James Norwood Has a Nasty Splitter, But the Location Has to Improve

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James Norwood Has a Nasty Splitter, But the Location Has to Improve

Chicago Cubs

The splitter is such a weird pitch. On its face, it’s one of my favorite to watch visually: a changeup on steroids that completely falls off the table and produces silly swings. I’m a sucker for it.

But man oh man, it doesn’t look so good in slo mo when it stays up and is hammered 389 feet by the opposing team:

The nature of a splitter is that it is, by definition, a low-spin pitch. You just let gravity do the work for you. James Norwood, whose splitter can be one of the best pitches in the bullpen, averaged just 1144 RPM with the pitch in 2019. That is a good thing. When Norwood’s splitter is at its best, it’s his favorite offspeed pitch, and it pairs with the high 90s fastball well enough that starts to convince you there’s a late-inning reliever in there somewhere.

And yet, at the Major League level, it’s not yet been successful in any of the three small sample sized years that Norwood has pitched. Using FanGraphs pitch values, the splitter was worth -2.1 runs in 2018, -0.5 in 2019, and is already down to -2.2 runs after just two appearances this year.

It’s not a question of the pitch’s upside. His whiff percentage with the pitch was 20% or higher in both 2018 and 2019. The problem for Norwood is location consistency. For example, he threw five split-fingers against the Brewers this weekend, two were belt high, and both of those ended in hits. They are in blue from Baseball Savant pitch visualizer.

That pitch visualizer works so beautifully to show the problem. When the pitch is located up, it begins to fight gravity, and you don’t see that late sink that the three located beneath the strike zone all feature. You can see how much less vertical movement is accomplished. And without spin to help give them life, they’re simply sitting up and asking to be driven far.

While we talk so much about what an intriguing talent Dillon Maples is, and boy is it true, Norwood is in the same boat. In fact, it was Norwood that threw the three fastest pitches in Saturday’s game, and he does so with pretty manageable control. But the slider is just okay, and he doesn’t have the natural ability to spin the ball that makes you think it’s going to take a leap. It has to be the splitter, and the splitter has to be consistent.

In two weeks, the Cubs will have to begin to shrink their roster, and there’s a good chance Norwood will be sent to South Bend. When that happens, Norwood will quickly use up his last and final minor league option, meaning that he will enter 2021 out of options. The margin for error is shrinking quickly, and so Norwood must show the staff and front office in every outing going forward that he can spot the splitter at the bottom of the zone. Time is almost out.

Author: Bryan Smith

Bryan Smith is a Minor League Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @cubprospects.