Sean Newcomb is heading to the minors.
Well, if there were a minors, he would be headed there. Instead, he’s off to Narnia (a.k.a. the alternate training site for the Braves) after a horrendous outing against the Phillies Monday evening. It could be the final game he ever starts for the team that once traded the uber-popular Andrelton Simmons for him.
Newk’s return to the roster is a lot less murky than fellow dismissed rotation mate, Mike Foltynewicz. Unlike Folty, who also has other issues related to weight and velocity, Newk has had recent success in a different role for the Braves: as a reliever. And while the Braves have roughly 69 southpaws in their bullpen at last check, it seems likely that even if Newk’s started his final game as a Brave, his return is all but assured unless a trade sends him packing.
But I have some potentially dire news for you – Newk the Reliever might not be the superior arm we remember.
Certainly, Newcomb pitched notably better following a move from the rotation last season. In a remarkably similar 15 innings as a starter last season as he worked this year, Newcomb walked ten batters compared to eight strikeouts. The move to the pen decreased his walk rate under 10%, a notable improvement over his time as a major league starter, and he struck out a quarter of all batters. That’s the good news. In any given inning, Newk can dominate the opposition. It’s kind of thing you get with a guy who has his stuff.
In fifty-three-and-a-third innings, Newk appeared like a stabilizing force in the bullpen last year. But there were a few concerns that, when compared to his work as a starter, seem nit-picky. But really, that’s my bread-and-butter so let’s dive in.
Newk gave up a ton of homers out of the pen. Okay, on the surface, eight doesn’t seem like a big number, but that equals 1.35 HR/9. That’s the kind of rate that can scare you in high-leverage opportunities when one run can be massive. To be fair, he increased his groundball rate from 44% to a shade over 50% which limited the damage considerably. But the homer rate, a still-iffy walk rate of 8.5%, and a low .257 BABIP as a reliever led his advanced stats to balloon to a 4.26 FIP and a 3.99 xFIP. The FIP is pretty close to his career average while the xFIP is notably better than his career 4.49 mark entering play Monday. Nevertheless, it’s not a particularly impressive stat.
It’s for those reasons that, despite looking improved, Newk only accounted for a 0.4 fWAR despite developing into one of the more trustworthy arms in the bullpen. Some of the latter was due to circumstances. Before the trades for Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, and Chris Martin, the Braves bullpen was a desperate search for anyone who could be dependable.
It’s also why Newcomb ended 2019 with a 0.35 WPA and nearly as many “meltdowns” as “shutdowns.” Objectively, he was one of the better arms in the bullpen. Compared to the league, however, he doesn’t look quite as good.
None of this is to say that the big lefty isn’t a better fit in the bullpen, though it does point to why the Braves gave Newcomb every possible chance to right himself as a starter this year. Again, part of that is circumstance. Had there not been a global pandemic or injuries, Newcomb may have started the season right back in the bullpen or even Gwinnett as Cole Hamels and Felix Hernandez got the starting spots. And even he was in the rotation, there would be some justification for it. In his first full season as a starter, he was nearly as good (4.13 FIP/4.33 FIP in 2018) as he was as a reliever in 2019.
Now, Newk is at a crossroads. No one doubts his stuff. Very few pitchers have his spin rate on his curveball. And he did rank very well in terms of limiting barrels and exit velocity last year – which we can definitely say wasn’t hurt by a move to the pen.
But the problem with the now 27-year-old is that the numbers have remained muted by not only poor control but a lack of command. Getting into bad counts leads to a pretty poor whiff rate considering his nasty curve. A pitcher with Newk’s stuff ideally would be, even if he fails as a starter, the kind of pitcher you can use in high leverage situations. But with Newk, even when he’s seemingly at his best, you’re always waiting for that crushing reminder that he simply isn’t the pitcher you so badly wish he was.
When Newcomb returns – and again, I feel that he will – it’ll be with the hope that he’s more of the 2019 reliever we believed he was rather than what the numbers warn us he probably was. While he may have burned his last bridge as a Braves starter, there is still hope he can be a productive player. At 27, nobody wants to talk about his potential anymore so, in the eternal words of a great man, it’s time to nut up or shut up for Newk.