STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Life has a funny way of just popping up with unexpected plot twists.
I experienced this phenomenon just this past week when I looked up and saw that Kevin Newman was sporting a .390 on-base percentage, not to mention a solid .316 batting average. Gobsmacked, I rushed to my digital toolbox to see if I could find out exactly what it was that had fueled Newman's first sustained big-league success.
What I found was rather refreshing in its simplicity.
When Newman returned from his run-in with a pitching machine, most fans were vocal in not expecting much. All Newman did in response to the skepticism was put together a solid month's worth of work. During May, he slashed .351/.407/.486, collecting seven extra base hits across 81 plate appearances.
When the dust settled, the same un-silent majority felt that Newman should become the primary option at shortstop:
A noon-hour #Pirates poll! Would you look at that.
Kevin Newman is playing better as of late. Should he take over SS as the "regular" ...in as much as there is such a thing?
— Jason Rollison (@jrollisonpgh) May 30, 2019
This result was earned not only from production at the plate, but steadiness in the field. A degree of defense that has been beyond steady, if we're being completely honest:
The defensive wizardry is a welcome sight from Newman, who was never graded as being a plus-defender while snaking his way through the minor leagues. Having covered Newman extensively during his time with the Pirates' Double-A affiliate Altoona Curve, I can tell you that this reputation is a bit unfair. No, no one will confuse Newman for defensive-first shortstops such as Jose Iglesias (sorry), Adeiny Hechavarria or even Freddy Galvis (sorry again). Yet, one of his best tools -- his 55-rated speed -- affords him a bit more range than most middle infielders with similar builds (Newman is listed at 6-0, 195). This allows him to get to more balls, as you just saw.
At the plate or in the field, Newman had a great month of May. That's indisputable. Can it be repeated?
Well, yes and no.
Let's start with why Newman may not be able to post another 30 or so days of 0.6 fWAR performance. Those seven extra base hits may be a bit fluky. Since reaching Double-A in 2016, Newman has only posted a slugging percentage of .400 or better in one season. Granted, that season did come in 2018 while knocking on the majors' door at Triple-A Indianpolis, slugging 30 doubles in 437 plate appearances. The home run power was still lacking with just four on the season, but that's not Newman's game. The 30 doubles, though, may represent an actualized ceiling of the type of production he can provide.
This is not to say that Newman cannot be a very productive singles-type hitter toward the top of the lineup while carrying occasional gap power — he's currently hitting leadoff after the struggling Adam Frazier was moved to eighth in the order. Newman can certainly be that, but perhaps not much more.
However, a seemingly small change at the dish might give him a chance to continue to raise his ceiling.
Newman looked lost at the plate in 2018 once he arrived with the Pirates in September. He carried a somewhat-respectable 21.7 percent swinging strike rate, but could only muster hard contact 17.4 percent of the time.
Moving in a bit closer to the plate and changing his stance ever-so slightly has resulted in a better ability to make hard contact and drive the ball.
First, a look at the changes:
It's slight, but notice how Newman starts off closer to the plate with small change in his front leg position — it's planted more firmly, allowing him to start his load much earlier. Crowding in a bit helps him get more of his barrel through more of the zone. It doesn't take analytics to know that's a good thing.
Here are these two pitches in action:
Small changes, to be sure. But they are also repeatable ones. Without drastically changing his swing, Newman has opened himself up to the potential of inching toward a hitter with consistent extra base hit ability. His ceiling might still be limited, but he has at least expanded the potential of what he can build onto what he already had: a disciplined foundation rooted in contact and patience.
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