Sean Newcomb, as the primary return for a generational talent on the defensive end at shortstop, came over to the Braves organization with the highest of expectations In a minor league crop rife with pitchers, he was the alpha-a lefty with a powerful arm and a combination of offspeed pitches that ranked him amongst the best in the minor leagues. Put on the talented AA roster, with stellar pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn, he had been given every opportunity to flourish. There was belief by some he would be a contributor as early as opening day in 2017, and that he would dominate a level he seemed far more talented than. He was able to make an impression by allowing 1 run each in his first 2 starts, but it quickly became apparent this would be no easy road to Atlanta.
While he flashed moments of brilliance throughout the season, he also showed a startling inconsistency and inability to carry momentum from start to start. For much of the season it seemed the control problems the Braves had hoped to fall into place was actually deteriorating and his lack of fastball command made his velocity effectively useless. He struggled to go deep in games, and bottomed in his outing on July 8th when he allowed 5 runs and recorded just 2 outs. Then, it seemed that things began to fall quickly into place for Newcomb.
He allowed 4 runs in his next outing, but struck out a season-high 9 batters in 5 innings to set off a string of 10 starts that saw him post a 2.70 ERA with a sub-.500 OPS against. Of those 10, he allowed 0 runs in 4 of them, went 6 plus innings with 3 or fewer hits in 5 of them, and had more Ks than innings pitched in 7 of those. He went out with a grand finale of a game, 7 scoreless innings with only 1 hit and one walk allowed a 8 strikeouts. Those who had begun to lose hope in Newcomb started to pay more attention, and Newcomb set himself up to start in AAA in 2017 after seeming stuck in a rut at AA. The control still hasn’t worked itself out, and at times during even his best streaks (especially in the playoffs) it just seemed like Newcomb couldn’t get the ball in the strike zone. Sometimes he misses close, sometimes he can barely find the catcher, and at others he can’t miss his spots. There is no predictability to when he will struggle, no obvious mechanical problems when he does, and yet somehow that seems somewhat more comforting.
As many scouts have said before, Newcomb seems like he’s just one step away. A single adjustment, one little piece of learning, 1 single something that will turn him into force. Even when he did struggle, as the season wore on he found ways to work around that and control tough innings from turning into implosions. The results for Newcomb weren’t exactly what everyone had hoped, but his progression and his talent were made obvious throughout the season.
I leave you with This, Sean Newcomb striking out Eric Jageilo on 3 pitches pic.twitter.com/XHg87AFzuv— Braves Farm Updates (@BravesMILB) June 3, 2016
The general scouting report on Newcomb is well known. He has an effortless delivery that still generates elite velocity, touching as high as 99 mph, but this season he seemed to dial it back at times in an effort to help his control. The control of the pitch is spotty at best, but when he is on he commands the low, outside corner if the plate very well with both velocity and movement. He can struggle to go up in the zone, either overthrowing or leaving it to the middle of the plate, but this isn’t a major part of his game plan and doesn’t worry me. His inability to hit the inside corner to righties seems to be his biggest detriment when he does struggle, but he is improving that part of his game.
His curveball is much the same. His spin rate on the pitch is great (pitch data isn’t very public, but at a game in Pensacola earlier this season it registered at 2900 RPM. Major league average is 2450 and the MLB leader among LHP was at 2905 minimum 50 curveballs.). He has great shape on the pitch and does a good job of keeping it low in the zone, with his biggest problem being that he bounces the ball or leaves it well off the plate glove side. I’ve more impressed with his changeup than most in my views, as although it’s doesn’t have any sort of wow factor he can bury it away from right handed hitters and he doesn’t get himself in trouble with the pitch. He does well to play it properly off his fastball, and with his lack of effort in his delivery it’s quite deceptive and plays up. It has helped him tremendously, and he has a better batting average against versus right handed hitters than left handed hitters.
Let’s get down to it though. It’s all fine to here the numbers and the scouting opinions, but in the end it’s all about what Newcomb can do for Atlanta. The main comparison that has been thrown around has been Jon Lester, and the similarities are quite phenomenal. The velocity, pitch types, and body are nearly identical. The Minor League path was totally different, Lester coming to the pro ranks from high school and Newcomb from Hartford University, but the numbers at the corresponding levels are quite similar. Also when factoring in Newcomb coming from a small school in the cold northeast, there’s not as significant a difference in experience and talent as it seems on the surface. Lester was 2 years younger in his full season at AA, and here’s how their numbers stack up:
Over a similar number of innings Lester has the edge in ERA 2.61 to 3.86, but with a much smaller FIP edge of 3.08 to 3.19.
Lester has a small advantage in K rate at 27% to 25.6%, but beats Newcomb on walk rate at 9.4% to 11.9%.
Newcomb takes his biggest advantage in the home run category, 4 allowed compared to 10 by Lester, but it can’t be known just how much playing in the Southern League and at Trustmark Park helped Newcomb. Still, those numbers are right in line with Newcomb’s career numbers.
Their hits allowed are identical, at 18.99% for Newcomb and 18.93% for Lester.
Now let’s take one more look at pitch comparison, at that curveball’s spin rate. 2900 rpm for Newcomb puts him higher than all but one of the best Lester has recorded on any single pitch in his career.
So if we see Lester as a top end comparison for Newcomb, one he has definitely shown a similarity to in his career, it would also be nice to take a look at a floor comparison. Enter: Andrew Miller. His last few seasons may make this look like an extremely aggressive comparison for a floor, but there are very few players that have the type of stuff Newcomb does. Andrew Miller is a big bodied lefty with a strong fastball and breaking pitch, and was a former top prospect. All checks for Newcomb. While Miller never had the minor league success Newcomb has, he too struggled with walks and had a fair strikeout rate which he carried into his major league career. If Newcomb never can solve his walk problems, it seems very likely that he could end up in a bullpen role. If the future for Newcomb is that of a late inning reliever, especially one as dominant as Miller has been, it would be quite a low-end comparison. Miller has a career K rate of 25.8% and a walk rate of 10.8% that lines up with what Newcomb is doing now.
I have my doubts that Newcomb ever becomes quite as good as Lester. Not for lack of talent, but simply due to his age and lesser track record I don’t see it quite happening. The easiest comparison for me, despite a size difference, would be Gio Gonzalez. Gonzalez has velocity and the same sort of dominant spin rates as Newcomb, and was a similarly rated prospect throughout his career. A look at Gio’s first 3 minor league seasons show some similarities. Again, Gonzalez came from high school, but struggled in his first 3 seasons with a 10.4% walk rate and an also similar to Newcomb 26.7% K rate. After that, the control clicked into place for Gio, and he has been a consistent #2/#3 type for the last 7 years. He’s never been the ace of his staff, but he’s always been the type to round out and solidify a rotation.
To get to the point any of these pitchers have, Newcomb still has work to do. While there aren’t any major points he has to cover mechanically, he needs to work on some of the general timing inconsistencies he has shown with his lower body. At times his lower body gets slightly behind in his motion, and that can lead to him missing wide to either side of the plate. As well, his general pitch sequencing often leads to deep counts even when he pitches well as batters can usually fouls pitches off to extend counts. AAA is a level where many of the small things he struggles with (such as holding runners) will be ironed through, and could be his strongest season yet, especially given his opportunity to work with a new pitching coach after a spring training invite. While AAA will be the group of hitters that are better at the parts he struggles with (fouling off pitches) and will push his command with a better recognition of the strike zone, it will also be a challenge for him.
Newcomb is not the type of player to get particularly high or low emotionally, so this will provide a great opportunity for him that learn some of the skills he lacks. I expect Newcomb will struggle for much of the first month or two of the season, but even earlier than last season will really hit his stride and start to display his skills. He should push somewhere around 150-160 innings, and I expect a high but improved walk rate-somewhere around 60-70 with 170ish strikeouts and a 3.00 ERA. That should be plenty to earn a September call up where he’ll work out of the bullpen, and though he could get some time earlier in the season if the Braves choose to be a little less patient than I expect they will.
So what does this all mean for Newcomb and the Braves? The Braves still believe firmly in Newcomb’s talent and there is really no reason they shouldn’t. If you look at Gio Gonzalez as his median projection, I think the Braves could be more than satisfied with that although obviously they would wish for more from him. Newcomb is a unique prospect given his pedigree and stuff, and that makes him hard to project especially over any point of time, but it isn’t any question that he will get a shot in the rotation. His first test in AAA comes next season, and given the difference in approach for AAA veteran hitters opposed to AA hitters he could very well struggle. He could also figure it out and be in Atlanta by July, just the type of ambiguity that is both frustrating and intriguing. Sean Newcomb is without a doubt going to be the most important piece to watch develop in the minor leagues next season, given his potential to contribute for both the long and short term plans. The expectations will be extremely high, and he will have to deal with conquering his inconsistencies while also being a part of a resurgent Braves team.
It seems unlikely he will contribute in 2017, so rather than having the transitional year to adjust to the major leagues he will be thrown into the fire in 2018 when it seems likely the Braves will have plans to compete for a postseason spot. It’s probable he struggles at first, but the Braves will be counting on him to work his way into a major role for the team in the next few seasons. Until the arrival of such players as Kolby Allard and the trio from this year’s draft, Newcomb is the most talented of the group of players the Braves will have competing for the third spot in a postseason rotation. If he rounds into the form of even Gio Gonzalez, a rotation of he, Teheran, and Mike Foltynewicz, and another player has a very strong opportunity to make a deep run into the postseason. He creates a rotational depth for the team that will be hard to rival, and that’s just what John Coppolella is trying to create.