As the Houston Astros struggle through a terrible 2011 season, Bud Norris' excellence continues to be one of the lone bright spots for the 27-46 club. Norris allowed one hit, five strikeouts and one walk in six innings pitched against the Dodgers yesterday, while lowering his ERA to 3.26 for the season.
Norris finished with a 4.92 ERA last season, but the 26-year-old right-hander was a victim of a below-average 67 percent strand rate and a .317 BABIP. He finished the season with an impressive 3.96 xFIP and a strikeout rate of 9.25 K/9.
This season's performance has proved that his xFIP was a better indicator of the kind of pitcher Norris would become. His 2011 xFIP currently sits at 3.29. His most impressive change has been the reduction in his walk rate from 4.51 to 3.35 BB/9 in 2011. Furthermore, Norris has improved upon his swinging strike percentage (10.9 to 11.2 percent,) despite a dip in his average fastball velocity from 93.6 to 92.7 mph.
Like last season, Norris has relied heavily on his slider. As of today, his slider is the second-highest rated pitch among starting pitchers in 2011. His slider has generated a swing and miss 39.7 percent of the time, an improvement over the 36.4 percent rate last season. His slider has lost some velocity, averaging 85.8 mph compared to 87.4 last season, but the pitch has gained almost two more inches of horizontal movement and an inch of downward movement.
That has allowed Norris to get hitters to chase pitches out of the strike zone more often, improving his chase percentage from 27.4 to 31.5 percent, which has helped to improve his walk rate.
Norris' strand rate now sits closer to the 2010 average at 72.3 percent, and his BABIP has improved to .283 this season. His line drive rate remains similar to last season.
The only trend I do not like is the slight increase in fly balls. However, his 39.3 percent ground ball rate is not in the bottom 20 percent of pitchers. I do not see any other signs that demonstrate whether Norris will regress dramatically, and I think he will finish the season with an ERA around 3.45-3.65.