In 50.2 innings after joining the Orioles, Norris pitched all right. His 4.80 ERA was somewhat misleading, thanks to a .382 BABIP. He also had a K/9 of 10.13 (career 8.51 K/9) with Baltimore, which was impressive, but his walks were slightly up as well (4.26 BB/9; career 3.76 BB/9). He was fine, but not special, which is OK considering the various starting pitchers the Orioles have trotted out to the mound over the years.
Norris is all but assured of a spot in the 2014 starting rotation, but he clearly has some red flags:
- He's not very good against left-handed batters (lefties have a .355 wOBA against him; righties have a .310 wOBA). His slider isn't nearly as effective against lefties. He throws the slider 45% against right-handed batters, but just 27% of the time against left-handed ones.
- He doesn't work late in games (has only pitched 43.2 innings beyond the sixth inning) because he struggles with lineups the second and third time through. First time: .244/.318/.379; second time: .261/.333/.421; third time: .276/.356/.463. For reference: 2013 MLB splits for the same category (first: .250/.309/.390; second: .259/.319/.411; third: .270/.331/.429). That third time through a lineup is a nightmare for Norris. Also, on pitches 1-100 he is fine, with an tOPS+ around 100. But after 100 pitches, his tOPS+ jumps to 176.
- He's a back-end starter who has already seen a decline in velocity and strikeout rate. (See table below.)
- There's been some talk of him eventually moving to the bullpen (though that likely won't happen right away).
Norris's strikeout rate and average fastball velocity from 2009-2013:
Norris turns 29 in March, and he won't be a free agent until 2016. He's clearly not an ace, but the Orioles do control his two remaining arbitration-eligible years (he will make $5.3 million in 2014).
|Bud Norris (via Keith Allison)|
Still, as noted above, Norris may find himself in the bullpen in the near future, even if the Orioles didn't have several of promising pitching prospects in the pipeline. He's fine as a fourth or fifth starter right now, but that may change in a hurry.
Norris more than likely would be an effective closer, but would not have to be limited to a one-inning role. Despite his flaws, he's still relatively effective before he faces a lineup a third time through, so he'd be able to handle a multi-inning or long relief role in the bullpen. Tommy Hunter has turned himself into a useful reliever and is someone who can pitch for two or three innings at a time, if needed. Like Norris, Hunter struggles against lefties (they have a .364 wOBA against him; righties have a .297 wOBA). And although Hunter has a BB/9 around 2 while Norris's is almost twice as high, Norris's career K/9 is about 3.5 more than Hunter's strikeout rate (4.88) as a starting pitcher. Hunter's K/9 as a reliever is up to 7.11. In the bullpen, if Norris's strikeout rate increased a little and his walks decreased a bit, he'd be a solid relief option.
I'm not calling for Norris to be sent to the bullpen. He's going to be in the rotation and given plenty of opportunities this season. It's not as if, at this exact moment, the Orioles are overflowing with effective starting pitching options. The O's also likely didn't acquire Norris and hope he'd soon move to the bullpen. But things rarely go as planned. Hunter hasn't panned out as a starter. Neither has Brian Matusz. Relievers are fickle, but that doesn't mean they don't still have some value.
Stats via Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and Brooks Baseball.