Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Will Norris' Magic Run Out?

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Bud Norris is off to a hot start for 2013. Through his first three appearances against the Texas Rangers, the Oakland Athletics and the L.A. Angels, Norris has gone 2-1 with a 1.96 ERA. Norris will be making his second road start of the season as he goes up against Oakland on Wednesday afternoon. In his last start against Oakland, Bud threw 5.2 innings allowing two runs that came on solo home runs. He struck out four and walked just one in what would be his first loss of the season. When you look at Norris’ 2013 numbers on the surface there’s a lot to like, but is there any way he can continue his current pace? Well, let’s dig a little deeper.

Bud Norris has managed to decrease his ERA from 2012 by 2.69 and WHIP by 0.23 through his first three games of 2013. While the season is still young and Norris should be expected to make another 27 starts or so, it’s easy to get excited about what we’ve seen thus far. I’ve compared his early season numbers to his career numbers and immediately saw some changes in Norris’ gameplan. It seems this season Norris has focused on working ahead in the count. His first-pitch strike percentage is up to 61.3% compared to his career average of 57.4%. Bud has also been mixing in his below average changeup quite a bit more than in the past (13.3% from 7.5% in 2012). While his line drive, ground ball and fly ball percentages are all right on par with his career numbers, the extra usage of his third pitch is getting him some weaker contact than in the past.

Norris’ strikeout numbers have been a little down so far this season (from his career average of 22.5% to 2013’s 18.7%). That could be more of a sign of the teams he’s faced so far though, as the Rangers and Athletics are two of baseball’s more disciplined teams at the plate. Batters are making contact with 93.1% of his pitches inside the strike zone, which is way up from his career 86.1% number. Norris has given up five of his 14 hits on the second pitch of an at-bat, so the increase in contact could be merely the result of the him working in the zone more earlier in the count. One thing is for sure: Norris is getting a lot of swings and misses on his slider (18.9% swinging strike %). If he continues to work ahead, that’ll give him the opportunity to rack up on some Ks with that slider later in the count.

One area that Bud has always struggled with is his opponents’ batting average and OPS during the second, third and fourth times through a batting order. These alarming numbers are what makes me think that Norris may be a more effective reliever than starter, but that’s a conversation for another day. Let’s compare 2012’s numbers to this season’s thus far.

Year
Wins
Losses
Improvement
20115090N/A
20128159+31
20138357+2

As you can see, Norris has not made it through a lineup a fourth time yet, but he has improved his first and second times through an order from 2012. It’s doubtful that he will be able to continue to hold hitters to a .087 average the first time through, but his .222 average the second trip through an order is definitely refreshing. Because Norris has only pitched past 5.2 innings once this season, I wouldn’t put too much stock in his numbers for the third time through an order just yet.

One thing that concerns me is Bud Norris’ FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching on an ERA scale) of 4.07. While that is lower than his 4.23 of last season, it is not good enough for him to be considered an elite pitcher, which is what his standard numbers at this point would suggest. A 4.00+ FIP is what you would expect from a mid-to-back of the rotation starter, and that’s what Norris appears to be. I would be extremely surprised (and delighted) if Norris would be able to continue his current pace, or even be remotely close to where he is through three games. With his stuff, the way that he has attacked the zone so far this year, and the amount of contact being made against him, I just don’t see that happening. Pitchers can get away with a lot of contact if they are ground ball pitchers, but since he is about 40% ground ball, 40% fly ball and 20% line drive, it’s difficult to see him being able to continue to hold hitters to a .197 overall average.

I expect Bud Norris’ ERA to be somewhere closer to his 2011 number of 3.77 by season’s end. That would be a dramatic improvement from his 2012 ERA of 4.65 (which he can credit to his 6.94 road ERA last season). I think that even those types of numbers could spark a great deal of interest in Norris, and I would be surprised to see him in an Astros’ uniform by season’s end.

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