Back in January, while everyone was still waiting around for the Orioles to sign a free agent, I wrote this post on what I thought about Bud Norris at the time. I came to the conclusion that Bud Norris pitched too few innings, gave up too many walks and home runs, and struggled too much against lefties to be an effective starter for the Orioles. I believed he was better suited to a bullpen role where his stuff would play up some and Buck could protect him against his horrendous splits. To date, Bud Norris has proven that diagnosis incorrect. Norris has posted a 3.58 ERA and averaged 6.27 innings per start and has been one of the better starters on the Orioles this year. I wanted to figure out what has made Bud better this year and see if he could continue his early season success.
The worst part of Norris’ game prior to this season were his bad splits against lefties. Last season, he had .387 wOBA against lefties, this seasons its a much more manageable .312. His HR/FB rate is down as well from last year’s second half and sitting at a more reasonable 10.9% this season down from 12.9% in the second half of 2013. Also, his walk rate is down to 6.8% this year while it sat in the second half of last season at 10.8%. However, Norris’ strikeouts are also down, he is striking out only 16.1% of batters this season while he struck out 23.0% of batters in the second half of 2013. With the reduced walks and strikeouts Norris has been able to pitch longer into games this season.
Norris is not walking as many batters, controlling his home runs, improving against lefties, but he is also not missing as many bats as he used to. At first glance at some of the peripheral statistics one would say Bud Norris has been very lucky to this point in the season. The main reason being that his BABIP to date is .253. League average is somewhere around .300, meaning that 30% of balls put into play fall for hits. Norris is yielding hits at only a 25% rate on balls put into play. That would indicate some luck. However, I hate it when people simply list BABIP as reason for good or bad luck. It’s a decent indicator, but how balls are but into play matter most. Line drives fall for hits more often than ground balls and ground balls more often than fly balls.
Looking at the batted ball numbers, Norris has shown some improvement. He has 20.5% line drive rate, a 43.0% ground ball rate, and a 36.4% fly ball rate. In the second half of 2013 he had rates of 22.7%, 39.5%, and 37.8% respectively. The reduction in line drives and increase in ground balls are good indicators that batters are barreling up the ball on Norris less than they did last season. (Side note, while fly balls fall less often for hits than ground balls do, its better for a pitcher like Norris to have a higher GB% because he is home run prone and the Orioles infield defense is plus). All of his batted balls rates are around league average thus far into the season.
However, I would not be a good analyst if I did not tell you how he has gotten batters to make weaker contact against him. Looking at the tape reveals no major mechanical changes, unlike Matt Wieters for instance. He is a little higher in his set this year, a little taller on the follow through, but nothing of particular note. Bud Norris is simply pitching better this season. Looking at the graph below, all of his pitches are lower in the zone (the middle of the graph is the middle of the plate). In particular, he is locating his change up nearly half an inch lower than he did last season, indicating he is sharpening his command and refining that pitch. Also, his whiff rate on his change up is double what is was last season (6.5% in 2013 and 13.24% to date in 2014). This improved change up is likely what is helping him against the lefties.
Furthermore, as seen in the graph below, Norris’ velocity has increased with every pitch this season. His average fastball velocity is 1 MPH faster than last season. Velocity is not everything, but higher velocities tend to, regardless of location, induce weaker contact and make it harder to make strong contact.
There are good and bad sides to Bud Norris’ start to the 2014 season. The good side being a lowering walk rate, better results against the lefties, a controlled home run rate, increased velocity, and improved pitch location. The bad side of Norris’ start to date this year is the decreasing percentage of which he is getting hitters to swing and miss and his unsustainable low BABIP (even with the slightly improved batted ball numbers). His plummeting strike out rate and low BABIP even with the increased velocity and location are bad signs moving forward. Bud Norris has been a better pitcher than he was last year, but I highly doubt he is a 3.5 ERA pitcher for the entirety of the 2014 season.