Bud Norris has gone 3-5 with a 4.04 ERA so far this season for the Orioles. Pretty boring stuff, right? He's been perfectly serviceable towards the back of the Orioles rotation while averaging over six innings per start. Norris has helped save the bullpen somewhat and kept the team in games. But has this nondescript performance covered up some real improvement?
Last season, the knock on Norris was that he couldn't get lefties out. That was certainly true as he yielded a .309/.381/.509 to left handed hitters and 16 of his 17 home runs allowed. He didn't have an out pitch against lefties because his out pitch versus righties, a slider, isn't nearly as effective against southpaws. Norris still threw it almost 28 percent of the time against them even though it's typically not effective against opposite handed hitters.
Against same handed hitters, Norris was basically a two pitch pitcher last season. He threw fastballs and sliders primarily while mixing in the occasional sinker or change up. But a full 91 percent of his pitches were either a fastball or a slider. Against righties, that was all he needed. Even though he was only using two pitches, he held righties to a .239/.307/.322 line in 2013.
Most of his problems came against opposite handed hitters last season even though he threw his entire pitch mix against them. He mixed in sinkers, sliders, and change ups to go along with his fastball against them. However, none of them were effective pitches. His whiff rates on all four of them were below average, with a high of 14.5 percent on his slider. Even though he was getting some whiffs on his slider, when he wasn't getting swings and misses the pitch was getting hammered. It was clear he needed something else to get left handers out.
Has he found something that works this year? The results are certainly better as he's held southpaws to a .329 wOBA this season. Compared to the .387 wOBA they had against him last year, he's made a big improvement. How exactly has he done it? Well, his change up has been more effective than it was in the past.
Often times, a feel pitch like the change up takes the longest to develop. Batters teed off on the pitch in 2013 for a .347 average. It definitely wasn't working for him. But in 2014, he's had much more success with the pitch. Out of the 85 times he's thrown it to a lefty this year, only twice has the hitter made contact. He's given up a single and a home run on 85 pitches. That's a lot of swings and misses or weak contact. Hitters are batting .167 against his change up this season.
What sticks out about this graph to you?
This is a graph of Bud Norris's whiff percentages against left handed hitters this season. See it yet? If you did, great. If not, let me tell you what jumps out to me. His whiff percentage on his change ups has increased from 7 percent last season to 17 percent this season! Let that sink in for a minute. He increased his whiff rate on change ups to lefties a full 10 percentage points. So naturally, he's throwing it more this season because of it's increased effectiveness, right? Well, no not exactly.
It's still his fourth most popular pitch against lefties even though it's his most effective pitch by whiff percentage. He's still throwing it just about the same amount as he has the last few years. Against lefties, he's throwing the change 12.5 percent of the time while only using it 4 percent of the time against righties. The righties with the best change ups in the league like Marco Estrada and Felix Hernandez use the pitch 27-28 percent of the time. I'm not suggesting he should use the pitch that often, but I do think his results could improve if he would increase his usage of the cambia to the 20 percent range. The increased usage should come at the expense of his sinker, which is just not that good of a pitch.
Before declaring that he should definitely use it more, let's take a look at the pitch and see if anything about it has changed (pun not intended). First of all, he's throwing the pitch about a mile per hour faster than he has previously. That can't hurt, though he's throwing the rest of his pitches about a mile per hour faster than last year too. He's also getting more horizontal movement on the pitch, up to 8.66 inches of run from 7.41 inches last season. The vertical movement on the pitch is relatively unchanged from last season.
Would you believe me if I told you that Bud Norris was getting more whiffs per swing on his change up than guys like Johnny Cueto and Max Scherzer? Well, it's true. He's getting whiffs 37.14 percent of the time a hitter swings at it this season. That number is the 24th highest rate of all starting pitchers in the game. Maybe he should throw it more than 8 percent of the time.
To wrap this up, the change up is a pitch that has become much more prevalent around baseball over the past few years. It's a great pitch because it throws off a hitters timing and it's effective against opposite handed hitters. Starters who struggle to get out hitters of the opposite hand end up in the bullpen where their match ups can be managed more effectively.
For a pitcher like Bud Norris who has historically had issues with opposite handed hitters, he has needed a pitch to get them out. He already has a decent fastball and a good slider. An effective change up would be the final piece to the puzzle. In 2014, it seems like Norris has found the effective change up he's been looking for but he just isn't using it enough. On a per pitch basis, it's been his most effective pitch this season yet he's barely throwing it. I'd suggest that he throw the pitch to both righties and lefties somewhere in the range of one out of every five pitches. As we've seen when teams like the Rays do it, a change up can be effective against same handed hitters too.
If Norris were to start throwing more cambios, I think we'd see his strikeout rate creep up and his ERA move down. For an Orioles rotation in need of all the starting pitching it can get, with Norris they may have more than they realize on their hands.
Thanks to Brooks Baseball for the data and graphs.