On Thursday night, the Angels took the lead in the 8th inning after Kole Calhoun drilled his 2nd home run of the night, giving the Angels a narrow 2-1 lead entering the 9th inning. Angels manager Mike Scioscia threw a change up, bringing in Jose Alvarez not only to face the first batter but the first 5 batters of the inning. Alvarez faced 3 lefties in the inning, including Jason Castro, who singled home 2 go ahead runs to give the Twins the lead and eventually the win. Immediately, people questioned the move, screaming for Bud Norris, who has become the Angels closer due to injuries and his own dominant performance, to be utilized. At the time of the move, I was fine with the move, pointing to Norris’s poor career platoon splits(.354 wOBA vs lefties, .310 vs righties) and Jose Alvarez’s strong career performance vs lefties(.238/.289/.369). Mike Scioscia alluded to not using Norris to start the inning due to his knee that he aggravated in the Miami series but that doesn’t sound convincing, since Norris was brought in anyways after the lead was blown. A Social media unsurprisingly had a field day with this move, pointing at the difference in performance between the two pitchers in 2017. Scout.com’s Taylor Blake Ward was the first to point out the difference in the splits between the 2 pitchers in 2017.
Meanwhile, other Angels fans told us how they really felt about Jose Alvarez’s usage in the 9th inning.
For reference, Jose Alvarez has a career .287 wOBA allowed vs left handed hitters while Bud Norris comes in way higher at .354, making a case for Mike Scioscia’s bullpen usage being just fine. While Alvarez isn’t a flashy reliever, he’s done his job vs lefties, owns a career 111 ERA+(ERA is 11% better than the league average pitcher) with the Angels and represented a fine pitcher to be used in the given situation. Alvarez’s rough start to 2017, which includes less strikeouts and grounders along with more home runs, may have been a strong enough case to not bring him in a super high leverage situation but it was not too extreme given his history against lefties. However, a very smart baseball mind, Rahul Setty of Halos Heaven, brought this up.
At first glance, it was tough for me to believe that Bud Norris magically figured out how to solve left handed hitters by a simple move to the bullpen after years of showing very little ability to retire lefties. However, this deserved a deeper dive into the pitch usage, velocity change, and approach vs lefties and righties.
Bud Norris’s move to the bullpen has been an astounding success so far, with Norris posting career highs in ERA(2.77), FIP(3.04), K%(32.1%), average against(.174) and WHIP(1.08). His walks are up ever so slightly but he’s missing way more bats(career low 71.8% contact rate) while reducing the quality of contact against him, dropping his average exit velocity against down 1.4 mph from last season. His average fastball velocity has also jumped to a career high at 94.1 mph. Clearly, the move to the bullpen has helped Norris provide superior results over shorter stints, not some unfound strategy limited to the Angels and Bud Norris. With that said, Norris is not only pitching well against righties, but he’s completely obliterating left hander batters as well.
In 14.1 innings vs right handed bats, Norris has allowed 11 hits, 5 runs and 6 walks while striking out 18 batters, leading to a .293 wOBA. Against lefties in 11.2 innings, Norris has struck out 16 batters while walking 6 and allowing 5 hits and 3 runs, leading to an absurdly low .206 wOBA. While we are talking about the smallest of small samples here, Norris’s uptick in fastball velocity, bat missing abilities and overall dominance means we can maybe buy into the performance a bit. The big question regarding Norris has always been the lack of a pitch to counter lefties with and he has answered that so far in 2017. Norris decided to change his pitch repertoire in his move to the bullpen and it’s paid dividends.
History has always shown us that fastball/slider pitchers similar to Bud Norris struggle with platoon splits. Right handers throwing majority fastballs and sliders are throwing pitches that go towards the barrel of a left handed bat and vice versa for left handed pitchers vs right handed hitters. This is why many clubs put so much emphasis on change ups, which tend to move away from those left handed hitters for right handed pitchers(and vice versa). The cutter, it turns out, also happens to be a pitch that negates some platoon splits for some pitchers. The cutter isn’t quite as hard to command compared to the slider and comes in at a harder velocity, meaning it can be tougher to read compared to a slider. Two seam fastballs are also used to negate platoon splits since that pitch will run away from an opposite hitting batter.
It turns out that Bud Norris has turned to his cutter and two seam fastball far more often this year. Norris has cut his slider% from 29.2% in 2016 to 19% in 2017 while utilizing his cutter more. For the first time in 2016, Norris used his cutter more than 5% of the time(11.8%) but that figure has jumped to 37.8%(!) in 2017. Cutters and sliders are quite a bit similar but this current cutter he is using is 3.8 mph faster than the slider, providing a different look vs left handed bats. He’s also altered his fastball approach, using his four seam fastball a career low 21.9% of the time while throwing his two seam fastball a career high 20.6% of the time. When a hard throwing pitcher moves to the pen, experiences an uptick in stuff, changes his pitch repertoire and finds a new dominant pitch in the process, you immediately take note of that. While 26 innings isn’t a big sample, the changes made across those 26 innings at least offer some hope for the future success of Bud Norris.
The results of the altered approach Norris has used have been outstanding. Norris has thrown his cutter 175 times this season and has induced 29 whiffs, allowed a .146 batting average against that pitch and allowed only 1 extra base hit. Last year, in his 1st year utilizing the pitch more than 5% of the time, he allowed a .188 average against that pitch while running a 20.7% swing and miss rate on the pitch. While the results on the cutter were great last year, he didn’t use it enough, only throwing it 11.8% of the time and his results vs left handed batters still stunk(.390 wOBA). Meanwhile, the slider has seen better results with the cut back on usage. His slugging percentage against the pitch this year is .273, compared to the .378 mark in 2016 and .446 mark in 2015. He’s running a 23.5% swing and miss rate on his slider compared to the 15.2% rate he had in 2016. His four seam fastball, meanwhile, has had far worse results compared to his two seam fastball. Norris has only gotten swings and misses on 5.8% of his four seam fastballs thrown while allowing a .588 SLG% in 17 at bats. His two seam fastball has generated a 13.8% swing and miss rate and Norris has allowed only 1 hit on that pitch this year. It’s highly possible that the change in approach to batters along with a more effective fastball and cutter has led to more overall success with his pitches. Sometimes, pitchers with good stuff simply need to alter their approach to pitching and it looks like some tweaks have made a big difference.
Back in 2015, Norris ran a hideous 6.72 ERA across 83 innings, which led to some changes with his pitch mix going into 2016. For the first time in his career, he used 3 pitches 10% or more of the time(fastball, slider, cutter), seeing an improvement in results but his 5.10 ERA in 2016 wasn’t quite enough to garner more attention in the offseason. This season, he’s seeing much better results with his heavy fastball/cutter approach along with the lower usage of his slider. To get a better look at how he’s changed his approach, check out a recent outing from Norris while pitching in Tampa Bay.
Against right handers, Norris generally goes with his four seam fastball along while using his slider a bit more and cutter a bit less. Meanwhile vs left handers, Norris goes heavy on his two seam and cutter usage, with those two pitches offering more horizontal movement to keep the hitter guessing on which way the ball will move. This outing is atypical to most of his outings this year, using a different approach vs right handers compared to left handers.
It looks like Norris really adapted and solved his biggest weakness: getting left handed batters out. The heavy fastball/cutter approach with the slider mixed in 20% of the time has led to Norris having a breakout season as a shutdown reliever in the Angels bullpen. His new approach has led to more swings on pitches out of the zone(36.5 O-Swing%), which has in part led to more swings and misses on his new cutter. Another big change has been keeping the ball in the yard more, with only 2 home runs allowed in 26 innings in 2017, which is a 0.69 HR/9 rate which is significantly lower than his 1.13 HR/9 rate.
This is a lot of information to soak in so let’s recap: Bud Norris throwing harder. He’s throwing his cutter way more. He’s using his two seam and cutter heavily vs left handed bats while using his old fastball and slider combination more vs right handed bats. His change in the way he’s thrown pitches has led to less contact and worse quality of contact when the ball is put in play. Overall, Norris is allowing way less runs to be scored because he’s simply not allowing hitters to do any damage on his pitches. More significantly, Bud Norris has found a way to get left handed hitters out, so far in 2017 that is. As a result, the Angels have found a high leverage reliever who is able to get both righties and lefties out.
Coming into 2017, the Angels bullpen was viewed as a huge weakness. The current unit has been roughly a league average unit, a far cry from the projected bottom 5 worst bullpen many thought the Angels would be. Low key acquisitions Blake Parker(2.59 ERA, 0.77 FIP) and Yusmeiro Petit(2.20 ERA and 2.94 FIP) along with Bud Norris have led to a unit that isn’t sinking the team but has actually propelled the team in some cases. Angels general manager Billy Eppler was given the tough task to reconstruct an atrocious bullpen that former general manager Jerry Dipoto left behind and Eppler has managed to hit on several additions. Bud Norris, thanks to his ability to adapt and work in his new role, has been one of the Angels key acquisitions and should be used even more by manager Mike Scioscia, regardless if the opposing batter bats left handed or right handed.