When Bud Norris made his debut in 2009, the right-hander seemed destined for greatness–at least based on his performances against the St. Louis Cardinals. He allowed a total of two runs in his first 26 innings against and continued that dominance for another couple seasons before the Cardinals began to turn the tide. But that was then and this is now.
A free agent this off-season, Norris was on the field with the St. Louis Cardinals as pitchers and catchers had their first practice of Spring Training this morning.
“Sheer excitement,” stated Norris. “I have had a pretty storied history in St. Louis, but I think there’s a reason why I pitched so well there is because it’s a baseball city first. I love the fan base. I love Busch Stadium and I really believe that they brought the best out of me. I had a good history and a good run against them, but I could not be more excited or thrilled to put on the St. Louis uniform because the put baseball first and winning games. Uber excited.”
It was that excitement that made it a no-brainer for Norris to choose the Cardinals over some other teams that expressed interest in signing him.
“Well, it’s been a really interesting off-season,” said Norris. “The phone was definitely ringing in early November and a little bit in December when it slows down for the holiday season. But it’s been a little dicey for a lot of guys here these last couple weeks. Obviously, I just did the other day too. There were some other teams in the mix, but when I got the call from my agent saying that Mo called him, I really perched up and got super excited because this was a destination on my list. Just thinking it through, like where do I really want to be? Where’s a really competitive team year in and year out and once again, one of the best fan bases in the game? So it was easy for me. I hope this is a smooth transition and I just want to do my part.”
Exactly what that part will be remains to be seen.
“He just gives us some flexibility,” explained President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak. “I don’t want to say there’s question marks in our rotation, but the health of Waino and where he’s at–(Norris) gives us the ability if we need someone to eat some innings, but you also look at the first half of last year and the impact he made in their bullpen is something we’re trying to capture.”
“I’m a firm believer that I can do both,” said Norris. “I really know that I can start and I would love that opportunity again, but we’ll see how it plays out. But on the closer side of things, I really had an opportunity last year when Huston Street went down and guys like Andrew Bailey and Cam Bedrosian also went down, I think Scioscia had to really say who’s down there, who are my veteran guys, and who can I trust in a late inning. When I got drafted, that’s kind of how I got labeled–that I was going to be a back end of the bullpen guy. I’ve always kind of considered that transition, but I got a real taste of it last year.”
Norris converted his first big league save on April 22nd with the Angels last year and went on to convert 19 of 23 opportunities. He also fanned 74 batters in 62.0 innings pitched, which resulted in the best strikeout/9 IP ratio (10.7) of his career.
“I think I converted my first 11 (saves) which is outstanding, but it’s a different beast,” continued Norris. “It’s a unique mindset that you really have to have and I think I got a good taste of it and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
And regardless of what the numbers say, count Norris in the camp that securing the final three outs of the game are different.
“It’s everything,” he said. “7th inning, 8th inning, 4th inning–there’s nothing bigger than the 9th inning because you know exactly what the score is. If it’s a one-run game and there’s a runner at first base, everybody’s got their eyes on that guy at first base to see if he’s gonna be moving. So you really need to process the information, you need to address the situation in front of you, you need to compete, you need to be composed, you need to control yourself. It really can get away from you fast as we’ve seen from a lot of closers through history.
“I think I managed it pretty well and after playing this long and having as much service time as I have, I’m more prepared now to do that job than I would have been at a younger age in my career. If you would’ve asked me to close in the first couple years in the league, I think I would’ve struggled mightily. Now that I’ve been around and definitely have some bullpen time under my belt, but those last three outs are a different beast and you’ve got to be ready.”
Having success–like converting 11 straight saves can be fun, an adrenaline rush, and more. But handling the blown save, getting back out there with a short memory can be a bigger challenge for potential closers.
“So much easier said than done,” agreed Norris. “But I think all of us have that inclination in ourselves, how competitive are we? I want to get back out there. It’s either you steer for the adversity or you steer away from it. I went right for it. I went head on with it and luckily, was able to be in those positions and succeed.”
The 60 appearances by Norris last season almost doubled his previous season high, but in the process of moving to the bullpen he’s learned how to take care of his body as a reliever. Staying loose, flexibility and stretching–even the little parts like his toes.
And while 32 years of age isn’t old, after nine big league seasons there have been some other adjustments made.
“I believe the velocity is definitely still there,” said Norris. “I’ve always been a power pitcher and I trust my fastball. I think you really have to. You don’t need to look at the radar gun to trust your fastball. But that being said, my repertoire has definitely gotten a little better. I’ve started using my two-seamer a lot more, even my starter years in Baltimore and Atlanta. That pitch has come a long way. But last year, specifically out of the bullpen, I really utilized my cutter a lot more. I used it more in a different, more effective way than I had as a starter.
“So I learned some things with that pitch, how I want to use it going forward as a starter or reliever. The arsenal is still in there with the good breaking ball, and a good changeup. But the two-seamer and cutter, I’ve made some serious strides with the last couple years and if you can add that many more weapons to throw at some guys, that’s huge.”
A stomach bug in 2015 caused Norris to lose 20lbs in 2-3 days and spend 8 weeks on DL with Baltimore. Looking back, Bud believes he came back to soon, but wanted to try and help with the Orioles post season chances. Instead he got designated for assignment and later wound up in bullpen with San Diego.
“It means everything, truly–at the end of the ’15 season, I didn’t know if baseball was still in my future,” shared Norris. “I really had a big scare like what’s going to happen. My parents looked at me when I got designated same thing and were like, are you done playing ball? It wasn’t like I was told I needed Tommy John surgery or my career was over, but I’ve really grasped every day in a positive light knowing that everyday is truly a blessing in a big league uniform and putting on the St. Louis uniform is going to be another blessing on Opening Day and everyday moving forward. I believe I’m in a positive mind frame. I’m in the best place of my life personally and I think that adds to what goes on the field as well, so I’m super excited to see what this year holds and give everything I can to the St. Louis Cardinals.”
Despite that early success against the Cardinals that created a picture of Norris going on to become an All-Star, 20-game winner, and other various accolades, it hasn’t happened. He’s had double-digit wins only twice. 200 innings is still a plateau to be reached–but that now serves as motivation with that change in perspective.
“This game will do some crazy things to you,” said Norris. “I’ve had a crazy run the last couple of years, but I really feel that I’m back in an area where I’m controlling the controllables–that’s taking care of me, taking care of my body, and feeling great. That’s the first, foremost thing I’ve had to focus on. Like I said, when I got really sick in ’15, I bounced back the last couple of years but I feel great right now.
“I don’t have set goals right now, I think towards the end of camp and when my role gets a little more defined, I’ll set some personal things but first and foremost thing is stay healthy. When I’m on the field, I can help my team and that’s how you become a good teammate is being the best player you can be on and off the field. And pitching throughout the course of the year–staying off the disabled list. Pitching throughout the course of the year, because innings need to be picked up even in the dog days of August. We know that. So if I’m healthy, I can go out there and do a lot of things.”
photo credit: Brian Stull/STLBaseballWeekly.com