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Alas, Poor Norris, I Knew Him Well

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What in the heck has been up with Bud Norris recently?

Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Something is rotten in the Cardinals’ bullpen. More specifically, something is up with Bud Norris. I’m not breaking news here. You probably noticed his performance was deteriorating throughout August, and you certainly noticed the back-to-back implosions last weekend. Bernie Miklasz has already written about it. I’m late to the party, that is for sure. I’m not here to predict whether he’s going to bounce back. I’m not here to moralize about what might have led to the decline. I do, however, want to show you what a relief pitcher in decline looks like. It’s not the Adam Wainwright lion-in-winter style decline, where fastballs can still be called fast only by convention and magical injuries rescue our hero from the jaws of being bad. It’s more complicated than that, but I think it’s worth looking at. To shamelessly switch Shakespeare references, I come to bury Norris, not to praise him. The leads that men blow live after them; the saves are oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Bud.

First, let’s talk about the performance metrics. You guys aren’t dummies, so I’m going to breeze through this part rather than belabor every little detail, but it’s worth sketching out the many ways Norris has declined. First, you’ve got strikeouts and walks. Those are… those are important. After ten games this year, Norris was striking out 40% of batters he faced and walking only 5%. That’s good! In his last ten games, he’s striking out 15% and walking 17.5%. That’s bad! Here’s a graph!

You might say that strikeouts and walks aren’t the only things that matter for a pitcher, and you’d obviously be right. It would be foolish for me to argue otherwise, and I’m not going to attempt to. The ERA picture isn’t much prettier though. Are you a FIP fanatic? Doesn’t matter, that’s been awful too:

No need to adjust your screens- that’s a 9.5 FIP over his last ten outings. I didn’t bother adding it here but his xFIP over that window is 6.7, not much better. Simply put, Norris hasn’t been a playable major leaguer over the month of August. Again, you know all of this, I’m just putting it down for posterity.

Those are the broad strokes. Norris can’t strike anyone out, he’s walking the world, and he’s allowing runs to score in bunches. Let’s dig one level further down and take a peek at what’s driving the results. First, let’s talk about the walks. If there’s one sure way to throw a walk, it’s by throwing a lot of balls. That’s not exactly a Nobel Prize-level insight, but I think it gets lost in the shuffle sometimes. To go even further towards basic facts, you need to throw a pitch outside of the strike zone that batters don’t swing at to walk someone. How has that looked recently? Not great. Not great is a way you could describe how it’s looked. Here are Norris’s swing rates inside and outside of the strike zone, in the same rolling 10-game averages:

In a nutshell, this is how you create a perfect storm of walks and contact. Hitters aren’t swinging any less at strikes- they’ve just stopped swinging at the pitches Norris throws out of the zone. How important is that for walks? Well, very important. It’s important for all kinds of parts of pitching, though. On pitches outside the zone that hitters have swung at, Norris has recorded a wOBA of .093. He has recorded a .383 wOBA when they swing at a pitch in the strike zone. That’s the difference between being the best pitcher of all-time and allowing a 150 wRC+, essentially. It gets worse than that, too. It’s hard to strike guys out when hitters aren’t missing, and Norris has stopped missing bats. He’s allowing contact on roughly 90% of swings in the strike zone and 70% of swings out of the zone, and both of those are nearly the worst numbers he’s had all year:

It’s ugly, ugly stuff. Without even looking, it’s a good bet that Norris’s swinging strike rate is in the toilet. People aren’t swinging much at balls, and they aren’t missing much when they do. I feel compelled, though, to show it in graphical form, because it doubles as a plot of my faith in him:

Look, this is all carnage. It’s also not, in the strictest sense, useful. You don’t need me to tell you that there’s a problem here. No one needs to alert you that Bud Norris is getting rocked every time he pitches. You have eyes and ears. It’s still helpful, though, to document just how thorough the fall of the house of Norris has been before we get into the causes. Before I try to puzzle out what’s making Norris bad, I want to remove all doubt. This isn’t bad luck. This isn’t a bout of homeritis. It’s not one game where he couldn’t find the zone. Everything is bad, and it’s all gone bad at the same time. I don’t think I need to make it any more clear than these pictures above, but if you really insist, find me in the comments- I could post these graphs all day.

Okay, let’s stipulate that Norris is bad now. The results just aren’t there. What in the heck happened to cause this downturn? My first thought was that his velocity must have died. To check on this, I split his season in half at the All-Star break and compared the two halves for each pitch. It’s not what you’d call a compelling story of change:

Velocity Change by Pitch

Pitch Pre-ASB Velo Post-ASB Velo
Pitch Pre-ASB Velo Post-ASB Velo
Four Seam 95.1 94.7
Two Seam 95.4 95.3
Cutter 90.4 89.9
Slider 84.6 84.6

Half a mile an hour on two different hard pitches is certainly something, but it strikes me as unlikely to be the difference between the Chuck Norris we saw in the first half and the Daniel Norris we are seeing now (sorry, Daniel!). Velocity isn’t all there is to a pitch, however, so I repeated the exercise for spin rate:

Spin Rate Change by Pitch

Pitch Pre-ASB RPM Post-ASB RPM
Pitch Pre-ASB RPM Post-ASB RPM
Four Seam 2448 2447
Two Seam 2425 2423
Cutter 2568 2584
Slider 2721 2683

As you can see, I found similarly negligible changes. This adds up to all four of Norris’ pitches looking almost exactly the same throughout the year. Out of desperation, I turned to one last split statistic- pitch usage. Maybe, I thought, Norris has tinkered with his pitch mix and emphasized the wrong pitch. That hasn’t really been the case, though:

Pitch Usage Change

Pitch Pre-ASB % Post-ASB %
Pitch Pre-ASB % Post-ASB %
Four Seam 31.2 25.8
Two Seam 23 32.4
Cutter 36.7 35.7
Slider 9.1 6.1

The only thing that’s really changed has been his fastball selection, and even then it’s a pretty small change. It appears that the culprit is something more subtle than throwing hard, or throwing with spin. Maybe it’s game-calling. Maybe it’s pitch sequencing. Maybe it’s lupus. Actually, it’s never lupus. But maybe the rest of them!

The House, MD reference up above wasn’t just an accident. When I was researching this article, I quickly ran through the easy things. I was left with a bunch of things I couldn’t easily test for. Rather than giving up, though, I took House’s path. I decided to ignore those, and assume it was something I could test for. That led me right to… my own writing. I wrote earlier about Bud Norris’ absolutely mind-boggling two-seam fastball command. You don’t need to read it- here’s the gem from that article, in picture form:

That’s a heatmap of two-seamers Norris had thrown to lefties through the beginning of June. There are no two ways about it- that’s pristine command. Maybe, I hypothesized, things have just gotten a little less controlled. The difference between 95 on the black and 95 middle-middle is tremendously high. So look, here’s the deal. I took a look at pitch locations in the same split-season samples from above. In the interest of comparing like to like and not having eight million pictures in this article, I’m looking only at pitch locations to right-handed batters. The lefty story is pretty similar, though. First, let’s look at Norris’ bread and butter pitch, his four-seam fastball, to righties through the All-Star break:

Is that a dangerous place to throw? Well, yeah, it is. It’s a pretty consistent place to throw, though, and he didn’t really leave anything low or inside. Let’s see it again in the second half:

It’s a bit fuzzier. Not worse, not necessarily. Just, fuzzier. There’s a lot more variation in where the pitch is going, but he’s aiming for the same general spot. That’s certainly not enough for a diagnosis.

How about two-seams? Here are the same charts- prior to the All-Star break first, and after it second.

Well, this is starting to look a little worse. Each picture is of only 24 pitches, so it’s not a large sample, but this looks like more of a problem. Early in the year, Norris was dotting the upper inside corner or missing close. Since then, he’s been a little wilder, and even his most targeted zone is significantly broader.

These two pitches are merely the appetizer to what I see as Norris’s most significant decline. In the first half of the season, Norris used his cutter as a true out pitch. It was a swing and miss beast, a pitch he’d float off the outside corner to absolutely obliterate righties. The tight control and unhittable location led to tons of the out-of-zone swing rate that we talked about so extensively earlier:

The second half of the season has been a bit of a nightmare. I’ve talked about the cutter as an out pitch, something off the plate that hitters offer at but can’t get to. The game changes a lot, however, when you move the cutters into the strike zone:

This is most definitely an issue. Norris absolutely feasted on righties with this pitch in the first half, recording a 38% strikeout rate on plate appearances ending in a cutter. In the second half, he’s down to 20%, and he’s allowed a 4 mph higher exit velocity in these same plate appearances. Norris has never had the velocity to leave a cutter up in the strike zone. The change in results when he switched from missing the zone by a slim margin to leaving pitches over the middle has been devastating.

I’m not going to cover slider locations, because Norris has thrown only nine sliders to right-handed batters since the All-Star break. Suffice it to say that he hasn’t had command of the pitch, as he’s put most of them into the dirt. It’s the reverse of his problem with cutters; instead of leaving the pitch in too hittable of a location, he’s lost slider command to the point where hitters can’t be bothered to swing.

The main thing I learned from this deep dive is that pitching is hard. In the first half of the year, Bud Norris was a legitimately excellent reliever. He kept all his same pitches in the second half, but started missing by a few inches at a time. The precise locations became general areas. That’s all it took! His FIP before the All-Star break was 2.68, and his ERA 3.05. Since then, he’s run a 6.57 FIP and a 4.86 ERA- essentially the difference between an All-Star closer and an overmatched minor leaguer. That’s it. That’s the margin separating success from failure at the major league level. It’s perverse, almost.

There’s a question that’s absolutely begging for an answer. Can Bud Norris be fixed? Can he just start throwing with his old command again? You could convince yourself that a few mental adjustments or days off to start feeling like himself again could be all he needs. We already know that Norris can be lights out with his current set of pitches. He might wake up tomorrow feeling like himself and start hitting his spots again, back to being a back of the bullpen linchpin. He might also never have it again. Pitching is cruel. It’s nuts. It’s bad for Norris, sure, but it’s bad for us as fans to nearly the same extent. The next time he steps onto the mound, I’ll be internally preparing for an implosion. I’ll also, thanks to my research, be eternally hopeful that he’ll snap out of it and go back to his old batter-melting ways. Whoever said football was a game of inches clearly didn’t watch enough baseball.