ALTOONA, Pa. – Our mid-season prospect rankings are coming up, and between watching games in Altoona and Bradenton over the past few weeks, I’ve been getting a few “Has Cole Tucker passed Kevin Newman as the top shortstop prospect?” questions. That’s a question that will be answered in the upcoming rankings (I honestly can’t answer it now, because we don’t even have the rankings completed yet). However, I did want to review some trends I’ve noticed with Newman.
When I saw Kevin Newman in Altoona a few weeks ago, he looked exactly like the player I covered last year who was tearing up the Florida State League. There didn’t seem to be any major problems with his approach to the game, and he was doing a good job of using all fields, specifically hitting middle-away.
That’s a bit surprising, considering he had a .623 OPS heading into the series when I saw him. That number would indicate something was wrong, and that would be true. After watching Newman go opposite field a few times, I talked with Altoona manager Michael Ryan after the game, who had this surprising analysis on Newman’s recent games.
“He’s going the other way a lot better, instead of trying to be in pull mode,” Ryan said. “It seems like when he’s scuffing a bit at times, he’s grounding out to short, he’s grounding out to third. Just a little late with the setup. But when he starts hitting his line drives the other way, you know he’s close, and it looks like he’s back to where he’s normally at.”
It was surprising to hear that Newman was having issues going opposite field, and was getting stuck in pull mode. That wasn’t the hitter I was seeing the last two years in Morgantown and Bradenton. But the stats confirmed this. Newman has been hitting more ground balls this year, and has been hitting more grounders to the shortstop. This isn’t so much a change in approach, as it’s a change in how he’s being pitched.
“I don’t think he got away from it,” Ryan said of the opposite field approach. “I think they’re just pitching him a little different. Teams know he likes to go the other way, so they’re trying to pound him in, he’s trying to get them out of there. Putting the ball in play on the ground pull side. He’s just got to stick with his approach, and dictate each at-bat, and not let the other opposing pitcher decide what they want to do.”
Newman has noticed the trend of how he’s being pitched, and knows that he needs to make the necessary adjustments to avoid getting away from his game.
“A lot of teams pitch differently, and there have been teams that go in,” Newman said. “Going down the road, as you see more and more, making adjustments on how guys pitch you is something that all hitters need to do. Part of the game. I’ve stayed kind of hard headed with my approach, letting the ball get deep, and hitting it the other way.”
I saw a good week from Newman, and he’s been hitting well since then. It’s an arbitrary endpoint, but from the series I saw Newman, through July 4th, he had a .920 OPS. Those are the numbers you like to see from him, and they included two homers, two doubles, and one triple in 55 plate appearances. But I’m not sure I agree with Ryan that he’s back to the old Kevin Newman.
The Newman I remember from Bradenton just had a knack for finding grass with his hits. He worked middle-away, and just made the process of hitting look easy. He showed similar skills last year in Altoona, despite the numbers not reflecting those skills. I’ve been paying attention to him more since the series I saw, and what I’ve seen is that the early season problems are still there. He’s showing some improvements, but the issue of rolling over pitches and hitting weak grounders to the shortstop is still there.
The difference can be seen in the stats. Last year in Bradenton he hit to the outfield 54% of the time. His most common areas to hit were right field, center field, and left field. He hit to shortstop the fifth most, and only 14% of the time. So far this year he has hit to shortstop more than any other position, at 20.5%. He’s still hitting to the outfield, although it’s down to 50%.
That might not sound like much, but it’s compounded by another problem. He’s seeing fewer ground balls this year, while seeing an increase in flyballs and popups. Extra fly balls aren’t a good thing for Newman, as he doesn’t have a lot of power, and the extra fly balls won’t translate to as many extra home runs. What we’re seeing from Newman this year is a lot of easier outs — whether it’s slow grounders that he rolls over to short, pop outs, or more fly balls without the power to increase home run totals.
That makes evaluating Newman difficult. The recent stretch is a positive sign from the numbers, but the eye test shows that he’s got the same problems going on. He’s trending in the right direction here, but the problem isn’t solved. I have seen Newman better than this, and think he has a shot to reverse these trends, make the adjustments needed, and get back to what works for him. But there are also enough alarming signs that you could picture a singles hitter with some line drive power, but not enough consistency to be considered a line drive hitter.
Every prospect has his flaws, and that’s the main reason they’re in the minors, rather than the majors. I still view Newman as a guy who will make the majors as more than just an up and down player. He’s not hitting his best, but he has the hitting skills to make it as a bench player in the event that he doesn’t fully rebound and adjust. What helps matters is that he has continued improving defensively, and still puts a big focus on his work at shortstop.
“Between last year having Joey Cora here, and working hard this year with [Altoona fielding coach Greg] Picart, we’ve really worked on defense quite a bit,” Newman said. “For me, I feel really confident out there. I feel the hard work is showing up in games. The range is getting better, throws are getting more accurate. Not to say that I’m perfect, because I’m not. Just continue to progress in the right direction, work hard, and get as good as I can.”
A big focus last year was getting an earlier set position to improve first step quickness, while also improving range from side to side. The focus this year has been on improving the backhand, which Newman describes as the hardest play to make at the position.
“[Cora has] told me he’s really happy with where I’m at with side to side range,” Newman said. “That’s always nice to hear from a guy like Joey Cora. Still hammering that home, still working on that obviously, and first step quickness. Nothing is as great as it could be. As much as you focus on things in certain areas, everything could get better.”
While the offense has been poor, the defense continues to improve. But Newman is going to need the offense to be a starter. I’ve compared him to Jordy Mercer as far as upside, saying that he could be Mercer with better and more consistent offense. If he can’t figure out the current issues at the plate, then he’d end up Mercer with less power, which isn’t a starter.
I’m not saying that’s happening, and honestly I don’t know how to evaluate Newman right now. While writing this article, I was more conflicted about the analysis than any other article I’ve written recently. There are good signs, from seeing the skill out of him, to seeing the numbers recently. But there are also alarming signs. The best thing to say is that the Kevin Newman that has shown up for the majority of this year is not as good as the Kevin Newman from last year. Hopefully the recent results continue — as in hitting more often to center and right field, not just the stats — and he keeps trending in the right direction, away from the easy rolled over grounders. Otherwise, I don’t see a path to him being a starting shortstop in the majors.