Kevin Newman Has a Shortstop Problem, and It’s Not What You Think

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.

  • Sounds like Newman picked up Cutch’s problem.

    The biggest impediment is that the quality of pitchers he is seeing is better, as will be true in each of the two next steps.

    Only the elite continue to advance.

  • Sorry but Mercer is simply not good enough at a key position. I understand he is hitting OK, but his range is average and his arb years will get costly.

    • Darkstone42
      July 6, 2017 6:01 pm

      Average glove, average bat, average runner, average player. Honestly, what’s wrong with average? You can’t trot a whole team of average out there, but Mercer most certainly isn’t the problem. We’re getting below average out of all four corner positions, and our bullpen is terrible. The Pirates are just fine up the middle, though.

      • ’15, ’16 Mercer was a problem. ’14, ’17 Mercer is an asset. Performance isn’t stagnant.

    • Jackie Hernandez and Frank Taveras in 1971 and Tim Foli and Dale Berra in 1979 won the world series as the shortstops. I don’t think that any of them were better than Mercer. Pirates have not been blessed with really good shortstops other than Honus Wagner, Rabbit Maranville, Arky
      Vaughan, Dick Groat, Gene Alley, Mario Mendoza, Jay Bell and Jack Wilson. The first three before my lifetime.Every team needs good role players who do their job and help the team win.

      • I get your point but…You state that we have not been blessed with really good shortstops and then go on to list two of the top three to ever play the game.

      • michael schalke
        July 7, 2017 10:06 am

        Mario Mendoza? He of the Mendoza line. You must be high!

  • Tim, could this be an issue where he is focusing more on his defense and not enough on his offense this year? I can remember you talking about josh bell and some other prospects that seemed to be following this path, only to improve the hit tool when they were improved on defense. Either way, I can understand the concern but I like his attitude and approach. I think he will be fine when it’s all said and done.

  • I don’t get the Jordy Mercer “hate” among pirate fans. He may not be Jeter in Jeter’s prime but he is a solid MLB short stop. His April was bad – again – but since he has been very solid offensively. The pirates have much bigger problems now and in the near future than short stop. There are enough lottery tickets in the system that surely one of them will become a solid option in the next 2-3 years. It may not be Newman or Tucker but some of the other prospects (or a non prospect may have a breakout) in the lower levels.

    • Jordy Mercer is average. Therefore not a star. So there are many better than him out there. So we must hate.

      Make sense?

      Yeah, I didn’t think so either

    • Hate is overstated. Mercer’s greatest deficit is a lack of range. He’ll consistently make the easy plays, but almost never make a game changing play. While there is something to be said for minimal errors I would love to see an Ozzie Smith type of guy at SS sometime in my Pirates watching career. Maybe one of the guys in the lower levels will fill the bill.

      • Alemais looks like he could be special if his bat develops but he is a long way off. Some of the highlights I remember seeing really cool.

  • I see either Newman or Tucker being traded. If Tucker never got hurt he would be ahead of Newman. So the injury bug can help one player and hurt another. Big reason why Meadows isnt in the MLB.

    • They need guys to play second and third as well…

      • Who do you think would be more likely to play 3rd?

        • Perfect world?

          A Cole Tucker that has added another 20 lbs of muscle to his 6’4″ frame and adopted Will Craig’s swing mechanics. That’s a 50-bat, 60-power, 60-field third baseman.

          • Tucker being a few inches taller than Newman, age and his frame compared to Newman does seem to lend itself towards a possible move to third with some added muscle. Just like Manny Machado. But instead of HOF numbers, you know, just good ones. But if Tucker and Newman both prove over time to be able to handle SS than I would think Newman would go to 2nd and just hit. And in a perfect world Hayes comes along with both of them and plays third.

          • If you can believe it several sources have Tucker at Machado’s height and weight RIGHT NOW. So I guess Machado is leaner than I remember.

  • Darkstone42
    July 6, 2017 1:21 pm

    Pop ups aren’t good, but fly balls aren’t necessarily a problem, even for a guy who doesn’t have a lot of power. And it’s especially not a problem that he’s hitting fewer ground balls–he should be trying to hit fewer ground balls.

    Harrison is a good comparison in this respect. His best seasons in the Majors, 2014 and this year, have seen his lowest ground ball rates. He doesn’t hit a lot of home runs, but getting the ball off the ground gives him a shot at doubles, and with his speed, even triples.

    Turning on the inside pitch and being able to pull the ball when necessary is also important for Harrison. Newman should try to develop that ability as well. That doesn’t mean selling out for dingers or anything, just be able to shoot line drives through the left side and occasionally catch a gap when pitchers come in on him. If he does damage, he’ll see more of those pitches away he likes to take to right field.

    Hitting is all about adjustments. He’s starting to figure out how to respond to what pitchers are doing to him. It might have just been a little slower since he was also incorporating his lower half into his swing more to start the season. Two adjustments are harder to make than one.

    He’ll be fine.

    Note: While I am a ranking member of the Kevin Newman Fan Club, this statement has not been vetted through the committee, and therefore should not be taken as an official representation of the views of that Club. Even though most of it probably is.

    • The only knock on Newman’s hit tool coming out of college was against velo inside. Pitchers in Morgantown and Bradenton didn’t have the ability to exploit this hole like they do in Altoona and will at the highest levels, and he’s simply going to have to learn to turn on the ball in order to overcome this.

      You won’t find anyone who can consistently spray lasers over the second baseman’s head when getting busted inside with 95 mph heat. Just doesn’t happen. If Newman will ever be able to get to his game – which certainly is up the middle and away – he has no choice but to prove he can turn on the ball. For the last six weeks or so, that’s exactly what he’s done.

      • Darkstone42
        July 6, 2017 3:34 pm

        And I suspect realizing that is what Newman meant when he said he was hardheaded with his approach the other way. He realized he needed to soften on that and pull the ball when the ball was in.

        • Learning and putting that knowledge to good use is what it is all about. I feel sure we will see Tucker at SS and Newman at 2B or vice-versa, and one thing for sure is that defense up the middle will not be a problem.

          We just need to dynamite that MI logjam NH has established at AAA with Gosselin, Moroff, Bostick, and Ngoepe. Of the 4 the only one worthwhile, IMO, is Ngoepe because of his defense.

          • Bostick could be a great super utility guy, Ala SRod. Though I I haven’t seen his water cooler attack skills.

  • Although overshadowed by the hugely disappointing seasons of Kang, Marte, Polanco and Glasnow, there’s no denying the problems Newman and Meadows have had hitting this year have served to increase the size of the black cloud hanging over the 2017 Pirates organization.

    • Michael Sankovich
      July 6, 2017 1:04 pm

      completely agree. And these two, prior to the current season, were being penciled in as probable starters for the Bucs sometime in 2018. That doesn’t look to be the case now. The Pirates lack of impact position players in the minors does not bode well for the upcoming years.

      • Scott Kliesen
        July 6, 2017 2:35 pm

        I’m not ready to say Meadows and Newman are not going to be impact bats for Pirates in 2018 or future years. All I’m saying is they have contributed to the disappointment of 2017. I think both will end up as good MLB players, and in the case of Meadows, better than good.

        • Michael Sankovich
          July 6, 2017 3:02 pm

          As a Pirates fan, I hope you are right. NH’s 10 year track record of drafting/developing impact bats makes me skeptical. I want to be proven wrong.

          • Meadows’ concern is his health, not his talent. Yes, he’s struggled in AAA this year, but I don’t get the impression that anyone (in the org) is concerned about his ability to figure it out, especially at age 22. He will be an impact player if he can stay healthy. But, your doom and gloom in reaction to one bad 3 month stretch certainly does prove your Pirates fandom.

            • Michael Sankovich
              July 7, 2017 1:57 pm

              we just don’t know at this point that he will prove to be an impact player. He’s our best hope, but we don’t know. See Gregory Polonco.

              • You’re right, I should back off of the certainty in my statement “he will be an impact player”, because we still don’t really know. But your statements are very knee-jerk and your logic is inconsistent and self-serving. For someone with a “you never know” stance, you sure are certain about declaring Meadows as no longer being an impact player. You can’t one minute make a definite judgement on a guy to suit a pessimistic argument, and then refute someone else’s optimistic argument with a “we just don’t know”. Also, you can’t talk about the uncertainty of prospects (which is true) and simultaneously blame NH for the lack of development of impact bats. Which is it?

  • Hoping for a eventual upgrade over Mercer as to range and power, it appears no one is that much of one. Still work to be done for Tucker and Newman but both appear to be somewhat pedestrian SS in the majors. Hope I am wrong. Getting tired of two outs in the 7th and 8 positions to many times.

    • Just for comparisons sake, Pirates 7/8 hole hitters are better than Pirates hitters as a whole when compared to other NL hitters batting in same spot in order. Pirates OPS ranking overall is 12th place. 7 hole hitter is ranked 8th in NL, and 8 hole hitter is ranked 7th.

      Not saying you’re perception is wrong, as it’s more likely an indictment of how bad rest of the lineup has been as a group this season.

    • Mercer monthly splits:
      April: .220/.304/.305/.609
      May: .278/.381/.443/.824
      June: .297/.347/.462/.808
      July: .250/.250/.625/.875

      Apart from a horrendous April, he’s been very good on offense as an 8. You don’t need 30 HRs from your 8 hole- .800 OPS is really all you can ask for in that spot. Agree on defense to an extent but I don’t have a huge problem with him there either, and would take the package as a whole.

      • Kris Mosley
        July 6, 2017 2:27 pm

        Right now the Pirates could use .800 OPS at any spot in the lineup. I believe the only regulars above .800 are Cutch and JHay..

    • Tucker’s base stealing ability is a real plus. On second base percentage is probably the most important Stat that isn’t kept.

  • Jerry Michna
    July 6, 2017 12:24 pm

    I seemed to recall that the Pirates wanting to make him a stronger hitter. It may have mess up his approach.

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