So young Jordy Mercer is doing all right after all.
Kevin Newman has been a pleasant surprise for a Pirate infield that was in some dire need for some pleasant surprises. His 123 wRC+ entering play Tuesday has been one of the best for a Pirate shortstop in recent memory. In my 27 years on this planet, the only Bucco shortstops who have hit better than he has are 2015 Jung-Ho Kang and 1993 Jay Bell.
Newman is perhaps lucky to get this chance to prove himself again. He made a poor first impression in his major league cameo last year, propelling the Pirates to acquire Erik Gonzalez from Cleveland. Gonzalez won the job out of spring training, and Newman wound up on the IL in April after being on the wrong end of a pitching machine. Gonzalez went on the IL shortly after, bringing Cole Tucker to the majors. All of a sudden, the former first rounder was third on the major league depth chart.
But Tucker struggled, Gonzalez was shelved for an extended period and Newman got another crack. His results have been great, but his batted ball profile has not. Going by his peripherals, Newman isn't actually striking the ball much harder than he did last year.
2018: 83.5 MPH Average Exit Velocity, 1.4% Barrel Percentage
2019: 84.4 MPH Average Exit Velocity, 1.7% Barrel Percentage
As a whole, Newman ranks in the bottom 5% in the league in average exit velocity and the bottom 7% in hard hit rate (26%). Of course, that doesn't tell the whole story. He has been far more aggressive at the plate this season, swinging at a much higher percentage of pitches than he did in 2018. That increase has coincided with better results.
Whether he was just gassed last year or too conscious to not screw up, Newman didn't offer at a lot of pitches in his first 50 or so games. That changed once he was moved to the leadoff spot with a starting job in hand. Some of those swings have come against pitches out of the zone, but he has become the aggressor in his plate appearances.
Being aggressive does not mean he's being reckless. Newman has drastically cut his strikeout rate in 2019 (from 23.7% to 13%) while also boosting his walk rate (4.1% to 6.5%). He also has a new stance. Jason Rollison has already written about this, so I'll give the SparkNotes version: he tweaked his front leg position, meaning he can start his load a little sooner.
He’s hitting smarter, not harder. That still raises some concerns, though. His three home runs last week may quell some worries about his power, but a 50-something point difference between wOBA and xwOBA is significant. Before play Tuesday, Baseball Savant clocked him in with a .365 wOBA even though they forecasted him for a .312, based on launch angle and exit velocity.
How rare is such a gap? Out of the 1,409 individual seasons where a player had at least 200 PAs from 2015-2018, only 11 finished with a wOBA at least 50 points higher than their expected wOBA. This is the top 20 for single season overachievers.
There's a lot of one hit wonders in that group, too. Zack Cozart hasn't come close to replicating his 2017 campaign and currently has a NEGATIVE 12 wRC+ in over 100 PAs in 2019. Nick Hundley lived every fringe hitter's dream by getting one glorious season in Colorado. Billy Burns, Chris Young and Alen Hanson have fallen into obscurity.
Of course, there are some good hitters on that list. Bryce Harper may never capture that 2015 magic again, but he's still a dangerous stick. Same with 2017 Marwin Gonzalez. And Jose Altuve is proof that being on the list once doesn’t mean you can’t improve your quality of contact in the future. It stands to reason Newman will hit the ball harder with more major league experience, but if that doesn’t happen, can he still be a good hitter with mediocre peripherals for extended periods of time?
Newman does have a secret weapon to even the score: his speed (sorry for the pun headline). Baseball Savant tracks his sprint speed at 28.3 MPH, putting him in the top 17% in the league. While that speed hasn’t translated to good base running (an aside: entering play Tuesday, Newman had taken an extra base on other player’s hits only 28% of the time, according to Baseball-Reference. Examples of this are going from first to third on a single, first to home on a double, etc.. Colin Moran, who is- to say politely- not fast, is averaging 29%. This might be worth a deeper look in the future.), it has lead to a plethora of infield singles. His 14 infield hits are tied for the most in the majors.
Let’s play a hypothetical and take those 14 hits away from Newman. In one scenario, the ABs just never happened. In the other, we’ll turn them into ground outs. Here’s how his slash-line fluctuates:
With infield hits: .323/.372/.478
Without infield hits: .273/.328/.439
Infield hits turned into outs: .254/.307/.408
All of a sudden he goes from a good leadoff hitter to pretty pedestrian to bad. Based on his xwOBA, it seems Statcast is giving him credit for a couple infield hits, but not all 14. We may have the answer to our mystery.
Of course infield singles aren’t exactly a stable bedrock to build upon, but Starling Marte has consistently aided his batting average and OBP by beating out hits. Newman is going to need to do the same, at least until he adds more power. For now, he’s a throwback. A lean, fleet footed middle infielder who doesn’t strike out a lot and is relying on ground ball hits. It’ll be interesting to see if there is still room for such a player in 2019.