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2018 Player Profile: Sean Newcomb

Believe it or not, this is a forward-looking profile of the young Braves lefty starter known as Sean Newcomb.

Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

It’s offseason profile time! This is where I fill the increasingly dark (I’m speaking literally because I really dislike the shorter daylight) days of the offseason with lots of player profiles. Especially in this post-World Series, pre-Hot Stove period of time, there isn’t much going on to write about. Hence, I’m looking ahead to 2018 and focusing on players I find interesting.

Today, it’s Sean Newcomb of the Atlanta Braves. Can we stop for a minute and talk about his surname? Were his ancestors beekeepers that really liked fresh honeycomb? Or were they obsessed with fresh-out-of-the box hair styling devices? Anyway, I digress.

Intro to Sean

He came to the Braves from the LA Angels in the Andrelton Simmons trade a while back. 2017 was his big MLB debut. He threw 100 innings for the Braves. Here are some key stats to frame today’s discussion:

ERA IP BABIP LOB% FIP GB% HR/FB Hard% xFIP SwStr% K% BB%
4.32 100 0.327 75.20% 4.19 43.80% 10.90% 27.00% 4.52 11.20% 23.70% 12.50%

Let’s start with the ERA/FIP/xFIP. None of those look very good. They are all below average. That’s kind of sad and offers little promise. But wait!

He had an unlucky 0.327 BABIP, so that artificially inflated his ERA. That’s something. How about more good stuff? His hard hit rate of 27% was 12th lowest in baseball among starters with at least 50 innings. He was able to minimize damage on contact. For further proof of that, he was 50th in barrels per plate appearance. A barreled ball is one that is struck with a high exit velocity and a launch angle conducive to extra base hits or homers. Some names near him on the barrels/PA list: Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, Aaron Nola, Alex Wood, and Chris Sale. Not bad company.

Let’s just ignore that Homer Bailey, Clayton Richard, Doug Fister, Kyle Freeland, and R.A. Dickey are also near him on that same list. Some stats don’t separate the best from the ...not best.

Anyway, what haven’t I mentioned yet? Ah yes, he had an impressive 11.2% SwStr%, good for 42nd best among starters. That was no doubt aided by his 94-mph fastball from the left side, which is in the top 10 for lefty starters. That all led to a solid 23.7% K%. Lots of good stuff so far: should have better batted ball luck in 2018, limits hard contact very well, lots of swings and misses, good velocity.

The Catch

What’s the catch? Why were his rates so bad?

Lucky for Mr. Newcomb, he only has one big flaw. The problem is, it’s a really big flaw. He has trouble throwing strikes. His walk rate of 12.5% is very bad. League average for starters is 8.1%. His walk rate was 6th worst in baseball for starters with 50+ IP.

He threw pitches in the zone only 41% of the time, good for 27th lowest in baseball. The only good news on the control side of things is that he did manage to get first-pitch strikes over 58% of the time, despite rarely throwing strikes.

His minor league track record shows a long history of walks. He has struggled with walk rates in the 4.5 BB/9 range or higher in A, AA, and AAA. From my untrained eye, it seems like he has too much variation in vertical release point, as is often the case in pitchers with poor control.

Newcomb and Kluber: Release Points

To demonstrate this, I will present Newcomb’s game-by-game vertical release point for all of his pitches and then Corey Kluber’s. You might know him for his Cy Young award and incredible command and control.

There are two things to notice here. One, Newcomb’s fastball varies from 6.75 ft to 6.25 ft. Kluber’s fastball never varies quite that much. The even more noticeable difference here is that all of Kluber’s pitches are thrown from nearly the exact same release point. The overall release point varies from game to game, but within a game, the pitches are all released at the same height. It makes it very difficult for hitters to figure out what’s coming.

Newcomb’s chart shows his breaking pitches having significantly different release points than his change up or fastball. That makes it easier for hitters to know when those pitches are coming. Also note that it took him half the season to get his changeup and fastball at the same release point. A changeup is only useful if it looks like the fastball, so that’s really important.

Hope

My point in all of this is that Newcomb is promising. He has good “stuff” and can limit damage on contact. The big thing he is missing is decent control. Control can be improved with practice, mechanical tweaks, and other means. Pitchers have overcome control problems in the past. Chris Archer had walk rates of 4-5 BB/9 in AA and AAA. Trevor Bauer has struggled with bad walk rates most of his career except for the last two seasons.

Maybe Newcomb should head over to Driveline like Bauer did and ask them to help fix his mechanics. Whatever he does this offseason, there is precedent for a pitcher fixing their control problems. Of course, there are plenty of examples of Francisco Liriano-types who never really figure it out and just survive off strikeouts.

Sean Newcomb is a risk coming into 2018. He has upside since he is only 24 and shows great promise in several key areas, but his huge control issues make him prone to short outings with lots of runs. I will be watching him closely early in the year to see how consistent his vertical release point is and see if any of his mechanics have changed. A real change could lead to a breakout season. He’s certainly an interesting late round sleeper. Tschus!