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With free agency approaching for Bud Norris, should the Orioles think about extending him?

Bud Norris is set to be a free agent in 2016. What can the Orioles expect from Norris in 2015 and should they be looking to lock him in for the longer term?

Bud Norris stares longingly into the abyss
Bud Norris stares longingly into the abyss
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

As the 2013 trade deadline approached the Orioles brokered a deal for RHP Bud Norris then of the Houston Astros. In return, the Orioles shipped LHP Josh Hader, OF L.J. Hoes, and their competitive balance lottery draft pick to the Astros. Down the stretch in 2013 Norris was not particularly helpful for the Orioles as he struggled adapting to a new team and a new division in the middle of a playoff race. There was some concern with Bud Norris' place in the rotation going into 2014 and many thought he should have been moved to the bullpen. However, Norris posted a 3.65 ERA, good for a 105 ERA+, and his best season ever as a major league player.

While being five percent better than league average may not seem impressive, having a pitcher that can throw 165 above league average innings is nothing to sneeze at. Now, Norris is moving into his free agent year, and just settled with the Orioles on a $8.8 million salary, and his 2015 performance may greatly dictate his free agent status.

As Mark pointed out earlier this week, the Orioles have 10 players on their current roster up for Free Agency at the end of the 2015 season. Norris is one of them and if he can repeat his 2014 performance his market will grow significantly. The question now for the Orioles to answer is if they should jump on extension talks early to try to get a deal or see how Norris plays out his final season and broach the subject at the end of the season after more innings have been logged.

Alongside his 3.65 ERA, Norris posted a career low walk rate (BB%) at 7.6 percent (9.1 percent career BB%) and a career high K/BB at 2.67 (2.35 career K/BB) in 2014. He also posted his lowest batting average against, .240, and his lowest career WHIP 1.22. All good trends. For the bad, Norris posted a near career low strikeout rate (K%) at 20.2 percent, a career low BABIP at .279, and a career high left on base rate (LOB%) at 78.6 percent. This resulted in a near career high FIP of 4.22. Now, you all know my feelings on FIP, but those peripheral stat trends are not necessarily rosy for Norris going into 2015, let alone for a possible extension.

Yet, while that may be enough analysis for some, I'd like you to follow me deeper into the rabbit hole. In 2014, Norris posted some of his best batted ball rates of his career. He had 20.7 percent line drive rate (LD%), a 42.2 percent ground ball rate, and a 37.2 percent fly ball rate. That is his lowest LD% since 2011 and lowest FB% in his career. Also, his 2014 GB% was his highest since 2011. For some league wide perspective,out of the 89 pitchers with at least 160 innings pitched, he was 45th in LD%, 33rd in FB%, and 59th in GB%. Meanwhile, he kept his HR/FB at 11.2 percent, very near his career performance and right around league average. All of those signs are positive especially if the relatively young Norris can continue to improve. More ground balls and less line drives means more outs for Norris, especially with the Orioles superior infield defense.

The other huge negative for Norris throughout his career has been his lackluster performance against left handed hitters. In 2013, combined between the Astros and Orioles he gave up a .387 wOBA against lefties. For some context, Miguel Cabrera had the 10th highest wOBA in the league last year, he posted a .384. So in 2013, all left handed hitters against Norris were essentially 2014 Miguel Cabrera. Written a different, he was very bad. However, he managed a career low wOBA against LHH in 2014 at .333, which is still above league average, but more like facing 2014 Ben Zobrist every time, rather than Miggy.

Norris' improvement against lefties possibly stems from a change in approach and a refinement in pitches. Bud Norris' change up in 2014 was a significantly more effective pitch for him than it had been in the past. He located it much lower in the strike zone and therefore was able to generate a very high rate of ground balls from it. As you can see in the graphs below, Norris located the pitch about 4 inches lower on average in 2014 than he did in 2013.

Not only that, his whiff percentage on change ups went up three points in 2014. All of these indicators point to an improved and refined pitch.

Of all the change ups that left handed hitters put into play last season on Bud Norris, a full two thirds of them were ground balls. This improved weapon gave Norris a fighting chance against lefties which allowed him to be a better overall pitcher in 2014. Furthermore, Norris had his highest clocked fastball velocity at an average release speed of 94.38mph in 2014, nearly a full mile per hour higher than 2013. An improved change up and an uptick in fastball velocity lend some credence to his improvement against left handed hitters and his improved batted ball profile overall.

So, now, going into 2015 Norris will have to prove that 2014 was not a fluke. The fastball velocity must maintain. Also, his effectiveness against lefties needs to at least be stagnant. Lastly, he needs to improve his strikeout rate while continuing to keep the line drives and fly balls down. He'll be entering free agency as a 30 year old, and will be 31 by the time the 2016 season kicks off. In my mind, Norris is likely staring down a market between Jason Hammel and Edwin Jackson. Hammel got a two year deal worth $20 million with an option for a third and Jackson got a four year deal worth $52 million.

On the free agent market as basically a 31 year old, with a solid 2015, Norris is probably looking at a three year deal worth somewhere between $30 and $36 million. It is a good time to be a pitcher with a healthy track record. If the Orioles were to offer an extension to Norris right now, it is likely they could see a slight discount, but are probably still looking for the same commitment term. Norris seems like the kind of player that is going bet on himself and try to get a bigger payday in free agency.

The question then becomes: Is Norris worth going after? Well, personally I'd like to see some further improvement in 2015, even if it does not come in the form of a better ERA. Some of the peripherals from last season still raise red flags, regardless of improved pitches and a stronger batted ball profile.  In my mind, a team should hope to have a prospect ready to fill Norris' shoes once a pitcher of his ilk becomes too expensive.

The Orioles have seemingly been able to get the best out of Norris, so the Orioles need to determine whether or not Norris is special, or if he is replaceable. The Orioles over these last three years have been able to piecemeal rotations that are effective for them. Therefore, they must decide if Norris is a key cog in the rotation going forward or another interchangeable part.