In early March of 2017, Outfield Fly Rule’s Andy Harris did a composite list of Atlanta Braves prospect rankings. There were the big boys like Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, and Keith Law. Then there were the more fan-based rankings like Talking Chop, Tomahawk Take, and even Harris. Also included in that last category – me. At the time, Walk-Off Walk was a one-man operation and I did a complete Top 50.
When it came to Sean Newcomb, Harris reported, there was great deviation in rankings. Fangraphs had him as low as #11. Another source had him as high as #2. That was, well, me. I slid Newcomb right between Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies. A year later, all three would come up big in a 4-0 victory against the Rockies.
At the time, I talked about Newcomb’s improved control after a mechanical adjustment in the second half of 2016. I ended my blurb with this:
Newcomb is far from a finished product and it could take a few years in the majors for him to really take the strides needed to reach his potential. I look for progression in the minors and in Newcomb, I see just that. The full season results are not overly impressive, but when the light switch was flipped on, we saw the version of Newcomb that makes scouts excited. If we see more of that in Gwinnett to open 2017, he’ll be in the majors very soon.
I was right. That’s a rare thing so I like to point it out when it happens. Sean Newcomb came up to the majors on June 10 of last year, throwing 6.1 innings with 7 K’s and a pair of walks. He would go on to make 19 starts in 2017 with a 4.32 ERA, 4.19 FIP, and 1.3 fWAR. He K’d 24% of hitters, but he walked nearly 13%. There were plusses, negatives, and a lack of command that tried the patience of many Braves’ fans. But I remained convinced that Newcomb had the ace-level quality. Sometimes, you just have to have patience.
His first start of 2018 was rotten. He missed the zone roughly 60% of the time according to Baseball Info Solutions. Newcomb was the Bad Newk from 2017. And that’ll happen. Remember above when I said, “it could take a few years in the majors” for Newcomb to really get going? It’s not abnormal for “wild” pitchers to improve their control and learn to pitch like a major leaguer.
Well, on Sunday…Newcomb looked like the Crazy Good Newk. Over six innings, Newcomb allowed five hits, no runs, and – most importantly – zero walks. He also tied his single-game high with nine strikeouts. Let’s take a look at the outing with the help of PITCHf/X and Statcast.
Newcomb set the tone early that he would be a different pitcher than his first outing. Just to be completely factual, he was also working with a catcher in Kurt Suzuki that he was familiar with versus Chris Stewart, who earned – to be generous – mixed reviews behind the plate.
The big lefty started D.J. LeMahieu with a 94 mph that missed inside. He doubled it up with another fastball, painting the outside corner. He followed that up by dropping a changeup that was low. With the count 2-1, Newcomb typically overthrew the ball in previous contests, but in this one, he took something off his fastball. After seeing a 94 mph fastball and a 93.5 fastball, Newcomb hummed it in at 87.9 mph. It had the speed of the changeup LeMahieu just saw, but with faster spin rotation of a fastball (circa 1050 RPM vs. 1350 RPM). LeMahieu swings over it and barely knicks the ball. It turns into a single with an exit velocity of 19.3 mph.
What’s great here is that Newcomb doesn’t panic. He goes back to his fastball. It’s both a strike and in on the hands of Chris Iannetta. The Rockies catcher pounds it into the ground where it becomes an easy double play.
This becomes critically important because both Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story single. Arenado’s base hit comes after a six-pitch at-bat. Newcomb starts him with a pair of fastballs – one that misses horribly while the other is called strike one. He follows up back-to-back fastballs with back-to-back changeups. The first falls away from Arenado and he swings through it. The second was a changeup over the inside corner that Arenado fouls off. Newcomb’s next pitch, a fastball, misses high before he tries to put away the Rockies’ star with a curveball. It hangs and Arenado singles solidly. Newcomb missed his location badly with a fastball down Broadway to Story, who fortunately simply singles and Newcomb has some two-out trouble.
That brings up Ian Desmond and Newcomb doesn’t wither away. He throws four consecutive fastballs. The first gets Desmond to look at it over the outer half of the plate. The second is right down the middle, but Desmond can only foul it away. After they try to get Desmond to bite on a high heater, Newcomb brings the ball down a couple of feet and gets the call at the belt over the outside corner for the strikeout. It was a 96.1 mph fastball with nearly 2,050 RPM in rotation.
For the Rockies, not getting to Newcomb in the first despite a trio of hits would be costly. Gerardo Parra led off the next inning and swung at a first-pitch fastball that may have been a bit high. With the count 0-1, Newcomb followed up a 93.7 heater with a 77.8 mph curveball with about 1,670 RPM. Parra hit it hard, but on the ground and he was easily thrown out.
Pat Valaika and Mike Tauchman were due up next. Both players were bench guys getting their chance with Carlos Gonzalez getting a regular day off and Charlie Blackmon dealing with back soreness. Again, Newcomb went with a first-pitch fastball. Valaika took it a hair low. What’s going to be fascinating about this at-bat is that Newcomb throws seven consecutive fastballs and will change speeds frequently. His first pitch was a shade under 95 mph. His second was just a little faster than 88 mph. Valaika fouled it off.
Of the next four pitches, Valaika would swing through one pitch, foul off another, and take two outside. With the count full, Newcomb didn’t give Valaika a strike. It was about 89.2 mph and low-and-inside. But Valaika still swung. He missed on it to end the at-bat.
Tauchman saw a pair of 95 mph heaters that he took for strikes to open his at-bat. Newcomb tried to get his breaking balls working. First, he tried a slider that missed outside badly. It’d be the only slider he threw the entire game. A curveball also missed poorly. Not wanting to go full on the 8th place hitter, Newcomb went back to the fastball. It wasn’t great location – splitting the middle of the plate – but it was a high strike at 95 mph. Tauchman made contact, but fouled it into Kurt Suzuki’s glove.
Kyle Freeland has no chance as the third inning opened up. Again, Newcomb went with a steady diet of fastballs. With the pitcher up, he didn’t even bother changing speeds that much, ranging between 92 and 93 mph. His fifth pitch was swung on and foul-tipped into Suzuki’s glove. Three straight strikeouts and the last two were foul-tipped.
The second time through the order had been a bit of a problem for Newcomb in 2017. He still struck out nearly a quarter of all hitters, but walked about 4% more and gave up a bunch more home runs. Even without Blackmon and Cargo, Newcomb would be challenged to keep his good start going. He wouldn’t waiver.
LeMahieu was surprised by a first-pitch curveball that stayed above the knees for strike one. Newcomb missed with a changeup next. A fastball and changeup both went wide and LeMahieu was in a 3-1 count. Anyone could have predicted a fastball and LeMahieu got it, but it was well placed at the letters and over the inner half of the plate. LeMahieu got under it for a flyout.
In what becomes a more important at-bat when you consider Arenado was on deck, Newcomb would be helped out by both his stuff and an overly aggressive Iannetta. After a 96 mph heater missed low, another was fouled back. A hanging curveball missed high-and-outside. The fourth pitch is the pivotal one. It misses the zone by six inches low. But Iannetta couldn’t lay off the changeup, fouling it away. If Iannetta lays off, he’s in a 3-1 count and if Newcomb’s next pitch, a mid-90’s heater, misses – like it did – he’s on base for Arenado. Instead, when the fastball misses up-and-away, it’s a full count. Newcomb goes back to the changeup, which probably shocked Iannetta. It was even lower than the first one and Iannetta swings through it for strike three. Newcomb threw one pitch in the at-bat that hit the strikezone.
Newcomb starts Arenado with a curveball. It probably wasn’t the location he wanted – nearly the middle of the zone – but Arenado fouls it off. The pitch had about 1,650 RPM. But what happens next was very smart. The curveball was charted at 76 mph. Newcomb pretty much hits the same spot, but with a 94.3 fastball. Arenado gets under it and pops it up for an out.
Story saw one pitch in the first inning, a badly-located fastball that fortunately only led to a single. He gets another heater on the first pitch, but it misses low and inside. Newcomb tries to come in with another fastball but catches a bit too much of the plate. It’s fouled away. That would be the final fastball of the at-bat. Newcomb misses with a changeup low that Iannetta probably swung at from the bench. Newcomb’s next one is perfect. Low-and-outside on a 2-1 count. Story likely was thinking fastball. Instead, he got an 89 mph changeup that was dying at the plate. He smacked the ball into the ground for an easy second out.
Newcomb’s strikeout of Desmond was ultra-important in the first inning. All Desmond saw his first time up were fastballs. He sees yet another to open the at-bat. It’s thigh-high on the outside corner for strike one. Newcomb follows with another changeup that dies at the plate. It’s Ball 1 if Desmond doesn’t swing – but he does and fouls it away. Another changeup is a low and a bit outside. A third consecutive changeup is on the outer half of the plate and right above the knees. Desmond, thinking fastball, barely stays alive. At this point, Desmond has seen a 94 mph fastball and three changeups. Everything has been thigh-high or lower. Suzuki calls a high fastball. It’s right at the letters – too close to take – but Desmond can’t catch up. Strikeout #6.
For the first time, the Braves have a lead after Ozzie Albies doubles in Ender Inciarte.
Newcomb has a fascinating at-bat with Parra. The first time up, he saw a fastball and a curve. He gets another curve to open the at-bat, which Parra spits at and lets pass. Another curve comes in at the feet and moves him back. With the count 1-1, Parra has to think Newcomb is going to go back to the fastball. Nope, another curveball. It’s not located well, but it’s a hard spinner with 1,600 RPM. Parra gets on top of it, grounding out with an exit velocity of 87.1 – or more than 10 mph faster than the curveball was. To be fair, it’s a hit if Dansby Swanson isn’t positioned up the middle.
Up next to Valaika. He doesn’t see a strike – let alone a quality one – but Newcomb gets him guessing fastball on a 2-0 count after a pair of heaters missed low or outside. Instead of a fastball, it’s a changeup that is just below the zone on the inner half of the plate. It dies at the plate with late movement and all Valaika can do is ground out weakly to the mound.
Tauchman goes up hacking at a well-located fastball a tad low and on the outer half of the strikezone. Like the other two hitters in the inning, Tauchman hits the ball into the ground. It’s harder hit than Parra’s, but loses much of its speed with a poorer launch angle. Albies ranges over to throw him out.
Ryan McMahon pinch-hits for Freeland and Newcomb challenges him with a pair of fastballs – one over the inside corner and another that misses. He then doubles up with curveballs. One is perfectly placed for a swinging strike while the other bites a bit too much inside on McMahon. Newcomb doesn’t want to chance a walk here and goes back to his heater. He nails the outside corner and McMahon swings through.
We reach the dreaded third time through the order. In this situation last year, hitters had a .376 wOBA against Newcomb and he had just a 5% K-BB%. LeMahieu had two long at-bats against Newcomb so the pitcher had little new to show him. Newcomb started him with a changeup that missed the zone low by a foot. He doubled up with another changeup, this time crossing up LeMahieu, who stared at a belt-high upper 80’s floater over the plate. He went to the fastball next, missing twice. Each time, the ball was just out of the zone. With the count 3-1, Newcomb probably shocked LeMahieu with his pitch selection. It was another changeup above the knees over the outer half of the plate. With the count full, Newcomb went back to his fastball and got LeMahieu swinging on a 94 mph heater right around the letters.
Again, Iannetta is an important hitter. Newcomb didn’t want to give Arenado even one at-bat with a runner on base. This four-pitch sequence is among Newcomb’s best of the game. He started with a curveball that doesn’t get the call. It’s right on the bottom of the zone, though. Perfectly placed. Down in the count and with Arenado on deck, Iannetta has to be thinking fastball. Instead, he gets a changeup at the knees that freezes him. With the count 1-1, Iannetta gets a second changeup and Newcomb paints the outside corner. Everything has been at about the knees or lower and slow. That makes Newcomb’s 94.9 mph fastball over the inner half of the plate and belt high look at least 5 mph faster. Ianneta can’t catch up, becoming Newcomb’s ninth and final strikeout.
If you watched the game, Newcomb doesn’t finish this inning. I felt he should have been given another batter myself, but I’m not the coach.
Newcomb starts Arenado with a perfect heater right at the knees. Arenado is smart enough to let it go and takes a changeup low. Newcomb tries to go to the changeup again, but it’s right down the pike. Arenado doesn’t make great contact at 82.6 mph, but it finds a hole for a base hit. For the first time since Story’s single in the first, the Rockies have a baserunner.
Story would do the same thing he did in the first – follow an Arenado single with one of his own. The at-bat starts with a pair of fastballs. One misses low, but the other is right on the outside corner. Story fouls that off. Newcomb gets a called second strike on a changeup that may have been a hair off the outside corner. Back to his heater, Newcomb throws three consecutive fastballs. Two are fouled off while another misses high. With the count 2-2, Newcomb tries the changeup again. However, like Arenado, he again finds way too much of the strike zone. Story blisters it to left at 105.1 mph. Story’s first-inning base hit was the only other batted ball the Rockies had with an exit velocity of 100 mph or better. The Braves had six.
In retrospect, it’s hard to disagree with Brian Snitker‘s decision to remove Newcomb. At just 89 pitches, Newcomb may have had more in him. The problem was that he was beginning to lose the handle on his changeup and hadn’t thrown a curveball in about 15 pitches. Expecting him to navigate through much more relying only on his fastball could have been disastrous.
Again, Newcomb threw 89 total pitches. Forty-Eight, or 54%, were fastballs. That may seem like a lot, but it’s still about 10% less than 2017. About 13% of his pitches were curveballs, a significant decline from his first outing (34%) and 9% less than 2017. That left the changeup. In 2017, Newcomb threw the changeup just 10.6% of the time. In his first outing against the Nationals, he threw it 13.4% of the time. On Sunday, he went to it 31.5%. A couple of months ago, I talked about Newcomb’s changeup is one of the five pitches that might define the Braves’ season. Yesterday, Newcomb was masterful with it.
Why the big change in usage, though? Well, think about the atmosphere. Breaking balls can be difficult in the thin air in Colorado. You can combat that with high spin rates, which Newcomb does have. Having a changeup you trust is a great tool to have in your bag anywhere, but especially in Denver. I would even argue that the Newcomb we saw on Sunday is exactly what the Rockies are searching for when they scout pitchers. A power fastball, a high spin-rate curveball, and a tantalizing changeup. Every team wants that, for sure, but Colorado’s best success with starting pitchers seems to be with that model.
Of course, the biggest result from Sunday for Newcomb was no walks. According to PITCHf/X, it’s not that Newcomb threw more strikes, but he was simply hard to hit. He tied his career low in O-Contact%. That refers to all of the swings Rockie hitters took at balls out of the zone. Only 40% of the time did Colorado make contact on “non-strikes.” That’s incredibly low and since Newcomb wasn’t necessarily throwing more strikes, there were a lot of swings at balls out-of-the-zone. It was the fourth-lowest outing as far as Contact rate goes. In addition, only twice did he have a higher swinging strike rate.
So, how does a pitcher who isn’t throwing more strikes walk fewer batters? Pitch selection for one. In the first game of the year, Newcomb relied heavily on his curveball. I just talked about how Denver may have affected pitch selection, but being able to interchange his fastballs and changeups to right-hand hitters had the Rockies off-balanced. Even with two strikes, when they may have expected a curve based on the scouting report, Newcomb stayed with what was working.
His approach against left-handers was a bit more basic. Get ahead with the fastball, go to the curveball. Against lefties – especially the first couple of times through the order – Newcomb’s stuff is so good that he can do that. Another big difference in Sunday’s start versus his game against the Nationals – less grooved fastballs. Brooks Baseball defines grooved pitches as ones around the middle of the zone. Newcomb threw a bit too many changeups (especially against Arenado and Story) in the middle of the zone, but he kept his fastball away from the “uh oh” portion of the strike zone. The Nats teed off Newcomb’s fastball with a .778 slugging. The Rockies had a slugging of .000 against it. Kind of a big deal.
Newcomb’s next start will be in Chicago. It’ll be a test to figure out if (1) finding his changeup was limited to the locale and (2) if he can continue to get swings even when he isn’t throwing more pitches in the zone. For what it’s worth, the profiles of the two offenses are similar in BB%, K%, pitches per at-bat, and even swinging strikes. The one thing that could affect Newcomb’s style is this – only four teams have swung less at pitches out of the zone (as a percentage) than the Cubs. The Rockies, like the Braves, are closer to the middle. Of course, it’s very early.
What were your thoughts on Newcomb? Like the result, but didn’t see a very different pitcher? Felt Suzuki had an effect on the pitcher versus Stewart? Other thoughts? I’d love to see them.