Not a Rookie: Bud Norris
Bud Norris was drafted by the Astros in the sixth round in 2006, out of Cal Poly.
His college performance was spotty: 4.55 ERA with a 61/57 K/BB in 111 innings with 118 hits allowed; the strikeout rate was quite low for a guy with good stuff (90-93 MPH, good breaking ball). His inability to dominate college hitters probably cost him a couple of rounds in the draft. However, he was more effective in pro ball, posting a 3.79 ERA with a 46/13 K/BB in 38 innings for Tri City in the New York-Penn League, allowing 28 hits. His K/IP was more than double what he posted in college. I gave him a Grade C+ in the 2007 book, writing that "I have a good intuitive feel about him, although of course that's impossible to quantify or explain in any way that doesn't make me sound like a lunatic. Not that THAT ever stopped me."
The Astros moved Norris up to Lexington in the Sally League in 2007, where he went just 2-8, 4.75 in 22 starts. He posted a 117/41 K/BB in 97 innings, with 85 hits allowed. Despite the ugly ERA and won-loss record, his K/IP and H/IP marks were very strong and pointed to plenty of upside. He needed to lower his walk rate, but the ERA wasn't a fair representation of how he pitched. His FIP was much better at 3.31. Scouts reported that his fastball improved to 92-96 MPH, and he made some progress refining his breaking ball and changeup. I increased his rating to a Grade B- in the 2008 book, noting that he was a breakout candidate, and "if he can sharpen his command even a little bit, he could dominate."
Promoted to Double-A Corpus Christi for 2008, Norris went 3-8, 4.05 in 19 starts, limited by elbow problems. He continued to post an impressive K/IP ratio with 84 whiffs, while walking 31 and giving up 89 hits. Scouting reports indicated slow but steady progress with fastball command and his hard breaking ball, but his changeup lagged behind and there were concerns that his mechanics stressed his elbow. He pitched in the Arizona Fall League as a reliever and was very successful, clocked as high as 98 MPH, and last winter it seemed there was a good chance he would end up in the bullpen permanently. I gave him another Grade B- in the '09 book, writing once again that if his command improved he could dominate.
Norris split '09 between Triple-A Round Rock and the majors. In Triple-A he went 4-9, 2.63 with a 112/53 K/BB in 120 innings, allowing 104 hits. . .the walks were still a little higher than ideal, but he continued to post strong K/IP and H/IP marks with a 3.41 FIP. In the majors, he went 6-3, 4.53 with a 54/25 K/BB in 56 innings, allowing 59 hits with a 4.77 FIP, not bad at all for a rookie.
According to fangraphs, Norris' fastball averaged 93.8 MPH in the majors, topping out at 98 MPH. He relied primarily on the fastball and slider, mixing in changeups just 6% of the time. Fangraphs rates his slider as his most effective pitch, which matches the scouting reports I had on him in the minors. He still needs to sharpen up his command, and improving the changeup and using it more often is a good idea. Again, this is all consistent with the minor league reports.
Norris threw 176 innings last year, the most he's ever thrown and more than double his '08 innings. I think the Astros need to monitor his workload carefully this year, especially when he gets past the 100 inning mark. Assuming he avoids further elbow problems, I think Norris will be a league-average pitcher in 2010, then take a larger step forward in 2011.
As an aside, yes, I know that won-loss record means nothing as far as analyzing a pitcher's future goes, but it's at least weird that his career record in the minors was a mere 12-25 (.324), given that his 3.68 ERA was solid and his FIPs were always strong. It looks like Norris was frequently snakebit by poor offensive and defensive support from his minor league teammates. Perhaps this will be something he can take forward, how to bounce back from something when the world breaks against you?
Overall I think he is something of a well-kept secret nationally, and one of the better young pitches who debuted in '09. If still eligible for rookie grading, I'd give him a strong Grade B.