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Don't blame Bud Norris for his poor 2015

The outspoken righty collapsed this past season, resulting in a DFA and a huge pay cut for 2016. Despite what he says, he wasn't solely to blame.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
When history is written, no one can deny that David Stefan "Bud" Norris recorded a healthy 3.65 ERA for the 2014 AL East Champion Baltimore Orioles. This fact is irrefutable.

Unfortunately, it's also irrefutable that Norris' ERA rose to a ghastly 7.06 in 2015. The first third of this dreadful performance caused the Orioles to designate him for assignment at the trading deadline. So after making $8.8 million in 2015, Norris is now making $2.5 million with the Atlanta Braves.

Norris seems of two minds about his failure to perform. In his farewell tweet he said:
I got sick and haven't been right since.
This refers to the bronchitis that caused him to lose 14 pounds in a few weeks. But in an interview with Roch Kubatko after getting cut, he said:
I was looking way too much into distractions this year, and they were eating at me …. I was looking too much on the business side and I never got back to being me.
These statements probably refer to Norris' pending free agency, not his illness.

I’m not sure which to believe. Perhaps Norris himself doesn’t know. Maybe he can’t know. We humans like to think we have total knowledge and control over ourselves and our circumstances, but that is rarely the case.

But from the data I see, Norris shouldn't beat himself up. His horrendous 2015 was the result of a lot of bad luck that he shouldn't expect to occur in 2016 and beyond.

To start with, his left-on-base rate (LOB%) was abysmal. Counting his time with the Padres, it was 58.8%. This ranked second-to-last in the majors among pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched.

Here’s how batters fared against him situationally:
  • Bases empty: .359 wOBA against (.290/.353/.475). Think: Brandon Belt, Lucas Duda, Curtis Granderson
  • Men on base: .409 wOBA (.296/.370/.604). Think: Slightly worse than Miguel Cabrera
  • Men in scoring position: .427 wOBA (.307/.417/.600). Think: Joey Votto
Like BABIP, every year a handful of pitchers are going to record a truly awful LOB%. Norris was one of those guys this year, getting the absolute worst luck possible with men on base. Don’t believe me? An indicator of skill, his K-BB%, was slightly better with men on base: 10.8% vs. 10.4% with the bases empty. If Norris were truly deserving of his low LOB%, his K-BB rate with men on base would be lower, not higher.

Speaking of BABIP, Norris was unlucky there as well. His career BABIP is not great; it was a little over .300 on entering the season. But in 2015 it spiked to .332 (.329 with the Orioles). That’s a pretty large jump and should settle down in 2016.

His BABIP and LOB% were also inflated by the Orioles’ worse defense. Defensively the team just didn’t field and catch like they did in 2014. This was particularly true of the corner outfield spots. I explored this issue back in September. A worse defense will allow more balls in play to go for hits while the vocal population blames solely the pitcher.

A final indicator of bad luck is Norris’ HR/FB rate. In 2015 it spiked to 16.7%. According to FanGraphs’ glossary, this is far worse than ‘awful’. It’s also well above his rate of just under 11% upon entering the season, despite Norris allowing fewer fly balls than in 2014.

However, like LOB% and BABIP, HR/FB tends to regress to the mean without the pitcher doing anything at all to change it. Some pitchers simply get tagged, especially over short periods of time. For example, in June 2015, Clayton Kershaw had the same 16.7% HR/FB rate. It happens to everyone.

So Norris got hit with a trifecta of (really, really) bad luck in 2015 that drove his value down into the dirt and led to his release. But that’s not the whole story. Norris’ strikeout rate dropped by nearly 4 percentage points year-over-year. Strikeout rate is a good indicator of actual pitcher skill; the drop shows bad luck isn't entirely to blame.

The usual culprit, a loss of velocity, isn’t a problem. His slider velocity did dip a tad, but Norris’ fastball actually came in harder than it did last year:
bud norris velocity

Which pitches did hitters stop missing? To find that out we can look at his swinging strike rate per pitch:

Pitch 2014 Swinging Strike Rate 2015 Swinging Strike Rate Year-over-Year Change
Four-seam fastball 4.70% 6.10% +1.4pp
Two-seam fastball 3.70% 7.40% +3.7pp
Change-up 9.90% 2.40% -7.5pp
Slider 13.50% 16.90% +3.4pp
Cutter 13.60% 30% +16.4pp

One pitch clearly stands out: Norris’ change-up. It didn’t fool batters nearly as much as it did in years prior. Perhaps this is because Norris located it poorly. His change-up was in the strike zone just 41.2% of the time in 2014. This jumped to 58.3% of the time in 2015. I don’t know how often a change-up is supposed to be in the zone, but my sense is that it’s not supposed to be. Since a change-up acts like a fastball that isn’t as fast, if it’s in the zone a hitter can probably get more muscle around on it than if it dips low. I would guess this is even more true if the pitch is not only in the zone, but up.

Year-over-year Norris’ change-up landed higher in the zone:

bud norris change-up vertical location

If a pitch were higher in the zone we’d expect to see a lack of vertical movement. And indeed that’s what we see. The pitch lost about five inches of drop, a significant amount:

bud norris change-up vertical location

As a result the pitch generated significantly fewer groundballs than it did last year:

bud norris change-up gbs

Hitters just teed off on it:

bud norris change-up iso

To me this looks like an issue of release point consistency. The following chart shows the release points of Norris’ fastballs and change-ups from 2014. Ideally they should overlap, and in general they do:

norris 2014 release

The next chart shows his release points from 2015:

bud norris release 2015

There is not only less overlap, there is a higher amount of variance/inconsistency overall. This inconsistency perhaps led to poor location; e.g., a lot of change-ups left up in the zone for hitters to swat.

But perhaps fans shouldn’t be comparing just 2014 and 2015. Looking at Norris’ history, it’s clear his change-up was never good except for during the Orioles’ division title run:

Year Pitch value per 100 pitches (runs)
2011 -0.5
2012 -2.9
2013 -2.0
2014 +1.0
2015 -1.1

Last year was the only recent time this pitch was worth anything for him. So it’s accurate, but not precise, to say that Norris’ change-up got worse in 2015. Rather, his offspeed pitch in 2015 returned to its normal not-goodness.

Whew, that is a deep dive into Norris' change-up problems. Now here is the killer. The issues with his change can't have too much of an effect on him going forward. Why not? Because he throws the pitch less than 6% of the time. While it was indeed worse, I think the bad luck far outweighed the problems with his change-up.

This is why I expect Norris to be just fine in 2016 and beyond. He isn't a good fit for the Orioles anymore, but he should provide some toughness and leadership on the Braves. It doesn't hurt that the NL competition is weaker in general than the AL, and it doesn't hurt that Norris will face the hapless Phillies several times.

Goodbye, Bud. Don't be so hard on yourself; you were the victim of poor circumstance. And we’ll always have 2014!

All data from FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball.