I like Bud Norris.
I like him a lot, actually. His bulldog presence on the mound meshed well with his power-stuff during the O's dominating summer break-away a year ago. Other than a rough August, in which Norris surrendered a 5.33 ERA in five starts, he was wonderful in the second half of 2014, totaling a 3.27 ERA to go with a spiking strikeout rate. In the most critical month of the regular season, Norris went 4-0 in five starts, collecting a 1.08 WHIP while striking out nearly 28% of the batters he faced in September.
Bud was an integral gear in the Orioles' playoff engine from last season. But as much as we'd like for Bud to replicate his performance from a year ago (and I'm sure Bud would love for the Bud of last season to show up), it just hasn't happened. In fact, it's been painful.
In three starts to begin the new season, Norris has managed only 10.1 innings, allowing a disappointing 20 earned runs (good for a healthy 17.42 ERA), as opponents are currently slashing a ridiculous .375/.439/.688 with a Barry Bondsish 1.126 OPS. Of the 18 hits he's allowed in his three early season starts, 61% of those have been extra-base hits (9 doubles, 2 home runs) and to go with all the hits, he's already walked 6 of the 57 batters he faced.
You really know things aren't clicking when a power pitcher like Norris isn't able to put away the opposition when ahead in the count. Guess what? Bud hasn't been able to get guys out when he's been ahead in the count.
Nine times has Norris been ahead 0-2, but even being way ahead in the count hasn't mattered, as he's given up four hits, one walk with only two strikeouts. Even when batters have swung on 0-2, they're 2-2 with a double and a sacrifice fly. As a devoted fan that watches nearly every game, the eye test shows that Bud has been living too high in the strike zone, especially with two strikes. Big league hitters feast on mistakes, but leaving sliders and change-ups up in the zone when batters are especially keen on putting the ball in play is a recipe for fans throwing stuff at televisions.
Granted, he did mix in an OK start against the Yankees, going five innings, allowing only three runs on five hits with seven strikeouts. For Bud, the problem has been those squawking Blue Jays. In his defense, the Jays throw out one of the top-five batting lineups night in and night out, but you know, the Orioles play in the AL East, meaning we're going to see those bat-flipping bros 13 more times.
Sorry for the anti-Bud rant (I like him I swear), but his ineffectiveness should essentially open the door for the Orioles' most promising piece on the 25-man roster to slide into the starting rotation. Of course, we're talking about Kevin Gausman.
There's a reason the Orioles were trying to find a trade partner over the winter and at the tail-end of Spring Training for one of the five current starters. There's a reason he came up to the big leagues 11-months after being drafted. There's a reason he was the fourth-overall selection in 2012.
It's because he's meant to be an eventual stable in the rotation.
You don't draft someone like Gausman with the long-term expectation that he's going to be a swing-man out of the bullpen. That's just not the right way to operate. It seems even more obvious when your team sits second-to-last in innings pitched by starters. Even this early in the season, the O's need someone to lift the swagger amongst the starters, and the young fireballer is the obvious choice.
Gaus pitched well a season ago when asked to take the ball every fifth day, collecting a 3.57 ERA in 113.1 innings. His FIP suggests he was slightly better than his ERA suggested, posting a 3.41 independently. His 0.56 HR/9 number was very encouraging, as was a 6.99 K/9. In his first real steps as a big league starter, Gausman pitched about as well as realistic expectations would have allowed.
If you look at his early season numbers this year, you're probably thinking he's taken a step back. In 8.0 innings this season, Gausman's ERA is a scary 6.75, as he's already watched two home runs soar over his head to go with a disappointing five base on balls.
The thing is, there's a totally different mindset that Gausman had become accustomed to before being moved to the pen. It's a more ritualistic sense when being tabbed as a starter compared to being called from the pen at any given time. As the Orioles' current starters are failing to go deep into games, the strangeness of Buck Showalter heading out to the mound in the middle of the 4th or 5th inning just doesn't seem to fit Gausman.
If you really want to maximize the potential of the most talented pitcher on the roster, you place him in his most comfortable role, and that's as a first inning guy, not a middle of the game reliever.
Though, Gausman at times is still more of a thrower than a pitcher, he's got all the tools to become the team's best pitcher. It's not just because he throws hard, but instead the freakishness of his secondary stuff. His split-finger has very powerful downward movement, while he has a still-developing changeup that moves like a cloud away from left-handers. For some reason, his slider doesn't get as much usage as one would think, but it's another deadly pitch that works off of his high-powered velocity. Imagine if he had more innings to figure out where and how to craft his unique arsenal?
The Orioles maneuver the 25-man roster as much, if not more than any team in baseball, and because of Gausman's accessibility to Triple-A, it's understandably difficult to commit him to the rotation in the event the team needs an extra arm. However, at some point, Gausman needs to be given a more permanent role. There's no shame in letting Norris take to the bullpen, and given Bud's personality, he'd probably take the opportunity as a challenge.
Maybe it's just my jealousy of seeing young pitchers such as Gerrit Cole and Taijuan Walker awarded the chance to grow as starters, because the Orioles have the same kind of talent sitting beyond the outfield fence.