I have been conned into not-blogging once again.
Disclaimer: This is number soup. Don’t read this. I am writing this because the Braves game has been cancelled and Brando likes to run his mouth. There are no logical conclusions to be drawn from any of the following. I am also writing this after Sean Newcomb’s best start of the year, in hopes of once again proving I am an incredible dumbass.
I would like to start by pointing out that this is not an indictment of Sean Newcomb. Many of the issues that plague Newcomb are symptomatic of a Braves organization that has lacked continuity from the front office to the minor league coordinators for the past five years. I don’t believe it’s coincidence that we’ve seen the three non-Matt Wisler class homegrown starters from recent history–Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz, and Sean Newcomb–make year-to-year strides under the pitching coach they came up with (Roger McDowell for Julio, Chuck Hernandez for the latter), only to regress with a change. Frankly, it’s huge indictment of Rick Kranitz that both Folty and Newcomb found their way to Gwinnett last year after success in 2018. Folty would come back renewed after working with Mike Maroth, while Newcomb was exiled to the bullpen where he was exactly the same, but with substantially worse peripherals than in the previous two years. All of that to say: the initial title of this post was “Sean Newcomb is Ass,” but that’s unfair. Four years ago I would try to parse this down into an easily digestible roast of Rick Kranitz and Brian Snitker for Newcomb’s lack of success. However, between poor deployment and even worse coaching, the issues are very intertwined, and I cant be asked to make sense of it so here we go.
Let’s touch on deployment first, which is fairly straight forward: The current incarnation of Sean Newcomb should be a reliever. We all know he struggles throwing strikes, but it’s somehow worse than I could have imagined. He only manages first pitch strikes 55% of the time, which is the 5th worst rate in the league since his debut. His overall zone% is in the bottom 25% of the league at 41%. Compounding this issue is that he is missing fewer and fewer bats. Since his debut his whiff% has fallen every year, from 11.1% and the 72nd percentile his rookie year to 9.2% and the 29th percentile last year. If you can’t throw strikes consistently, and you can’t put batters away, you are beyond useless as a starter; you’re a liability and a burden to your bullpen. But even when Newk does manage to get deeper into games, he suffers substantially more than most pitchers.
Every pitcher gets worse as they go through the lineup multiple times, but Newcomb’s deeper peripherals are even more exaggerated than average. The first time through the order, Newcomb generates soft contact on 20% of his balls in play, a number that would put him in the top 20% of the league. He also generates almost 50% of his swings and misses the first time through. By the time the lineup turns over, Newk is generating 30% fewer swings and misses, while his soft hit rate falls to below league average. Barrels, ISO, and any power metric you want to look at skyrocket, with his HR/9 almost doubling from the moment he sees a batter a second time.
At this point we’re going to take a small detour. You may be asking yourself why I wouldn’t compare wOBA or a similar offensive metric to measure Newk’s success as he moves through the order. That’s because they’re all shit. For his career, Newcomb’s wOBA against is .310+ regardless of when he’s pitching, whether he’s a starter or a reliever, it really doesn’t matter. The reason is extremely simple: Sean Newcomb throws his fastball almost 65% of the time. His fastball is fucking horrible. 93-94 just doesn’t mean much in today’s league, and that’s all he has going for him these days. In 2017/2018, Newcomb had near average movement on his fastball. He was generating 10% more swings and misses on those fastballs than he does presently, where his horizontal movement is 30% below average. Those whiffs were enough to make his fastball a net positive despite the fact that when batters made contact they all became Rhys Hoskins. I spent three hours digging through statcast data trying to find anyone whose fastball has been shithoused as hard as Newcomb’s and came away with exactly one (1) person: human BP machine Rick Porcello. So while Newcomb generates soft contact at a rate commensurate with Jacob DeGrom the first time through the order, he’s doing it entirely with his secondary offerings while getting demolished on a pitch he throws almost two-thirds of the time.
So far, we have a starter who can’t throw strikes, can’t go deep into games, and has a fastball that gets power yeeted to the moon and back with great regularity. 2019 reliever time, baby! Newcomb was essentially the same pitcher in that role last year, where he was deployed by mega-brain genius and leader of men Brian Snitker to face lefties 34% of the time, 11% more often than he faced them as a starter. Which would be smart as shit if Newk didn’t have reverse platoon splits. While the split is only about a 10-15 point difference in wOBA, the deeper numbers tell another story. Newk limits baserunners better against same handed hitters, with better walk and strikeout rates as well. But when lefties hit him they tee off on him: 5% more HR/FB, 5% higher Hard Hit%, and an ISO .020 higher. Once again, the fastball is the culprit, getting hammered to the tune of a .194 ISO and .270 average.
So what the fuck are we to do with Sean Newcomb? In a 60 game season, you can get away with having him in the rotation and piggy backing, but his shortcomings will destroy a bullpen in a 162 game season, especially if that bullpen is managed by an absolute galaxy-brained 300 IQ moron. Prior to 2020 you could use him as an anti-platoon option in late innings, but with a three batter minimum and the presence of Juan Soto and Bryce Harper in the division it’s hard to see that as a viable use case. If he’s to remain a starter, Kranitz has to help adjust his pitch mix. He’s essentially been a two pitch pitcher, as the change up was used only sparingly to righties, and since Kranitz’s arrival in 2019, his slider and his curveball are almost indiscernible from one another both visually and metrically. With only three starts in 2020 it’s hard to draw any conclusions, but Newcomb’s almost quadrupled his change up usage rate, up to almost 20%. It’s historically been even worse than his fastball, though he’s found some success with it thus far in 2020. Ultimately, Newcomb probably needs to find a consistent third pitch to use against lefties, and hope the change up can serve as a third pitch for righties as his fastball usage settles in around 50-55%. If nothing changes though, he’s got to be used as a low leverage reliever for him to be useful in any capacity.
Nick Markakis is garbage.