Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Kevin Newman had a strong rookie season. Is he primed for a bigger season in 2020? Or will there be regression?
One rookie that flew under the radar nationally in 2019 was Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Kevin Newman. The right-handed hitter turned in a very solid rookie season, but didn’t receive a single National League Rookie of the Year vote. The former top prospect is now set for regular playing time next season, so what should your expectations be for this young Pirate?
As a rookie, Newman produced a .308/.353/.446 batting line in 531 plate appearances. He also showed a bit of a power-and-speed combo, hitting 12 home runs and swiping 16 bags. Overall, Newman had a 111 OPS+ and 110 wRC+ for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
He also posted a 2.4 fWAR. Among all rookies with at least 300 plate appearances, Newman’s wRC+ ranked 15th. That outpaced Arizona Diamondbacks’ catcher Carson Kelly, and former number one overall prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The most impressive part of Newman’s game in 2019 was his lack of strikeouts. He only went down on strike-three 62 times, resulting in a 11.7% strikeout rate. That was the 5th lowest in all of MLB in 2019.
Defensively, Newman was a below average shortstop. He owned a -7 DRS, -5.2 UZR, -4 range runs and a -9.8 UZR/150. Those numbers make him a bottom five defensive shortstop in baseball. But a position he should see more time at whenever the next season starts is second base. At the keystone position, he posted above average numbers clocking in with a +2 DRS, 1.9 UZR, 0.8 range runs and an impressive 17.5 UZR/150.
So if and/or when the 2020 season occurs, what should Pittsburgh Pirates fans expect from Newman? Well, odds are, you will see some regression.
Newman has never been that big of a power hitter. So, a .446 slugging and .138 isolated slugging percentage are very high for someone who had a .387 slugging, a .100 isolated slugging and only 15 home runs throughout his entire, 1,803 plate appearance minor league career. His unusually high slugging percentage should see as a bit of a fluke, not just because he has never been that great at hitting for power at the minor league level, but had a .387 xSlugging percentage. But home runs were up across the board in all of baseball, both minors and majors in 2019. With an un-juiced ball that has been re-implemented into the game, everyone’s power numbers are going to go down.
But, overall, many other facets of Newman’s game point to regression. Last year, Newman had the 14th lowest exit velocity in the MLB, putting him in the bottom five percentile. In terms of hard hit rate, he was also in the bottom five percentile. Newman’s xWOBA came out to .312, while his actual wOBA came out to .340. His DRC+ also represents a possible regression candidate as it was a few ticks lower than either his wRC+ or OPS+, coming in at 107. While not every above average batter has a high exit velocity, every below average hitter has a bad exit velocity.
Newman might not hit like he did in 2019, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be unproductive for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He still had a high xBA or expected batting average at .291. Plus, if he gets moved to second base, a position where he is considered an above average defender at, he should have more time to focus on hitting over fielding.
Next year, I think you can expect Newman to hit around .290/.340/.400 with 6-8 home runs and 15-20 stolen bases. Newman still has speed on his side. He was in the top 84th percentile in Major League Baseball, so some of those home runs will turn into doubles. Since Newman doesn’t have the home run power, or high exit velocity, he will need to start driving the gaps more frequently, which I think is completely possible for the 26-year-old.