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Bud Norris’ cutter has made him lethal in relief

Always a middling starter, Angels closer Bud Norris could become the next success story out of the bullpen.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Los Angeles Angels Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The last time you heard that Bud Norris was dominating was... likely never. At his best, he was a good-but-not-great starter with Houston who slowly slipped into irrelevancy as he aged.

The end of his career as an effective starter was seemingly epitomized in one 2016 start, while he was with the Braves—an April 27 outing against the Red Sox. Posting a Game Score of just 5, Norris lasted just 13 hitters before receiving the hook, allowing six runs on seven hits, walking one and striking out none.

Oddly enough, Atlanta shipped him to the Dodgers midway through last year, and Norris had something of a revolution, at least by his standards. In his first start, he pitched six innings of shutout baseball with eight strikeouts. Where did this Bud Norris come from? we all wondered. But, in true Norris fashion, he regressed, ending up with a 6.54 ERA in his 42 23 innings with Los Angeles.

Norris signed on with the other Los Angeles team over the offseason, inking a minors pact with the Angels of Anaheim. A strong Spring Training earned him a spot as the long reliever. But, by April 22, he was closing.

For the first time in his career, it is acceptable to call Norris dominant. In 17 innings this season, he’s posted a good-but-not-great 3.18 ERA. Despite these pedestrian results, Norris has a 22:7 K/BB ratio, good for a sparkling 1.82 FIP. It’s still early, but for comparison, Norris has a better FIP than Chris Devenski, Mark Melancon and Brad Hand, to name a few. Overall, it ranks 31st among 185 qualified relievers thus far.

Worth nothing, Norris has also saved five games this season, the first of in that category for his career. With Cam Bedrosian out with an injury, Norris has stepped up. In 8 13 innings since the end of April, Norris has allowed two runs and has posted a 12:4 K/BB ratio. For the season, Norris has been worth 0.8 fWAR, which means he is shockingly already more valuable than he has been in the last two seasons combined, even in 179 fewer innings.

Enough with the backstory; I’m here to tell you why Norris has been so much better in 2017 than in the past. And it’s not quite what you’d expect.

For most former starters, moving to the bullpen usually comes with extra velocity. Archie Bradley, who I looked at a few weeks ago, is a prime example of this. Because they are throwing fewer innings on a regular basis, they can put more effort into each individual pitch, and the velocity just comes along with it.

For Norris, though, this isn’t really the case. His fastball has averaged 94.0 mph this season, not a huge—albeit still noticeable—jump from his 2016 mark of 93.4 mph.

A larger change comes into more focus here, and it is exactly what I want to discuss: the emergence of Norris’ cutter.

In 2012, Norris did not throw a single cutter. In 2015, he threw 10. In 2016? 77. Through 17 innings this year, Bud Norris has already thrown 128 cutters.

Norris’ cutter usage, by year
Chart via Brooks Baseball

Norris’ cutter has become his best weapon amongst the pitches in his repertoire, and it’s not even close. Hitters are hitting just .148 with a .194 slugging percentage against his cutter, and eight of his 22 strikeouts this season have come with the pitch.

Here’s Brooks Baseball’s description of Norris’ cutter:

“His cutter generates an extremely high number of swings & misses compared to other pitchers' cutters, results in many more groundballs compared to other pitchers' cutters, has slightly above average velo and has strong cutting action.”

The pitch’s movement isn’t the only thing that has helped Norris reach an elite level out of the bullpen; his location with it is also top notch.

Norris’ heatmap, cutter specific
Chart via Baseball Savant

Being able to keep the ball low-and-away to right handed hitters, especially with two-strike counts, has helped Norris strike out hitters at the highest rate of his career.

Here’s a Norris strikeout of Jarrod Saltalamacchia from his first save. Although he is left-handed, Norris hits the heat map-highlighted part of the strike zone with the pitch. It generates great downward action, and Saltalamacchia swings right over it.

Pitches like this one have made Norris’ cutter one of the best in baseball. In fact, in terms of pitch weights, the pitch ranks 8th in the Majors amongst pitchers who have thrown at least 10 innings, according to FanGraphs.

With a pitch that he did not even have just five years ago, and barely used last year, Bud Norris has reinvented the wheel, turning himself into an ace relief pitcher thus far. That minor league contract is working out pretty well for the Angels.

. . .

Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @DevanFink.