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How accurate was the “Cy” Norris narrative?

New Cardinal Bud Norris had a reputation for dominating the Cardinals. How true was it?

Houston Astros v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

New St. Louis Cardinals reliever (probably) Bud Norris has had a Major League career, to this point, which ranks somewhere between mediocre and nondescript. Norris has started 188 games, appeared in relief in an additional 103 games, and his career ERA stands at 4.49 with a career fielding-independent pitching faring somewhat better, at 4.21. Adjusting for league and park environment, per FanGraphs, Norris has been 13% below-average by ERA and 5% below-average by FIP. But somebody has to be below-average by definition if a league exists with above-average players. There have been more disastrous MLB careers than that of Bud Norris. He’s just extremely typical.

And yet Bud Norris, a mostly forgettable pitcher whose five career Wins Above Replacement career means his top comparable pitchers on Baseball Reference are the likes of Ryan Vogelsong and Justin Masterson, has a bit of a reputation among Cardinals fans and media. Let’s talk about the man they call Cy Norris.

Bud Norris, particularly during his time with the pre-AL Houston Astros, developed a bit of a reputation as a Cardinals killer. The article on 101 ESPN’s website detailing Norris’s signing alluded to this reputation. So did KMOV’s. Although talk of Bud Norris’s dominance of the Cardinals quelled significantly once he was no longer in the rotation of a division rival, but in the early 2010s, reporters such as Derrick Goold and Matthew Leach popularized the notion of Bud Norris as an unstoppable Cardinals destroying machine (while also getting Chuck Norris jokes in just under the radar of social acceptability).

To be clear, Goold and Leach were not claiming (at least not earnestly) that Norris was actually magical, but one would imagine that for these jokes to be made, the statistics must to at least some degree back up the notion that Bud Norris had particularly strong results against the Cardinals.

Against the Cardinals in his career, Norris has pitched in 19 games, starting 16, and he threw 102 innings (so basically half a healthy season or so’s worth of playing time). He had a career record of 8-7 (it is important to note that Bud Norris’s playing time against the Cardinals came largely with terrible Astros teams and that this suppressed his record) with a 3.44 ERA, walking 3.09 batters per nine innings (counting hit batters, this jumps to 3.44, a total I double-checked twice to make sure I wasn’t accidentally just calculating his ERA again) and striking out 7.85 batters per nine.

So how good was Bud Norris against the Cardinals? The pitcher whose career numbers come closest to Norris’s during Norris’s career is New York Yankees starter Sonny Gray. Gray has a career ERA of 3.45 with a 2.94 BB/9 and 7.78 K/9. His reputation is good, though hardly elite. Sonny Gray was an All-Star once, in 2015, the one season in which he received Cy Young votes, finishing a relatively distant (and fair) third behind Dallas Keuchel and David Price.

A big contributor to the Cy Norris narrative, surely, was the stark contrast between Norris’s career numbers and his numbers against the Cardinals. It felt weirder that Nondescript Guy Bud Norris would pitch well against the Cardinals than for Pitcher Of His Generation Clayton Kershaw to be dominant. In many ways, Kershaw is Norris’s reputational opposite (thanks mostly to some notorious postseason implosions) but has been more successful against the Cardinals—he has a lower ERA, walks fewer batters, and strikes out more batters than Norris.

In fact, since 2009, forty-one pitchers have thrown at least 30 innings against the Cardinals and have lower ERAs. Yet Manny Parra and John Lannan do not enjoy nearly the reputation of Norris. Norris had an 86 tOPS+ against the Cardinals, meaning Cardinals batters had an OPS+ at 86% of his career marks against him. The pitcher with 30+ innings with the lowest ERA, Mike Fiers (no, seriously, Mike Fiers), has a career tOPS+ of 72 against the Cardinals. And yet I’ve never heard the term Cy Fiers, despite the fact that his numbers are better and that Cy Fiers sounds way cooler than Cy Norris.

Among his MLB opponents, the Cardinals’ OPS against Bud Norris ranks 9th. By ERA, Norris’s Cardinals ERA ranks 8th. In six starts against the Los Angeles Angels, Bud Norris had a 0.43 ERA. Yet his dominance, clearly more pointed than what he showed against the Cardinals, did not receive even a passing mention on SB Nation’s Angels blog Halos Heaven when the team signed Norris last Winter.

All of the evidence suggests that Bud Norris was better than his typical self against Cardinals teams which were above-average offensively. This isn’t to say that what Norris did couldn’t be chalked up to statistical flukes caused by small sample sizes, but the results were good. But they weren’t otherworldly by any stretch of the imagination.

Bud Norris made his first career start against the Cardinals, in 2009. He pitched seven innings of two-hit, no-run ball, out-dueling Adam Wainwright to get his first career win. He was nearly as excellent in his next start against the Cardinals, his final start of 2009, going six innings without allowing a run. In 2010, in his second start of the season, Norris went another five innings without allowing an earned run, striking out nine. In start #4 against the Cardinals, Norris went eight innings, walking zero, striking out eight, and allowing one run. Start #5 against St. Louis was notably worse, allowing five runs in a loss, but his reputation was already cemented.

In his first four starts against the Cardinals, Bud Norris threw 26 innings and allowed one earned run. His ERA was 0.35. In his career against the Cardinals since May 13, 2010, Norris has a 4.50 ERA. In his first four starts, Norris was unbelievable. Since then, he was Bud Norris.

This post is 90% superfluous, quasi-timely fun facts (then again, since Norris will no longer be able to pitch against the Cardinals, these statistics have never been less relevant), but there is something useful that can be gleaned from looking at these numbers—a reminder that sequencing and small sample sizes can trick us. Had Bud Norris’s four excellent career-opening outings against the Cardinals instead been spread across his career, “Cy Norris” would never have happened. If Norris had another half-season’s worth of starts against the Cardinals, the odds are his ERA against the Cardinals would have increased to closer to his career norms.

These narratives can be fun, but they are not necessarily a reflection of reality. Believing that Matt Carpenter has a mental tick which requires him to bat leadoff is more interesting than attributing it to luck. And believing that some pitchers are predisposed to inexplicably dominating some opponents is more interesting than attributing it to luck. Though that is probably what happened with Bud Norris.