Can James Norwood Have Impact for Cubs in 2019?

When James Norwood was called up to Chicago on July 8, he didn’t need to find room in his travel bag for fanfare. A 7th-round pick in the 2014 draft, the former St. Louis Billiken worked his way up the system methodically, playing for two different affiliates each season. His promotion to the Cubs marked the first time he’d worn three different uniforms in his professional tenure.

Norwood burst on the scene with a blazing fastball that averaged 97.9 mph, just 0.2 behind Brandon Morrow for hardest on the team. That was a surprise for anyone who hadn’t followed him in the minors, but again, his hype would’ve fit in a TSA-approved liquid container. He ended up pitching 11 mostly low-leverage innings for the Cubs in 2018, but could be primed to play a bigger role in the ‘pen in 2019.

The Bronx native uses a three-pitch mix and tries to overpower opposing hitters with his fastball, which sits 97-98 and has touched 100. The pitch has tailing life in the bottom of the zone and he can run it up at the letters to get swings and misses as well. Due to his lack of command of it, however, the fastball does play down.

There are spurts where he loses the timing of his delivery, which leads to a lack of control and erratic results. One thing you may notice when watching Norwood is that he sometimes appears to be leaning towards first base a tad bit more than normal, perhaps causing him to over-correct and miss glove-side.

Take the two pitches shown in the videos below. In the first example, he opens up his chest a little early, leading him to pull the pitch wide. He stays more on-line in the second, but just misses the outside corner.

When Norwood does command his fastball, though, it can be devastating.

The back-and-forth action and head whack evident in his delivery makes it difficult to repeat, and it remains to be seen whether he will develop enough command to for a high-leverage role. But it’s important to remember that last season was Norwood’s first above Double-A and he threw just 17.2 innings at Triple-A Iowa. Which is to say he still has time to work on the finer points of his mechanics.

Norwood’s best secondary pitch is a split-finger fastball that can generate swings and misses with sharp downward movement. He can get hurt when he leaves it up in the zone, but the results are good when he locates below the knees. This splitter shown below, from his Cubs debut in San Francisco, shows tailing action to go along with a lot of depth.

When the pitch comes in at 90 and moves like that below the zone it’s essentially unhittable.

However, when Norwood left it up in the zone the pitch loses the movement and becomes very hittable.

Norwood’s three-pitch arsenal rounds out with a slider that he uses to steal strikes early in counts. It lacks the proper depth or spin to truly project into an out pitch, but it can be effective in small doses. Here’s an example of the first-pitch slider he uses sporadically:

As with any slider, though, it can turn into a cement mixer on him and hang in the zone as if placed on a tee.

Given how heavily the Cubs lean on technology to groom pitchers, it’s not inconceivable that they can coax a better breaking pitch with Norwood. Perhaps minor league pitching coordinator Brendan Sagara can put his infamous pitch-grip index to work. That may help Norwood eventually, but the slider will be his tertiary option for now.

Norwood is going to try and win a job out of spring training, but the most likely outcome is that he’ll start the year in Iowa. There he will have an extended opportunity to work on his delivery and command in a way he couldn’t last season due to being thrust into the majors. All the ingredients are there, now it’s a matter of Norwood putting them all together.

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