“Quantity has a quality all its own.” Napoleon Bonaparte said that over two hundred years ago. Or maybe Joseph Stalin said it. Maybe it was Carl von Clausewitz? Quotes tend to get mixed up over time, and their attribution doubly so. When in doubt, most quotes get attributed to the famous person whose goals seem most aligned with what the quote is trying to say. I guess what I’m saying is, maybe we should try to get John Mozeliak a little more famous? If his name goes down in history, this quote seems like a shoe-in. The Cardinals have been built on this strength-through-numbers style for years now.
It’s a popular game to look askance at the Cardinals’ preposterous depth. We get it- our fifth outfielder is better than most teams’ fourth outfielder. Where are the rings, though? Well, watching baseball this year has convinced me of the wisdom of position player depth. Have you seen the Mariners this year? They’re very much a real team- currently in first place in the AL West. They also just traded for Denard Span. On purpose! The Mets started the season hot. Their lineup Sunday had Jose Bautista batting second and Kevin Plawecki hitting cleanup. These thin-depth issues have convinced me that having a deep bench and rotation is good. I’ve been resistant, though, to the idea that a bullpen needs to be quite as deep as the Cardinals constructed theirs. I wrote earlier this year that I didn’t think the Cards’ bullpen had enough postseason upside. Well, I’m starting to rethink that position. By assembling a whole mess of good arms, the Cardinals have managed to find their way to one elite arm. Did it take twenty-plus million dollars and four roster spots? Sure. Worked, though! Bud Norris is the elite closer we all clamored for.
In an increasingly-amusingly-titled article this offseason, Jeff Sullivan over at Fangraphs compared Bud Norris to a notable unsigned closer. Luckily, Bud Norris has not been Greg Holland’s equal this year. He has been whatever the exact opposite of equal is- noble versus peasant maybe? In any case, this Bud has definitely been for us. Norris has been magnificent pretty much across the board. He’s almost a relief-pitcher version of Bartolo Colon- he’s throwing more and more fastballs while getting better and better results. He’s up to 90% fastballs this year. That’s a level that would make Lance Lynn blush. It’s also 10% higher than last year, his previous high. Bud Norris the reliever loves his fastballs, almost as much as Bud Norris the starter loved being mediocre but randomly frustrating the Cardinals (or so I assume).
You might have heard of his cutter. It was definitely his most exciting pitch coming into the year, and it’s lived up to its billing. Cutters are tough pitches to think about- they’re somewhere between a fastball and a slider, and they’re enough of a novelty that there aren’t always a ton of comparables. Figuring out whether a cutter is good can be even harder. This year, Michael Wacha has the fourth-best cutter in baseball based on Fangraphs’ Pitch Values. He also has a below-average cutter for his career, including this year. Suffice it to say, it’s a hard pitch to value. Norris’ cutter, though, is no joke. He throws it more to righties than lefties, and he uses it as often as possible. Does he locate it well? Why yes, he does:
That’s a tough spot for a righty to hit, especially with given that the glove-side run is carrying it away from their bats. It’s a great cutter, and it’s almost definitely why the Cardinals signed Norris. It’s also, for me, not his best pitch this year.
Since I’d like you to keep reading until the end of the article, let’s cover his other fastball first. Norris throws a great four-seam fastball. It spins like crazy, it’s fast, and he throws it almost exclusively for strikes. He’s thrown over 60% of his four-seamers for strikes this year- almost 80% if you add pitches just off the border of the strike zone. Fully one quarter of the time that batters swing against it, they come up empty. All told, it’s a great fastball. You could see why Norris might be content with just those two pitches plus a breaking ball. The four-seam sets them up, the cutter knocks them down, and his cromulent slider keeps them guessing when they start hunting fastballs.
This version of Bud Norris worked quite well last year. He was a four-seam/cutter pitcher, and the results were great. The results got him a deal with the Cardinals even after a medium second half that showed he might not have the stamina to throw a whole major league season. It’s also an inferior version of Bud Norris. That’s because this year he’s added a two-seamer that is comically good.
Look, two-seamers aren’t exciting pitches. I get it. You’re here for the curves that buckle hitters’ knees. You’re here for Jordan Hicks throwing two fastballs past a guy before he swings once. How do you feel about this, though?
Let me translate for you: Norris hits the corner every single time. I don’t know how he figured it out, but he has this pitch down to a science. Away to lefties, in to righties- it’s right on the edge of the strike zone basically every time he throws it. It’s a marked change from 2017, when he started dabbling with a two-seam as he transitioned to a relief role. He used to leave it off the plate away to lefties, a waste pitch that could get them looking away but didn’t induce very many swings.
The genius of this pitch is in the usage. I mentioned above that he likes to use his cutter to right-handed hitters. This fits in with general pitching wisdom- the glove-side movement on the pitch runs away from righties and leads to a boatload of swings and misses. Against lefties, the ball breaks towards their bats, creating a much more hittable ball. Norris’ cutter is a great pitch, to be sure, but it’s best suited for whiffs when a righty is at the plate. To complement this approach, Norris has begun featuring his two-seamer against lefties. He’s throwing it on 41% of pitches to left-handers this year, easily a career high. It’s replaced a slider as his go-to pitch with two strikes, and the results have been tremendous. How in the world is Gregory Polanco supposed to hit this?
That’s a pitch you cannot do anything with. It straight up apparates from the middle of the strike zone to off the plate away after Polanco has already begun his swing. Even if he misses location, the arm-side break is enough to keep it off the barrel of a lefty’s bat:
Put it all together, and the two-seam has turned Bud Norris from a solid reliever to an elite one. For his career, Norris shows a strong platoon split. Even last year, when he had landed on the two-seamer as a way to attack lefties, he hadn’t quite figured things out yet. He walked 15% of lefties he faced last year, largely by leaving two-seamers off the plate. This year, he’s running significant reverse splits, albeit in a tiny sample size. He’s striking out 34.5% of the lefties he faces. His FIP against lefties is a full point lower than against righties. This probably won’t continue, because no righty is that good against lefties. Still though, the two-seamer has unlocked a level that didn’t exist before.
It’s hard to find a stat to describe how perfectly this pitch complements Norris’ existing arsenal. The zone graph above probably says more than I could say with a thousand words. That said, I’d like to take a few shots at it. First, I’ve got this one for you. When a pitcher throws out of the strike zone, he’d like two things to happen. He’d like the hitter to swing, and he’d like a swing and a miss. When he throws in the zone, he’d like a take, but he’d also accept a swing and a miss. This is straightforward stuff- the better you are at those four things, the better you are as a pitcher. Bud Norris’ two-seamer is above-average in all four aspects. When he throws a two-seam fastball outside the strike zone, hitters swing 31% of the time (major league average is 25%). They whiff on 35% of those out-of-zone swings (major league average is 26%). Great- Bud Norris is unhittable outside of the strike zone, but hitters still swing. That’s a neat skill. What about the hittable pitches, the two-seamers he throws in the strike zone? Well, hitters swing at only 57% of those (league average is 64%). They whiff on a full 15% of those swings at fastballs in the strike zone- yikes. For the record, league average whiff rate there is 11%. Essentially, people swing too often at balls and too rarely at strikes, and can’t hit either. That’s a pretty reliable way to be great.
I have one last statistic to demonstrate how unhittable Norris’ two-seam has been, although this one comes in the form of a picture. Bud Norris has thrown 113 two-seam fastballs this year. That’s over 25% of the pitches he’s thrown. Here’s a graph of the Isolated Power (SLG-AVG) he’s allowed on those 113 pitches:
It’s easy to think you know what a pitcher’s level is. I thought I knew how much upside Bud Norris had when he came to the Cardinals. If we were lucky, he’d be a capable eighth-inning arm. If we weren’t lucky, he’d be... well, he’d be Bud Norris. Sometimes, though, pitchers just learn new pitches. Sometimes they switch from missing away to painting the black. Sometimes, Bud Norris just decides he’s going to be great.