14 May 2015

The Good and the Bad for Bud Norris

So far for the Orioles' pitching staff, not much has gone right. And no one has had more go wrong than Bud Norris. Coming off a year in which he posted a 93 ERA- and 105 xFIP- in 165.1 innings, he's melted down completely, with a 239 (!) ERA- and 132 xFIP- in 27.1 innings. A few trends — some encouraging, some discouraging — have emerged from this not good season.

The Good

His pitch velocity and usage have stayed the same from last year.

During his first campaign in Baltimore, Norris threw a four-seam fastball as his primary pitch, with a sinker, slider, and changeup to supplement it. None of those has vanished in year two, or changed its role significantly:

Year Fourseam% Sinker% Slider% Changeup%
2014 47.0% 13.6% 30.5% 9.0%
2015 45.2% 16.1% 30.8% 8.0%

Likewise, the velocity that he rediscovered last year (more on that in a moment) has remained:

Year Fourseam Sinker Slider Changeup
2014 94.4 94.4 86.6 87.6
2015 94.3 93.8 86.7 87.9

These peripherals haven't moved, suggesting the 2014 version of Norris doesn't differ much from the 2015 one — and thus, that the latter can recapture the former's competence.

His plate discipline metrics have stayed the same — or improved.

ERA doesn't reflect a pitcher's true talent level, it takes into account other mitigating factors, yada yada yada, let's talk about walks and strikeouts. In 2014, Norris accrued a roughly average K% (20.2%) and BB% (7.6%). In 2015, those numbers have declined significantly, to 13.5% and 9.8%, respectively, and have a large hand in his early-season struggles.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the aforementioned repertoire stability, Norris's peripherals don't back up this depreciation. His 2015 SwStr% of 7.4% syncs up with the 7.6% mark he put up in 2014, so the whiffs haven't left. He's actually done better with looking strikes, as his PITCHf/x numbers suggest* his LoStr% should have risen to 19.6% this year from 17.6% last year. And the theoretical* increase in his ball rate (from 36.5% to 37.6%) doesn't make much of a difference.

*With framing, these can differ from the actual numbers, but Norris benefits from one of the game's better receiving catchers in Caleb Joseph.

The principle two ingredients for strikeouts, and the main one for avoiding walks, have all remained static for Norris. But perhaps the most impressive number comes with the other possible outcome for pitches: contact. When a batter hits a ball outside the strike zone, it'll be weaker than one that he hits from within it. Thus, this would seem to bode well:

Year Z-Contact%** O-Contact%**
2014 29.6% 8.6%
2015 24.6% 10.8%

**As a percentage of all pitches

While the recipe for weak contact obviously hasn't worked out well so far for Norris, this suggests that it may do so going forward.

The Bad

At his best, he still isn't a very good pitcher.

As I discussed in February, Norris's newfound velocity doesn't elevate his game. Even last year, his strikeout and walk rates hung around the MLB average, and those combined with a high fly ball rate to make him a subpar hurler (5% worse than average by xFIP).

How, then, did he own such a 2014 ERA 7% better than average? BABIP and LOB% magic, of course, from which he decidedly didn't benefit in the years prior. From 2009 to 2013, Norris saw 31.1% of the balls in play against him go for hits, and stranded 71.9% of the runners that reached base. For his successful 2014, he bettered those figures to 27.9% and 78.6%, respectively. Because these things tend to fluctuate over smaller samples, I feel more confident in the former numbers than I do in the latter.

Obviously, a .354 BABIP and 48.5% LOB% (Norris's current marks) won't stay that extreme over a full season. But I wouldn't expect them to fall to 2014 levels, and therefore cannot foresee another solid ERA in Norris's future.

His platoon split has only gotten worse.

Norris has never retired left-handed batters as well as one would like for a starting pitcher. Prior to 2015, they knocked him around for a .351 wOBA, compared to the .308 wOBA put up by right-handers against him. The current year, however, has seen the opposite-handed assault go to the next level: While righties have managed a .318 wOBA off Norris, southpaws have pummeled him to the tune of a .496 wOBA.

Like BABIP and strand rate, a platoon split must undergo heavy regression before one can use it to project future performance. So it's not fair (or accurate) to assume that lefties will continue to utterly dominate Norris. With that said, this deficiency in his game won't go away any time soon. His four-seamer, sinker, and slider all carry large platoon splits, meaning a right-handed pitcher who leans on them will get into trouble when he faces opposition batting from the left. The changeup helps to neutralize this to a degree, but it can't do everything.

Norris hasn't earned himself any favors with his shortcomings in 2015, and his horrid output against left-handed hitters won't inspire any confidence. If the disparity remains anywhere close to this large, he'll soon find himself in the bullpen — just as many feared.

Add it all up, and you get some positives, and some negatives. In other words, Bud Norris epitomizes the Orioles' 2015 season: A fair amount of evidence is there to give us hope, but we should probably temper our expectations.

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