Small Changes Could Unlock James Norwood’s High-Leverage Potential

James Norwood‘s big fastball suggests potential as a high-leverage reliever. But to be effective and gain manager David Ross’s trust in late innings, the 26-year-old righty needs to prove that he has competent secondary pitches. Perhaps the Cubs’ new pitching development team can unlock Norwood’s potential by enhancing his slider and changeup.

Norwood throws his four-seam fastball with an average velocity of roughly 97 mph and can touch triple digits when he really gets it going. He goes to the heater about six out of every 10 pitches, but the real key for him is what he does with the other four.

While his fastball spin translates to movement, his slider active spin rate ranks in the bottom 10% of MLB. That could be responsible for his high walk rates and fewer strikeouts than expected as a result of not fooling hitters.

Norwood’s slider not only has a suboptimal active spin rate but also extremely low overall spin relative to the rest of MLB, as shown below in the distribution graph.

But what’s encouraging is Norwood’s splitter has less spin — which is good for splitters — than the rest of MLB. That’s what you want from your splitter: a dead pitch.

It’s possible that inefficient mechanics are preventing him from imparting the amount of spin necessary for sharp breaking action. For instance, although horizontal release point is partially skewed by where a pitcher stands on the rubber, Norwood’s horizontal release point is more toward the third base side compared to other MLB pitchers.

Studies by Driveline Baseball have shown that release point and finger orientation on the baseball predict active spin rate, so it’s possible that even very minor adjustments will yield big results for Norwood. Getting his horizontal release point slightly more in line with the norm might be a start. A change in curveball grip was largely responsible for Rowan Wick‘s breakout, so perhaps a similar tweak would help Norwood.

In addition to a more aggressive developmental philosophy in general, the thrust of a new staff presided over by Craig Breslow is to optimize the inherent talents of pitchers throughout the system. Contrary to what some erroneously believe, that doesn’t mean eschewing results in favor of certain metrics or measurements. Rather, it’s about using those measurements to maximize latent potential.

In the case of James Norwood, that could mean something as simple as finding out why his breaking and offspeed pitches fall so far behind his fastball. If the Cubs can solve that riddle, they’ve got another stud righty for the bullpen.

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