Reality Check: Sean Newcomb Is Changing
Sean Newcomb was a divisive prospect coming up through the minors. Some thought his large frame and high octane fastball/curveball combo made him a high upside starter. Others argued his poor control and lack of viable third pitch would make him a bullpen piece. Those question marks would end up turning him into a trade chip for the Angels. There was enough intrigue to interest the Braves, however, who sent Andrelton Simmons to the Angels in exchange for Newcomb and Erick Aybar following the 2015 season.
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Setting aside how fun it is to look at that trade in hindsight (Simmons has 13.2 fWAR in three seasons since the trade, but it was Newcomb who was pitching in Game 3 of the 2018 NLDS), let’s look at the development of Newcomb. Those who were dubious of his control coming around have been right to this point. In 2015 he walked 76 batters over 136 innings, although that came across three levels of the minors. That’s an impressive climb for any player. His walk rate was nearly identical in 2016 with the Braves Double-A club, and it actually got worse in 2017.
Despite his walk rate rising to a dangerous 5.15 BB/9 over 57.2 innings at Triple-A Gwinnett, the Braves called upon his services to help in Atlanta. He made 19 starts and tossed an even 100 innings, posting a modest 4.32 ERA with a 9.72 K/9 and 5.13 BB/9. He was handed the reigns again in 2018, this time for 30 starts (and one relief appearance) over the full season. His walk rate and ERA improved while his strikeout rate declined, finishing with a 3.90 ERA, 8.78 K/9, and 4.45 BB/9.
As a left-handed pitcher, Newcomb was unsurprisingly better against left-handed hitters than righties in 2017. The wOBA difference wasn’t drastic though, with a .330 (L)/.337 (R) split. Still, he decided to…change things up…in 2018. Yes, that woeful pun means he threw more changeups in 2018. He increased the usage of the pitch by 8.5%, and it did the trick. His split against right-handed bats dropped .038 points to .299.
The additional changeups came at the expense of his curveball.
While the wOBA results were there, some of the underlying numbers don’t give you the same warm fuzzies. The curve/change combo lost a lot of its luster in 2018, with precipitous declines in whiff rate for each pitch against righties.
Whereas the changeup, in particular, was elite by whiff rate in 2017, it regressed hard in 2018. He also saw his hard contact balloon against batters of either handedness, rising from an elite 27% to a mediocre 34.8%. His fastball and slider continued to be strong options for him though, and his overall swinging strike rate trickled down by just 1.1% to 10%.
Where Newcomb’s main issue still resides, however, is in his control. His zone percentage has always been very low – 41.2% in 2017, 40.8% in 2018. He did issue the third most walks in 2018, after all, with 81 (only Lucas Giolito and Julio Teheran had more). Now, staying out of the zone isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some of the best pitchers in the league avoid the strike zone as much as they can. After all, those are the best pitches to hit! Blake Snell and Patrick Corbin, for example, were among the bottom 10 in zone%.
Where pitchers like Snell and Corbin differentiate themselves from Sean Newcomb, however, is in their ability to get hitters to expand the zone and flail away at pitches they can’t do damage with. Corbin’s O-Swing% was the best in the league at 38%. Snell was top-20 at 33.1%. Newcomb was just 51st among qualified starters at 28.2%.
So if he can’t pound the zone and he’s not getting reaches outside the zone, how has he not been a disaster? He’s been roughly league-average, after all. The key for Newcomb has been his ability to avoid hard contact within the zone. His pitches have lots of movement, and his contact rate on pitches within the strike zone was 14th best in 2018 at 83.9%. Avoiding contact within the zone is one of the benchmarks of great pitchers. Just look at this top 15 from 2018.
That’s not bad company to keep. Also, I see you Nick Pivetta. Your write-up is coming soon. Another signifier of his ability to limit hard contact comes courtesy of Baseball Savant’s Barrels per Plate Appearance metric. Setting the minimum of batted ball events to 250 weeds out the relievers. We don’t have to look beyond the top five before Sean Newcomb pops up.
Seeing Lance Lynn on this leaderboard might begin to answer why the Rangers saw fit to give him $30 million guaranteed after he just put up 156.2 innings of a 4.77 ERA. Lynn and Newcomb have a lot more in common than you might think.
Based on those numbers alone, you might start to wonder why on earth you’re drafting Newcomb in the middle rounds of drafts and laughing at anyone eyeballing Lance Lynn. Of course, those numbers don’t paint the whole picture. Lynn throws 77% fastballs and is clearly on the back-end of his career. Despite the fact that Newcomb didn’t have a single offspeed pitch finish with a positive pitch value in 2018, he is still just 25 and has a trio of breaking pitches that, at the very least, give Newcomb the potential for greater things.
Sean Newcomb in 2019
Sean Newcomb has given us a 1.57 and 1.33 WHIP in his two seasons. Unless his command comes a long, long way in 2018 (which his 4.42 second-half BB/9 gives no indication of), he’s going to be a WHIP liability. He should hover around a strikeout per inning, but his pitch count gets too high, too early, too often, making 180 innings a bit of a stretch. There’s definitely potential here, which is why he’s going as pick 169 on average according to our early ADP. That’s too rich for my blood.
Apparently, I like this tier, because being drafted right around him are starters Andrew Heaney and Shane Bieber, who I have written about recently. Those guys won’t kill your WHIP as Newcomb will, and I have a lot easier time imagining them taking a step forward than I do with Newcomb. I’d just as soon take my chances later with Josh James or the recently-signed Yusei Kikuchi.
If you like this article check out the rest of the 2019 FantraxHQ Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit. We’ll be adding more content from now right up until Opening Day!
Nathan Dokken is a member of the FSWA and has been featured on numerous radio shows, podcasts, and magazines. He is the host of the Nasty Cast and Fantrax Dynasty Baseball podcasts, and his written work can be found at Razzball and Fantrax HQ. He is on Twitter @NathanDokken.
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