Sean Newcomb experienced another up-and-down season in 2021 and was left on the outside looking in when it came to the postseason. He has seen his role transition from regular starter to full-time reliever to a guy that gets cycled in as a fresh bullpen arm, all in just five seasons.
The Braves originally acquired Newcomb, along with Erick Aybar and Chris Ellis, from the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for Andrelton Simmons and Jose Briceno. That deal wasn’t met with a warm reception when it happened, but the hope was that Newcomb would be able to overcome his command/control issues and lock down a spot in the team’s rotation long term. His future value (FV) at the time was commensurate with perhaps an above-average starter, but he had to actually get there.
Newcomb made his major league debut in 2017, making 19 starts while posting a 4.32 ERA and a 4.19 FIP in 100 innings. He followed that up with 30 starts in 2018, logging a career-high 164 innings with a 3.90 ERA and a 4.14 FIP. He struck out 160, but his command issues persisted with 81 walks. His highlight that season came in late July, when he came within one out of throwing a no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Newcomb began the 2019 season in the rotation but allowed six runs and walked eight over his first 12 1⁄3 innings and was sent back to Gwinnett, where he was transitioned into a reliever. That was perhaps premature for someone who had thrown 264 league-average innings before his 12 awful ones, but it was what it was. Newcomb returned to the majors and pitched well out of the bullpen later in 2019, appearing in 55 games while logging 68 1⁄3 innings with a 3.16 ERA and a 4.14 FIP. Those numbers were effective, but it was disappointing that rather than finding another gear in relief, Newcomb was pretty much the same guy in terms of FIP and xFIP. An average-y starter (1.1 fWAR in 100 innings in 2018, 1.9 fWAR in 164 innings in 2019) had become an average-y reliever (0.4 fWAR in 68 1⁄3 innings in 2019).
Things started to go off the rails for Newcomb in 2020 as he appeared in just four games, where he allowed 17 runs in just 13 2⁄3 innings (-0.2 fWAR). He had a golden opportunity to re-establish himself as a starter given the Braves’ laffy taffy-esque rotation in 2020, but didn’t even get another shot after imploding in his first four starts.
Expectations and Projections
After a lost 2020 season, the Braves were hoping that Newcomb would be able to recapture his 2019 form and provide some quality innings out of the bullpen, whether that was in a late inning role or as a multi-inning option. He wasn’t being floated as a starter. Steamer and ZiPS both saw him as a quality relief option, with WAR projections ranging from 0.3 to 1.1, and WAR/65 IP projections from 0.6 to 0.7.
Newcomb’s 2021 season can’t be described as anything but strange. He ended up appearing in 32 games and logged 32 1⁄3 innings, but was unable to carve out a consistent role. He rode the shuttle between Atlanta and Gwinnett and spent time on the taxi squad throughout the regular season. He was left off of the postseason roster picture completely, even though, fundamentally, he wasn’t that bad or anything. Newcomb made 15 appearances at Gwinnett where he finished with a 1.62 ERA and a 1.68 FIP in 16 2/3 innings. He had a 4.73 ERA but a solid 3.60 FIP in those 32 1/3 innings at the major league level, giving him 0.3 fWAR on the season.
Sean Newcomb 2021 Stats
What went right? / What went wrong?
Newcomb posted a career-best strikeout rate of 28.7 percent and allowed just one home run during the regular season. That led to an FIP- (86) much lower than a pretty unimpressive xFIP- (109). The problem, of course, was the same as ever with Newcomb: walks. His walk rate skyrocketed to 18.0% percent, with 27 walks in those 32 1/3 innings. All things considered, Newcomb did a decent job of limiting the damage but was just unable to find enough consistency to be trusted with a permanent spot in the bullpen. He finished the season with four each of shutdowns and meltdowns, which kind of hammers home the point.
With respect to his arsenal, Newcomb’s career has been very confusing. His fastball and curveball have both had good properties, and after he fixed some consistency issues that arose his rookie year, he had a nice set of pitch shapes (aside from a changeup that he threw too much given that it failed to sink). As a reliever in 2019, he kept the effectiveness of his fastball/curve combo and added a nice slider while rightly phasing out the changeup. But his shortened 2020 once again featured too many useless changeups, and his fastball started to noticeably lose some horizontal movement. In 2021, Newcomb’s curve took a step back shape-wise (but got phenomenal results) and he started to rely heavily on a cutter/slider thing that often stunned hitters, but his fastball was commanded terribly and got obliterated. Talking about his arsenal does seem like a red herring, though, as the issue is not what he throws, but getting it to go where he wants it to, a problem that’s consistently plagued his curveball and really aggrieved his fastball in 2021.
Road to the Title
Newcomb finished 2021 with negligible WPA (0.04) and cWPA (0.07%). His best moment in this regard came early on the season, on April 10: he relieved Ian Anderson in the top of the sixth and threw 1 2⁄3 scoreless innings. When Newcomb entered the game, Anderson had allowed a go-ahead homer to Bryce Harper. In between his two frames of work, the Braves tied the game, and went on to win it. Newcomb struck out three, gave up a walk (of course), and allowed a single in the process.
Outlook for 2022
Newcomb is arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason and the Braves elected to tender him a contract despite his struggles. He is projected for a salary around $1 million through arbitration, which is a good enough reason to keep him around through the spring to see how he performs. However, he is out of options, so the Braves will need to decide how much they care about being unable to shuffle him up and down from Gwinnett.