Here are the four starting pitchers who were born in 1985 or later who have whiffed more than a batter an inning this year.  See if you can spot the interloper:

Yovani Gallardo – 9.8 K/9
Clayton Kershaw – 9.5 K/9
Bud Norris – 9.3 K/9
Mat Latos – 9.1 K/9

Three of those pitchers have ERAs under 3.30.  Then, there’s David Stefan Norris.

When Norris hit the disabled list in late May with bursitis and bicep tendinitis, he was the owner of a gaudy 6.80 ERA and a 1.76 WHIP.  Horrible, dreadful numbers.  He wasn’t the worst fantasy starting pitcher over the first two months of the season (Attention Charlie Morton, your prize has been dropped in the mail.) but he was pretty darn close.  

A little rest, a cortisone injection and a handful of minor league rehab starts later and Norris was ready to return.  Apparently, the time away was beneficial as he has posted a 3.91 ERA and 1.22 WHIP since rejoining the rotation at the end of June.  The following table gives you an idea how he recovered:

Three things leap off this table.  To start, his pre-injury BABIP was astronomically (pardon the pun) high. If he was healthy, there was just no way that would (or could) continue.  Overall, Norris carries a .325 BABIP this year, which still seems a bit on the high side.  We may think there is still some room for improvement, although his history says that may not be the case.  Norris has always been one of those pitchers for whom a BABIP greater than .300 seems to be a fact of life.  He posted a .318 BABIP last year in Houston (in a smaller sample size) and owns a .318 BABIP in over 370 innings in his minor league career.

The second thing that catches the eye from the above table is Norris’ elevated BABIP led to an extremely low strand rate.  With his current strand rate at 64%, he’s still recovering from the early season woes.  However, unlike his high BABIP, Norris’ strand rate for this year is low compared to his past performances.  Beginning in high A ball in 2007, Norris has never posted a strand rate of less than 73% at any of minor league stops.  Plus, his rate last year was a healthy 78%.  His 3.67 SIERA underscores just how unfortunate Norris has been – especially early in the season.

Finally, there’s the reduction in walk rate.  While Norris was blowing hitters out earlier in the season, he was clearly channeling Ebby Calvin Laloosh.  (Maybe Norris’ eyelids were jammed, too.)  Sure, he was firing that heater an average of 93 mph, but more often than not, he had no clue where that ball was traveling once it left his hand.  

So, why the improvement?  Would you believe it could be something as mechanically simple as changing his arm slot?

From Texas Leaguers, take a gander at his release points from his first nine starts of the season (pre-injury):

Nothing remarkable here.  He was coming over the top for the majority of his pitches and occasionally going about three-quarters.  

Now look at his release points since returning from the DL:

His over the top release point has become even more pronounced.  Plus, he’s ditched the semi-three quarter stuff.  Norris has basically flopped that outlying cluster of pitches so he is at times now coming from almost the midpoint of the rubber.  

The result of this alteration in release point is more pitches are ultimately being put in play.  That may sound like a negative, but in Norris’ case, it’s the opposite.  Those balls put in play are staying on the ground (mostly) and going for outs.  Here are his top five plate appearance outcomes from the first two months of the season:

Strikeout – 26%
Single – 17%
Walk – 13%
Groundout – 10%
Flyout – 10%

Compare that to his top five outcomes since his return from injury:

Strikeout – 21%
Groundout – 21%
Flyout – 16%
Single – 14%
Walk – 7%

Quite a turnaround.

The pitch that’s been most affected by this new release point seems to be his change-up. (Norris is a three-pitch pitcher: Fastball, slider, change.)  Here is his top pitch visualization from before his injury:

Now the top pitch visualization from after his return:

While the track of the fastball and slider are basically the same, there’s no mistaking his change-up is now catching more of the plate with greater regularity.  As a result 20% of his change-ups are being put in play since his return from the DL.  Compare that to a 10% in-play rate off his change-ups from the first two months of the season.  Again, it may sound strange to point out an elevated in-play rate as a reason for improvement in a strikeout pitcher, but in Norris’ case, the proof is in the results.  That change-up, while catching more of the plate, is a difficult pitch to hit.  Norris is using it to record outs.

As Marc Normandin noted earlier this week, Norris’ team will continue to hold him back when it comes to overall fantasy value.  The Astros currently rank 29th in Defensive Efficiency and they are one of the weakest hitting teams in the league.  In nine of Norris’ 20 starts this year, the Astros have scored three or fewer runs.  If he could get out of Houston, his attractiveness to owners would certainly increase.   

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's 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 contol), I will be adding Norris to my shortlist of potential breakout candidates for 2011.

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Great analysis. Thanks!
This seems to be the week for breaking down the Houston pitching staff. You may be boring the East and West coast, but those of us in the fat middle of the country are saying thanks. This is cool info and really hard to find for teams' players usually.
Awesome article. The release point stuff is just plain cool. Thanks!