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2022 Atlanta Braves Season in Review: Sean Newcomb

Sean Newcomb’s enigmatic Braves tenure came to end in 2022, when he was traded to the Cubs in exchange for old friend Jesse Chavez.

Atlanta Braves v. San Diego Padres Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Acquired in the 2015-2016 offseason from the Angels as part of the controversial (bad) Andrelton Simmons trade, Sean Newcomb was supposed to be a big part of the next wave of successful Braves teams. Instead, his career ended up taking a strange detour, and with little use for his services by the time 2022 rolled around, the Braves ended up trading him for Jesse Chavez, who ended up playing a much bigger role than Newcomb likely would have.

How Acquired

On November 12, 2015, the Braves traded Andrelton Simmons and Jose Briceno to the Anaheim Angels for Erick Aybar, as well as pitching prospects Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis. Aybar was just a stopgap shortstop for a bad team, and Ellis wasn’t much of a prospect, but the idea was that Newcomb, who was very highly rated at the time, would provide quality starting pitching for low, team-controlled salaries, for the foreseeable future.

Given Simmons’ team-friendly deal, I remember writing (and creating a model for anyone to play with at the time) that the deal only really made sense if Newcomb was both healthy and average-to-above for his entire team control period, which seemed unlikely given how frequently pitchers get hurt.

As a result of the events of the 2022 season, the book is basically closed on the deal: the Braves got, at most, 2.8 fWAR from Newcomb and 0.9 fWAR from Jesse Chavez in 2022. (Ellis was part of a trade for Jaime Garcia, which eventually resulted in Huascar Ynoa, but he was hardly a meaningful inclusion in that deal.) Simmons, meanwhile, produced 14.3 fWAR for the Angels.

What were the expectations?

Newcomb’s Braves career was weird. After making his MLB debut on June 10, 2016, he proceeded to twirl 264 perfectly fine, not good, just fine major league innings, with a 96/101/106 (ERA-/FIP-/xFIP-) over his first 50 major league appearances (all but one of which were starts). He was, no doubt, excruciating to watch, walking 12 percent of batters he faced without a good strikeout rate (23.3 percent), but the results were livable, if not exactly aesthetically-pleasing baseball. 3.0 fWAR over 264 innings is basically a midrotation starter, or something slightly worse if you figure his FIP would’ve regressed to his xFIP in time.

In 2019, though, the Braves apparently decided they had had enough. Newcomb started the season with two poor starts (though one was a seven-inning, two-run outing despite a 2/2 K/BB ratio), and then had a nightmarish meltdown against the Mets. That got him kicked back to the minors, and when he returned, it was as a reliever. Now, normally, when starters become relievers, their performance improves: they can go max effort, and they don’t face batters multiple times in the same game. And that kind of happened for Newcomb, too! Remember, he had a 96/101/106 line as a starter in 2017-2018, and in 2019, purely as a reliever, his line was 64/96/91. His walk rate fell from 12 percent to around nine percent, and his strikeout rate went up a few points. Was taking an average-y starter and making him an average-y reliever that worked less a good trade? Probably not, but it’s the route the Braves embarked on anyway. Maybe they thought that having to watch him pitch fewer innings was preferable to more innings, production aside.

In 2020, the Braves had no rotation to speak of, and Newcomb was press-ganged into four awful starts. After the Phillies obliterated him in start number four, he wasn’t seen for the rest of the season despite, again, the Braves having no rotation. In 2021, he appeared solely as a reliever, and had a blah 111/86/109 line that, lack of homers yielded aside, suggested he didn’t really offer much as a reliever, either.

As a result, the expectations for Newcomb were something like a replacement-level reliever who could maybe add a bit of value by serving as a swingman. Nothing really thought highly of his pitching, even though he was only a few years removed from being a perfectly cromulent, if hard-to-watch, starter guy.

2022 Results

Newcomb made the Opening Day roster after avoiding arbitration with a $900,000 salary for 2022, and the Braves watched him struggle through three relief appearances before airmailing him to Chicago in exchange for Jesse Chavez. Newcomb compiled a look away!-esque 175/165/149 line over those first three appearances, and things didn’t get any better for the Cubs, where he made one start and 21 relief appearances. For his 2022 overall, he compiled -0.7 fWAR across just 27 23 innings, with an eldritch abomination of a 218/174/127 line.

What went right? What went wrong?

The only thing that’s really gone right for the Braves vis-a-vis Newcomb was that 2017-2018 stretch where he was a fine starter. Since then, there hasn’t really been anything positive to talk about, and one still wonders, at times, usually 3 am when the gossamer strands of sleep just won’t descend, what Newcomb’s career could have looked like if he didn’t get shuttled off to the bullpen.

As for what went wrong, all you have to do is just recall any part of the past few years. He wasn’t good enough to start in lieu of basically nobody for the Braves in 2020, took a step back in his relief work in 2021, and required just three appearances for the team to tire of him enough to trade him in 2022.

I can’t even give you a video of something that went right for him in 2022, because in his three Braves appearances, he didn’t have positive WPA. Here’s his last strikeout as a Brave, pitching in mop-up duty, where he catches Edwin Rios looking by missing the entire span of the plate in both dimensions with a curveball.

Newcomb’s stuff remains pretty good, on paper. His fastball has good “rise” and his curve has great drop. The problem, as always, is that he has no way of getting anything to go anywhere in particular. In 2018, he could at least hit the same spot over and over with his curveball, but the problem was that that spot was down the middle. In his four starts in 2020, he finally got the fastball up where its shape plays up... but that’s also where his curveball went, which sort of defeats the point. Things have been even worse since. He experimented with a cutter in 2022, but the shape of it was awful and erratic, giving him a bad pitch to go with better ones he still can’t command.

As for what went wrong in-game? Newcomb’s worst outing as a Brave in 2022 was his first. He pitched 2 23 innings against the Reds and allowed a homer to go with a 2/1 K/BB ratio. Newcomb entered in the third, relieving Ian Anderson, who allowed three runs while recording just two outs in the inning, promptly threw a wild pitch, and then gave up a two-run weakly-hit single to Kyle Farmer to turn a 3-0 deficit into a 5-0 mountain:

I guess the real thing that went right for the Braves vis-a-vis Newcomb’s 2022 is that he got traded for Jesse Chavez, who proceeded to be awesome in relief once again. (Chavez was traded for Raisel Iglesias at the Trade Deadline, and then returned to the Braves later in the year.)

2023 Outlook

Newcomb’s tenure with the Cubs was eventful, to go along with his awful stats. He spent time on the shelf with an ankle injury, and was designated for assignment twice, getting outrighted to Triple-A both times. After his second outrighting, Newcomb elected to become a free agent (players have the right to refuse and become free agents when outrighted for the second time in a career).

Some team will probably sign him to compete for a bullpen or swingman spot, but it’s hard to see him having an inside track for a spot given that he’ll be 30 years old, his persistent command issues, and the fact that he’s now four years removed from being of particular use to an MLB team.

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