I'll be honest with you - this article began as a discussion of whether or not the Houston Astros are the worst team in baseball. They have the worst record, which is a good place to start. They've been able to hit okay, but they haven't been able to pitch and they haven't been able to field, and the result is that it's the middle of June and their season's already a nightmare. They're 13 games behind a pair of co-division leaders, and their run differential is even worse than the Twins'. It's worse than the Athletics, Dodgers and Padres combined.
But it's easy to be negative, and it's easy to be critical. And as I read up on the Astros, I decided I wanted to focus on a bright spot instead. Hunter Pence is slugging .502. Brett Wallace's OBP is nearly .400. Mark Melancon has three times as many strikeouts as walks. And Bud Norris has a 3.48 ERA.
Bud Norris. As soon as I saw him, I knew I'd found my guy. In what's generally been a pitching wasteland, Norris has only upped his game this season and thrust himself into the NL's second tier of starting pitchers. He's not Roy Halladay, and he's not Cole Hamels, but in terms of performance, he's hanging out with guys like Derek Lowe and Shaun Marcum. Already a pretty good pitcher, Norris has turned himself into a better one just as everything around him has fallen apart.
How much better is he? I think the following table paints the right picture:
Norris' strikeouts are up this season, and his walks are down, and - surprise! - that's led to his becoming a more successful starter. Baseball is easy!
A bigger question might be how he's done this. The first thing one might notice is that Norris has trimmed his walks against left-handed hitters, embracing more of a pitch-to-contact approach. Norris had struggled with lefties in the past, and while he hasn't exactly dominated them in 2011, the important numbers are sexier.
But, interestingly, nothing about Norris' pitch mix against lefties seems to have changed much over the years. At least not when compared to how he's changed against righties. A split for you:
Norris vs. RHB, 2010: 53% fastballs
Norris vs. RHB, 2011: 45% fastballs
And, making up the difference:
Norris vs. RHB, 2010: 38% sliders
Norris vs. RHB, 2011: 50% sliders
When facing right-handed batters this season, Norris has leaned incredibly heavily on his slider, to the point at which it's become his primary pitch. The following split is not a coincidence:
Norris vs. RHB, 2010: 21% strikeouts
Norris vs. RHB, 2011: 30% strikeouts
Norris' slider is a weapon, and he's used it to keep same-handed hitters obedient. This leap forward against righties doesn't explain Norris' entire improvement, but it does explain a lot of it. When half the hitters a pitcher faces can't touch him simply because of the side of the plate that they stand on, that pitcher's going to have an easier path to success.
Now, a word of caution - there's some evidence out there that throwing a ton of sliders puts a pitcher at an increased risk of getting hurt. Norris has dealt with elbow problems in the minors in the past, as well as shoulder problems in the Majors, so he hasn't exactly been the picture of health, and his current pitching style may not be in the best interests of his body.
But we should never try to make conclusive statements about a pitcher's injury risk, and what's most apparent here is that Bud Norris has improved. At 26, Norris has kicked his game up a level, and while it's unclear if the Astros will have any success any time soon, if they do, Norris will probably be a big part of it.