Kevin Newman's 2018 cup of coffee in the majors was the equivalent of three-day-old, half-drank Starbucks with a bunch of grinds at the bottom of the cup.
The Pirates' first-round pick in the 2015 draft, renowned for his contact-hitting ability and speed in the minors, was run down physically by the time he reached PNC Park last August. And it showed: Newman's park and league-adjusted On-Base-Plus-Slugging Percentage (OPS) was 67 percent worse than the overall MLB average. His adjusted OPS was one of the 20 worst marks ever posted by a Pirates rookie position player with at least 75 plate appearances in a season. His Wins Above Replacement (WAR) -- a measure of a player's overall value at the plate, in the field and on the bases compared to a Quad-A-type talent -- was -0.8.
For some, Newman's poor initial impression pushed him behind Cole Tucker as the team's best long-term shortstop option and it called into question his status as an everyday player. It may have also contributed to the Pirates acquiring Erik Gonzalez during the offseason. But thankfully, since returning from a stint on the injured list that resulted from losing a fight with a pitching machine, Newman has restored the organization's faith and secured the shortstop gig -- at least for now.
What is behind Newman's improved play, and is it sustainable?
Let's dig deeper.
Newman's bat has come back from the dead in 2019, as he boasts an adjusted OPS that is 11 percent better than the overall MLB average. That's also the 13th-best mark among all shortstops with at least 150 plate appearances this season. One reason is that he's doing a better job of controlling the strike zone.
In 2018, Newman walked in just 4.1 percent of his plate appearances and struck out 23.7 percent of the time. The latter figure was particularly concerning for a guy who doesn't have much power, and who barely had a double-digit whiff rate in the minors. Newman has at least modestly improved his walk rate this year (6.8 percent), while slashing his strikeout rate down to 13.6 percent. He has accomplished that by reducing his whiff rate against breaking pitches (31 percent in 2018, 26 percent in 2019, according to MLB Statcast) and especially offspeed stuff (30 percent last year, 16 percent this season).
With fewer whiffs, Newman has been much better overall against breaking and offspeed pitches. Newman was -4.2 runs worse than an average MLB hitter per 100 sliders seen in 2018, according to Fangraphs. This year, he's +1.8 runs above average per 100 sliders seen. He was -0.8 runs below average versus changeups last year, and +0.8 runs above average in 2019. He killed curveballs both years (+4.6 in 2018, +2.7 in 2019).
And, while Newman is still hardly known for his power-hitting prowess, he's at least not getting the bat knocked out of his hands. His isolated power -- a measure of extra-base skill found by subtracting slugging percentage from batting average -- has improved from .022 in 2018 to .114 in 2019.
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