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May 11, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Bud's Breakout

by Craig Brown

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Last August I wrote about a potential breakout candidate for 2011: Bud Norris. I’m going to begin this article the same way I began last year’s, by listing the top five pitchers in the National League ranked by K/9:

Cliff Lee - 11.7 K/9
Matt Garza - 11.7 K/9
Bud Norris - 11.0 K/9
Jonathan Sanchez - 10.9 K/9
Tim Lincecum - 10.8 K/9

Pretty impressive list. In fact, those are the only starting pitchers in the NL who are averaging double-digit whiffs per nine.

More germane, in the second time in as many seasons, Norris finds himself among the strikeout elite. (He just missed qualifying for the leaderboards in 2010, throwing 153 innings. Had he qualified, he would have finished with the fourth best strikeout rate at 9.3 K/9.)

Norris is having an outstanding start to the season. In addition to the whiffs, he owns a 3.16 ERA and 2.78 SIERA. He remains a three pitch pitcher, throwing a fastball, slider and change. His most effective pitch by far this season has been his slider. It has become quite a pitch for Norris, and one he relies on quit a bit—he had thrown it 41 percent of the time. From Texas Leaguers, here are his breakdowns by pitch type:

Pitch

Selection

Fastball

48.9%

Slider

41.4%

Change

9.6%

According to Pitch f/x classifications, Norris is throwing his slider more than ever. Here is another table, expanded to show his past pattern of usage:

Year

Fastball

Slider

Change

2009

58.2%

35.6%

6.2%

2010

55.4%

32.2%

12.4%

2011

48.9%

41.4%

9.6%

As you may expect from a pitcher who has decided to increase the percentage of times he throws a particular pitch, Norris is doing so because his slider has become quite effective. He is throwing this pitch for a strike an astounding 71 percent of the time. He is getting hitters to swing at 59 percent of his sliders, and they’re missing on 23 percent of them. The slider has become his money pitch.

From the Pitch f/x data, it would seem that Norris has sliced a couple of mph from his average slider. The past couple of seasons, he was living around 87 mph when he threw his slider. This year, he is down to 85 mph. The reduction in velocity has led to an increase in horizontal movement. Compare his pitch virtualizations from the second part of last year…

To the first seven starts of this season…

He is catching much less of the plate with the slider, and as a result, we can understand how he is getting a ton of swings-and-misses. He is getting hitters to chase on 36 percent of pitches outside the zone. And those poor hitters are making contact on just over half of those swings.

As Norris has learned to lean heavily on his slider, it has become one of the best pitches in the National League. Among starters who feature effective sliders, Norris belongs in a group with Josh Johnson and Jhoulys Chacin. However, neither of them features the slider as frequently as Norris does.

One thing that has remained constant from the 2010 season is Norris’ ground ball rate. Last year, he induced a ground ball 43 percent of the time, a nice increase from the 37 percent GB rate he had in his rookie campaign. Through his first seven starts of the 2011 season, Norris is still getting his share of ground balls, as his ground ball rate is currently 44 percent. We will see in a moment, while the ground balls are nice, there is a reason he owns a .321 BABIP.

What has helped him even more than the filthy slider, the strikeouts, and the ground balls is his newfound command. He is simply finding the strike zone more frequently. Last year, he tossed a strike 61 percent of the time, which was below the major league average of 63 percent. This year, he has edged his strike-throwing rate up to 64 percent. A modest gain, perhaps, but it has been enough to slice a walk and a half off his walk rate per nine innings. Last year, he posted a 4.5 BB/9. This year, he is down to 3.0 BB/9.

Last season, Norris was varying his release point. Prior to his turn on the DL, he was throwing in his “normal” arm slot and sometimes dropping to about three-quarters. When he returned from the DL, he ditched the three-quarters stuff for something that was almost completely over the top. Here is how that looked according to Texas Leaguers:

This season, he has been much more consistent with his release point. We hear the mantra of “repeatable mechanics” and it would seem that Norris has finally stopped tinkering. It’s almost as if he has found his comfort zone and trusts his three pitches enough that he is not resorting to the changing of his arm slot to fool the hitters.

Here is how his comparable chart looks so far in 2011:

If there is one thing to be leery of regarding Norris, it’s his workload and the high pitch counts that haven’t gotten him deep into games. Beginning in mid-April, he topped the 106 pitch mark in three consecutive starts, yet failed to record an out beyond the sixth inning. He has improved a bit in his two starts in May, but we know that high pitch counts are just a natural by-product of strikeout pitchers. It’s just something we live with. And with the Astros dreadful bullpen (5.40 ERA), manager Brad Mills could be tempted to hang with his starter just a little bit longer than he should. As the season develops, this will certainly be something to keep watch. When Norris ran out of gas at the end of last season, his walk totals ballooned—he issued 26 free passes in his final 35 innings of 2010.

Still, he has been nothing short of dominant in this young season. Norris has whiffed at least six batters in each of his first seven starts and has yet to walk more than three. Also, according to Baseball Reference, he is getting a swing-and-a-miss in 21 percent of all strikes thrown. That ties him for the fourth best rate in the NL.

What will ultimately shred Norris’ fantasy value is the dud of a team he plays for in Houston. I already mentioned the bullpen, but it has to be noted the Astros are dead last in Defensive Efficiency in all of baseball, and they’re not even close to the second to worst team, the Dodgers. Fortunately, the Astros bats are a little better this season than they’ve been in the past. The Houston offense is averaging 4.2 runs per game, right in the neighborhood of league average. The ‘Stros have picked up wins in four of his seven starts, but unfortunately, two of those wins came after Norris had already exited the game, depriving owners of a notch in the win column.

Here is how I concluded my article last August:

Although his value will continue to lag due to his team circumstances, I’m enthused by his newfound control, continued high volume of strikeouts and in his recent uptick in ground ball rate. However, the Astros are really working him down the stretch. He has thrown over 100 pitches in each of his last four starts, including a career-high 123 pitch effort last week against the Mets. If Norris can remain consistent over the season's final month (especially with his control), I will be adding Norris to my shortlist of potential breakout candidates for 2011.

Breakout? Let’s just say, Norris took a battering ram through the door. The first month of the season established that Norris is now a solid contributor in all fantasy formats. I hope you were able to read the article last summer and target him this year, because fantasy owners are catching on. He has seen a 48 percent increase in ownership rates in ESPN leagues in the last seven days and is now owned in 66 percent of leagues. Check now—maybe you’re in the 34 percent. Close this article now and head to your league page. And count yourself fortunate if he is still around.

Craig Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Craig's other articles. You can contact Craig by clicking here

Related Content:  Bud Norris,  Slider

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