(*) FACTS/FLUKES: Norris, Billingsley, Upton, LaRoche, Pomeranz

Norris continuing pattern of steady growth... At BaseballHQ.com, we often remind readers that young players frequently don't develop at a linear rate. Bud Norris (RHP, HOU) may be the exception:

Year    IP   ERA   WHIP   xERA   H%   S%  Ctl  Dom  Cmd  hr/f  BPV
====   ===  ====   ====   ====  ===  ===  ===  ===  ===  ====  ===
2010   154  4.92   1.48   4.14  33%  69%  4.5  9.3  2.1   11%   66
2011   186  3.77   1.33   3.68  31%  76%  3.4  8.5  2.5   12%   80
2012*   50  3.58   1.21   3.38  30%  75%  2.7  8.9  3.3   11%  109
* - thru 5/20

Norris has done a nice job of covering up his weaknesses as he has gained experience:

  • Improvements in his Ctl since his rookie year have driven most of his year-over-year improvement, as he has managed those Ctl gains without erosion of his Dom.
  • Although he pitches for a bad team, that improved Ctl and Cmd will allow him to pitch deeper into games and control his own destiny more frequently, in terms of decisions.
  • Norris has been on a roll in May, allowing just a single earned run over four starts this month.

Is this May hot streak a sign of an even bigger step forward for Norris? Notable during this time has been a sudden stop to the gopheritis that has been keeping his ERA from dropping to elite levels. There has not been any meaningful change in his G/L/F splits, so this newfound ability to keep the ball in the park is likely just a case of a few errant gusts of wind working in his favor. Still, even if that mild HR bugaboo returns, Norris remains a surprisingly safe SP investment on a bad team.

 

Billingsley remains an enigma thus far in 2012... In a Facts/Flukes profile back in February, Brent Hershey described Chad Billingsley's (RHP, LA) career-to-date as "a roller coaster." Are we up or down in 2012?

Year     IP    ERA   xERA   Ctl   Dom   Cmd   hr/9   H%   OppBA   BPV
====    ===   ====   ====   ===   ===   ===   ====   ==   =====   ===
2009    196   4.03   4.02   3.9   8.2   2.1    0.8   29    .238    64
2010    192   3.57   3.78   3.2   8.0   2.5    0.4   31    .246    85
2011    188   4.21   4.08   4.0   7.3   1.8    0.7   32    .263    45
2012     51   3.91   3.91   3.6   7.8   2.2    1.1   32    .270    67

We've seen a little bit of everything from Billingsley this year, and it's only late May:

  • He started out like gangbusters with three straight PQS-DOM outings, and a BPV of 99 for all of April, with a glittering 3.6 Cmd.
  • He has given back those gains in May, crashing back to earth with a BPV of 19 and a miserable 1.5 Cmd.
  • For the full year-to-date, the overall gains in his Ctl and Dom are somewhat encouraging.

While he has managed to nudge his Cmd back above the crucial 2.0 threshold, the erratic distribution of outcomes from Billingsley makes it hard to recommend him. Indeed, his 44%/33% PQS-DOM/DIS underscores the key takeaway: until further notice, inserting Billingsley in your lineup is a "trick or treat" proposition.

 

What's bugging Justin Upton? ... After practically carrying the upstart Diamondbacks to the NL West title in 2011, the season's first seven weeks have been very unkind to Justin Upton (OF, ARI). What's the problem?

Year     AB   BA    xBA   H%  ct%  HR   PX  hr/f  Spd  SB    G/L/F
=====   ===  ====  ====   ==  ===  ==  ===  ====  ===  ==  ========
2008    356  .250  .238   34   66  15  157   15%  149   1  37/21/42
2009    526  .300  .275   36   74  26  155   19%  135  20  45/19/36
2010    495  .273  .247   36   69  17  131   12%  122  18  41/19/39
2011    592  .289  .292   32   79  31  166   15%  117  21  37/18/45
2012    134  .239  .236   30   72   4   84   13%   99   8  41/27/33

As is typically the case when you see an in-his-prime star underachieving dramatically, there are a number of factors driving this poor start:

  • The BA dip looks like a h%-driven anomaly. Not only is Upton's current hit rate well off from his normal levels, but the combination of a 27% line drive rate and a 30% hit rate is simply incongruous. Something has to give there, although which one corrects first is an open question.
  • Most disconcerting in this skill profile is the fact that Upton is giving back the ct% gains that were a key driver of his 2011 breakout. The sample size is still small, as we're looking at a difference of 8-10 strikeouts for the season so far. But this is perhaps the key metric to watch.
  • Upton's power is beyond question at this point in his career, which makes a summer power surge a safe assumption.

Upton's early SB total has propped up his value, but his owners didn't acquire him for that skill alone. Unless there is a hidden injury in play, Upton's power will eventually emerge. But the real bellweather metric will be ct%: Upton with a near-80% ct% is a budding superstar, with a near-70% ct% his ceiling is notably lower. Before recommending Upton as a buy-low candidate, we have to consider the track record above, and the fact that 2011 was his only foray above a 75% ct%. Some level of rebound is coming, but it may not be as dramatic as his owners are hoping.

LaRoche showing no ill effects from shoulder issues... Washington's two-year investment in Adam LaRoche (1B, WAS) prior to the 2011 season suddenly doesn't seem as misguided as it did last year. LaRoche is not only swinging a healthy bat, but defying his reputation as a traditional slow-starter:

Year    AB    BA   xBA  HR  PX   ct%  bb%    G/L/F   hr/f
====   ===  ====  ====  ==  ===  ===  ===  ========  ====
2009   555  .277  .271  25  145  74%  11%  35/22/43   14%
2010   560  .261  .253  25  160  69%   8%  38/18/44   15%
2011   151  .172  .211   3   62  75%  14%  43/19/38    7%
2012   135  .311  .289   7  171  73%  15%  30/29/41   17%

Across the board, LaRoche looks as good as he ever has:

  • Although xBA doesn't fully endorse him as a .300 hitter, it does validate that he is exhibiting batting average skills that are improved over anything in his recent past.
  • He's a little old (32) to be flashing a career-best PX, but he's hitting more balls in the air than ever before (if you combine liners and flies), and his hr/f is not outlying against his recent past.

Although we might think of LaRoche as an injury risk on the heels of his lost 2011 season, the truth is that LaRoche was a very durable player before last year. So, playing time risk should be minimal unless his skills collapse completely. And with his skills so completely in line with prior levels, such a collapse seems unlikely. A bit of erosion from this pace is to be expected, but there's good reason to expect LaRoche to sustain the bulk of what he's doing right now.

 

First impression: Drew Pomeranz (LHP, COL)

CALLED UP: April 15
CURRENT ROLE: sent back to Triple-A on May 11
POTENTIAL FUTURE ROLE: Starting pitcher
2011 MINORS STATS: Double-A and Triple-A: 15.2 IP, 12 hits, 0 runs, 2 BB/13 K.

Year    IP   ERA  xERA   H%   S%    G/L/F     Ctl  Dom  Cmd  hr/f  BPV
====   ===  ====  ====  ===  ===   ========   ===  ===  ===  ====  ===
2011*   42  3.32  2.02   26   66   47/25/28   2.3  6.8  3.0    0%   74
2012    23  4.70  4.57   34   74   41/32/26   5.9  7.8  1.3   11%    1
*includes MLE

Pomeranz made five starts in the majors before getting sent back to Triple-A on May 11. Did we learn anything about him during this cup of coffee?

  • An alarming combination of bad control and getting hit hard (as shown by LD%) shows a pitcher who just could not spot the ball where he needed to.
  • The combination of a healthy Dom and hints of a groundball bias (somewhat obscured by the plethora of line drives allowed) does hint at the kind of skills needed to succeed at Coors Field in the long term.
  • Pomeranz hasn't shown the same degree of Ctl issues in the minors, which strongly suggests that a lack of polish, approach, or maturity—rather than chronic control issues—drove his walk total up while in COL. He has a total of only 40 IP worth of experience combined at Double-A and Triple-A.

It seems likely that Pomeranz left Colorado with an understanding of some things he needs to work on before getting back to the majors. In only his second pro season, the pace of those adjustments will likely determine how quickly he makes it back to the majors. But don't make the mistake of assuming the "wild thing" we saw over these five starts is the real Pomeranz; in fact we don't yet know what the finished product will look like. But there are some interesting raw ingredients in place.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.