On Monday the Cardinals signed Bud Norris to a 1-year contract. Sure, it is maybe not the best response to the Cubs signing Yu Darvish, but things are not as bad as they seem. As Craig Edwards noted yesterday, Norris was elite in the first half of last season. However, injuries took their toll. Still, the Cardinals have added a very reasonably priced arm to their bullpen.
Many of you will remember the proposed strategy for building a strong bullpen promulgated on this website: building a bullpen through quantity not quality. Now, the Cardinals have added Norris to Gregerson, Leone, Lyons, and Cecil among many others. While Norris may not have the same appeal as Darvish, he fits into the established strategy perfectly.
By most accounts, Bud Norris is a mediocre pitcher. He’s been average for much of his career—the lowest ERA he has ever posted is 3.65; the lowest FIP of his career is 3.86. Furthermore, he has not been extremely successful as a reliever either, at least not for a full year. There are, however, reasons for hope.
First, taking a look at his splits, we see that he was successful against lefties in 2017, allowing a wOBA of just .254—an impressive number for a right-handed pitcher. His splits against lefties had never before looked that good. Norris isn't a declining pitcher on his way out of the league. He is a starter turned reliever with potential upside.
His K/9 has never been better.
For the last four years, his strikeout rate per nine innings hovered around league average. Last year, it spiked dramatically, going from just under eight to well above ten strikeouts per nine innings. The important question to ask is can he replicate this success?
The answer? Possibly. The key difference between 2017 and his other seasons is the rate at which he is getting batters to chase pitches outside of the strike zone.
Even just a small uptick in O-swing% contributed significantly to his increased K/9. Interestingly, there was not a significant increase in velocity of his pitches, nor was there a large change in movement, either horizontal or vertical. What did change significantly were his release points.
These may seem to be minor adjustments, but the trend is clear. The horizontal release point on his fastball, for instance, has moved a quarter of a foot. since 2015. Perhaps not coincidentally, his K/9 has risen in each of those years as well.
This is largely due to the increased prominence of his cutter, which essentially debuted in 2016 and was used over a third of the time a year ago. Jeff Sullivan wrote about the pitch and Bud Norris’s new look here.
While it is probably unfair and inaccurate to attribute success solely to a release point change, the stark adjustment with his cutter is more significant and harder to ignore. Although it didn’t work for the entire year, that regression lowered his value, but not his upside.
As a result, the Cardinals were able to add yet another arm with decent potential and a low cost to an increasingly formidable bullpen. As Jeff Sullivan said, Norris may not close, but “it’s an investment in a guy who’s turned himself into something brand new.” It has become not just a bullpen of quantity instead of quality, but also one with a considerable amount of upside as well.