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Kevin Newman’s Production: Sustained or One-Hit Wonder?

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Brett Barnett

Pittsburgh Pirates v Minnesota Twins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Last year, Kevin Newman was a crucial part to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ formula. Given his production, he figured to play into the future of the organization. Under ordinary circumstances, we would’ve been halfway through a season and would likely have a pretty good idea about the kind of year Newman was going to end up having.

But of course, that isn’t the case.

I think many are left wondering: What are we going to get from Newman? A season ago was Newman’s first full year in a Pirates’ uniform and he played exceptionally well. He ended up with a .308/.353/.446 slash line on the year and a wRC+ of 110. Those numbers indicate that he had a good year and are not predictive that he will have another (or many more) good year(s).

In an attempt to ascertain some clarity on Newman, I tried to dig into some of his available numbers.

For starters, I’m a big believer in plate discipline. If a hitter can layoff pitches outside the zone, as well as ones in the zone which they couldn’t do anything with (think Joey Votto), then they’re bound to have some modicum of success in the major leagues.

First thing’s first: Newman had a SwStr% of 6.6 percent a year ago, which places him third in the National League, bested only by Anthony Rendon and Jean Segura, respectively. That’s certainly a good mark to attain. But how good was he at laying off pitches out of the zone? Not as great. He chased pitches 37.3 percent of the time (for those wondering, Votto was first at 21.1 percent).

In total, he swung at just over half the pitches he saw (50.7 percent). While he was swinging fairly often, he was also making contact at high rates. On pitches outside of the zone, Newman made contact – but this particular stat doesn’t differentiate what kind of contact – 77.2 percent of the time, which was fourth in the National League. As for pitches inside the zone, he made contact 94.3 percent of the time, tying him for first place in the NL with Segura.

It’s obviously good to make contact when you swing. If you do, you avoid strikeouts. In fact, Newman was phenomenal compared to his senior circuit peers in this regard. He struck out 11.7 percent of the time, which was good enough for lowest K% in the NL (teammate Adam Frazier was fourth lowest).

Back when Darwin Barney was second baseman for the Chicago Cubs, I remember hearing broadcasters talk about how great he was at making contact and how he seldom struck out. To use him as a reference, his four full years as a Cub yielded the following K%: 14.1 percent, 11.7, 9.9, and 11.5. That puts Newman squarely in Barney territory, an alleged fiend of putting the ball in play.

What Newman didn’t do so often, unsurprisingly, is walk. His 5.3 percent BB% was seventh worst in the NL. This is, of course, due to him swinging so frequently. His BB/K ratio was a lousy 0.45 in 2019, which makes him worse than 30th in the NL.

By fWAR, Newman was a 2.4 win player. But FanGraphs’ ZiPS model suggests he’s going to see some severe regressions. For example, for 2020, ZiPS projects an 87 wRC+ — a dip of 23 points from a year ago. Furthermore, it expects he’ll be worth 1.6 wins, while also projecting his slash line to fall to .275/.321/.394. Granted, ZiPS doesn’t have a ton of data on Newman, as there isn’t much of a track record for him, but its number don’t bode well for the middle infielder.

I am of the mindset that we will see some type of regression from Newman – at least for a season, especially during one as strange as the 2020 season will be. But if Newman can find ways to increase his walk rate and become somewhat pickier at the plate, then he might be able to climb even higher. It’s easier said than done, but it will take some maturing regarding plate discipline before we can really decipher Newman’s ceiling.