Sean Newcomb, along with other pieces, was acquired by the Braves on November 12, 2016, in exchange for Andrelton Simmons. A much-heralded pitching prospect, Newcomb had been ranked as high as #21 by MLBPipeline and was a consensus top-100 prospect in baseball and often drew comparisons to Jon Lester. The knock on him as a prospect and into his first taste of the majors was whether or not he could overcome command issues to become a front of the rotation starter.
Well, so far in 2018 he’s done just that. Newcomb’s ERA sits at a shiny 2.88 and his FIP isn’t far off that mark at 3.09. His current BB% of 10.8% is his lowest since he was in rookie ball and his K% of 28.7% compares favorably to the career numbers of current strikeout artists like Yu Darvish (28.6%), Justin Verlander (27.8%), Chris Archer (27.9%), and Jacob deGrom (27.3%). He has also increased his groundball rate to 49.5%, giving him a K% and GB% not dissimilar to Clayton Kershaw. While Newcomb will never be mistaken as a pitcher with pinpoint control, these numbers have elevated him to arguably the best starter on this Braves team.
At the center of this improvement for Newcomb is a change in his pitch usage, likely spurred by the Braves new analytically-focused front office under the direction of GM Alex Anthopoulos, Assistant GM for Research and Development Jason Paré, and Director of Major League Operations Alex Tamin. As reported by multiple outlets, the Braves front office approached the players early in spring training with data on what they had done well and what they could improve upon. Pitch selection was obviously among the things discussed with Newcomb, as he’s made a pretty large change in how he pitches. While still relying heavily on his four-seam fastball, and when you throw mid-90’s as a lefty who can blame you, Newcomb has doubled the usage of his changeup while practically eliminating his slider and decreasing the use of his curveball. Newcomb’s changeup is now his second most often used pitch.
The increased use of his changeup is at the center of Newcomb’s improvement as a pitcher. We’ll look at a few charts to prove this point. Since he’s essentially a three-pitch pitcher at this point I’ve selected only his fastball, changeup, and curveball to view here.
As you can see here, Newcomb’s change is his best pitch at inducing swings and misses on a per-rate basis.
And here we see that while his curve has generated the most groundballs per balls in play, we have to remember that Newcomb has doubled the usage of his changeup. And finally…
The release point of his changeup mirrors his fastball pretty darn closely. So Newcomb has a pitch that comes from the same arm angle as his fastball, that’s seven miles per hour off his fastball, that batters have whiffed on more than any other pitch of his, and that batters consistently pound into the dirt. And now he’s throwing it more often than ever.
So while Newcomb’s big improvements this year have taken course over a small sample, we have a verifiable change as to why he’s been more effective this year. With any luck, he continues to heed the front office’s advice and we have the makings of a top of the rotation starter, if not an outright ace, on our hands.