31 January 2014

Bud Norris and Trying to Avoid the Bullpen

Before the end of the trade deadline last year, the Orioles picked up Bud Norris from the Astros in exchange for prospects L.J. Hoes and Josh Hader. The O's also shipped a 2014 compensation draft pick to Houston in the deal and received an international signing bonus slot.

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.

Year Age Tm ERA IP ERA+ HR/9 BB/9 SO/9
2009 24 HOU 4.53 55.2 91 1.5 4.0 8.7
2010 25 HOU 4.92 153.2 80 1.1 4.5 9.3
2011 26 HOU 3.77 186.0 100 1.2 3.4 8.5
2012 27 HOU 4.65 168.1 87 1.2 3.5 8.8
2013 28 TOT 4.18 176.2 98 0.9 3.4 7.5
5 Yrs 4.36 740.1 91 1.1 3.7 8.5
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/29/2014.

Norris is all but assured of a spot in the 2014 starting rotation, but he clearly has some red flags:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. He's a back-end starter who has already seen a decline in velocity and strikeout rate. (See table below.)
  4. 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:

YearK/9FB Velo

That's not a great sign. But one positive is that Norris has improved his walk rate since his first two seasons (over 4 then, now around 3.5). He's also thrown at least 153 innings in each of the last four seasons. So he is both durable and a starting pitcher, which are two things that interest the Orioles.

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)
Considering the stable of arms the Orioles have in the minors, a pitcher like Norris may eventually get pushed out of the rotation -- maybe not this season, but 2015 is more likely. Obviously the Orioles have had their issues developing prospects, but you'd have to figure that at least one or two of Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Hunter Harvey, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Mike Wright will be able to stick in the majors in the next few years. If not, well, the O's will be in trouble.

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.


Rob said...

Can't believe there isn't more talk of him being the closer this year instead of Hunter.

Matt Perez said...

Problem is that the third time through the lineup is a nightmare for Norris, Chen and Gonzo. At least, all struggle after the sixth.

I hope the bullpen is resting up because they're going to have a busy year.

Jon Shepherd said...

1st time through: 628 OPS
2nd time through: 748 OPS
3rd time through: 925 OPS

1st time through: 607 OPS
2nd time through: 671 OPS
3rd time through: 903 OPS

1st time through: 693 OPS
2nd time through: 797 OPS
3rd time through: 809 OPS

I'd say Chen and Norris have major issues with it while Gonzalez has enough of an issue that it makes it hard for him to be a starter. That all said, all of these guys are probably worth 8-10 MM a year in the free agent market.

CBreezyThreezy said...

Watching Chen last year in the 6th and 7th innings was heartbreaking. I could not understand for the life of me why Buck would leave him in. This is probably a little bit of availability bias but Chen often gave up game-tying or lead-changing jacks late in games.

Problems with Gonzo and Norris seemed to be more about allowing too many base runners late as opposed to the long ball. Thoughts?

Matt Kremnitzer said...

I covered some of the late-game issues with Chen here: http://camdendepot.blogspot.com/2013/08/wei-yin-chen-and-disturbing-late-game.html

The O's rotation is mostly a collection of back-end starters. That may work for stretches, but not for an entire season. But most O's fans know that, and it's why we're all excited about Gausman, Bundy, et al.

Tony said...

I am just surprised the Orioles did not sign another starting pitcher yet. I figured they would be in on Santana or Ubaldo.