It's often said that in order to succeed, a starter needs three effective pitches in his arsenal. But what if a hurler has one otherworldly pitch and two that, well, stink? Can that guy succeed? Houston's Bud Norris makes for an interesting test case.
The 26-year-old right-hander throws three pitches: a fastball that sits around 93 mph and tops out at 96, a low-80s changeup and an upper-80s slider. But that fastball has little wiggle, tailing in on right-handed hitters less than three inches compared to a pitch thrown without spin (the average for right-handers is 5-6 inches), and his changeup doesn't do a good job of mirroring his too-straight fastball. That likely makes it easier for hitters to recognize the difference between the two pitches:
Norris' fastball is getting hammered for a .498 slugging percentage this season (.419 league average for righties), and his changeup has been scorched, too (.479 slugging percentage, .378 league average).
But oh, that slider! Hitters just can't handle Norris' hard breaker. Check out his in-play slugging percentage with the slider, compared to the league average for righties:
Batters have a paltry .283 slugging percentage against Norris' slider, well below the .335 league average. Norris has gone to his slider more than any starting pitcher save for Edwin Jackson, throwing the sinister pitch 38 percent of the time. Against right-handers, he throws more sliders (49 percent) than fastballs (44 percent).
Equipped with a sinister slider and a BP-worthy fastball and changeup, Norris has managed to post a 3.68 ERA (with fielding-independent stats to back it up) that bests the 3.97 average for NL starters this season. Who says you need three pitches to get it done in the rotation?