.55 and 4.48 much closer to his career mark of 4.20. It seems that Norris has been plagued this season by an inability to pitch with RISP and an awful FB/HR rate. I highly doubt anyone is going to confuse Norris for a top-tier starter, but he should still be a serviceable back of the rotation option.
Signing Bud Norris at this point in the season has practically no risk. If Norris signed for the league minimum, it would be pro-rated to roughly $150,000. Norris could serve as a $150,000 insurance policy in the event that a starting pitcher goes down. He could get picked up and put in the bullpen in a long-relief role with the capability of making a spot start. Having a viable long-relief man is huge during the late months of the season as teams try to save their bullpens. He could easily be picked up by a team like Minnesota who is 4 games back of the wild card. They could use back of the rotation help with the injury to Tommy Milone. The Giants could use rotation help with the recent injury to Mike Leake. And unless Kansas City feels comfortable running Jeremy Guthrie out to the mound every 5th day, Norris could be a good fit. Even a team like St. Louis or Tampa could use him for a spot start to give some rest to fairly young starting rotation. There could potentially be multiple landing spots for Bud. While Norris is not a flashy option by any means, he is a veteran who could easily be a band-aid for a team with a banged up rotation or just simply looking for someone to eat innings.
*Stats acquired from FanGraphs.com and Baseball-Reference.com.
Westminster College, Class of 2016, Division 3 Third baseman