Pittsburgh Pirates: Regression Appears to Be Catching Up to Kevin Newman

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JULY 14: Kevin Newman #27 of the Pittsburgh Pirates struck out during the first inning against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on July 14, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JULY 14: Kevin Newman #27 of the Pittsburgh Pirates struck out during the first inning against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on July 14, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images) /

Despite a strong rookie campaign for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2019, Kevin Newman entered the season as one of the top regression candidates in baseball. That regression appears to be catchin up to the Pirate infielder.

Kevin Newman had a really solid 2019 season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 531 plate appearances, Newman was one of the more underrated rookies in baseball posting a .308/.353/.446 line. He hit 12 home runs, stole 16 bases and psoted a 110 OPS+/wRC+. But something didn’t add up when you looked under the hood.

Newman had an average exit velocity of just 85.3 MPH, and hard hit rate of just 24.8%. Both were in the bottom 20 of MLB. Ground balls are the worst possible hit outcome you can have as MLB batters averaged a batting average of .236 on those types of batted ball results in 2019. Newman hit those for a 49.4% rate, and had the 13th highest soft contact rate (20.3%).

Clearly, this made Newman a huge regression candidate. We’ve pointed that out here many times, so have his 2020 struggles been because of regression? Well that just might be the case. His 2020 has not been great. Though he’s only had 126 plate appearance, Newman is batting just .239/.286/.299 with a 60 wRC+ and a OPS+ of 59. But when you look at his batted ball results, it’s extremely surpring that he doesn’t have a much lower batting numbers.

Newman’s tendencies have not drastically changed from his rookie campaign. The middle infielder’s calling card is not striking out, and he struck out just 11.7% of the time, the third lowest mark in 2019. But that comes with posting a walk rate of just 5.3%. This year, he’s striking out 12.6%, but walking 6.3%. He is swinging less with a 44% swing rate compared to 50.7% last year, but he’s making contact at the same rate. His contact rate is almost identical to 2019 with a 87.1% contract rate (87% in 2019).

In terms of batted ball results, well, he is making hard contact more often. Currently, he has a 30.4% hard hit rate compared to just 24.8% in 2019, but has seen his soft contact rate rise to 22.5%, and his exit velo is relatively the same at 85.6 MPH. Newman has improved his ground ball rate to 45%, and has seen his line drive rate rise from 22.1% to 24%. The big issue is his barrel percentage. He met the minimum for a barreled up ball just 2.1% of the time in 2019, and now that’s just 1%.

But is his drop in groundball rate, rise in line drive rate, and rise in hard hit rate enough to offset his weak contact? Well his ground ball rate is closer to the league average of 43%, and his line drive rate is above the league average rate of 22%. But the fact he’s still making soft contact at a 22.5% rate compared to the league average rate of 16%, and his barrel percentage is below 2% now is not a good combination, especially with a ground ball rate over 40%.

Since 2015, 83 batters have posted a season with a soft contact rate of 20 or more, and hard hit rate of 30 or below in 500 plate appearances, and out of those 83 seasons, only 22 have posted a wRC+ above 100, or have been league average or better. One of which is Newman’s 2019 and his 110 wRC+, which ranks 3rd. That doesn’t bode well for Newman.

Now, sure, you can have a low hard hit rate, and still be a good hitter, but you can’t be hitting ground balls at the rate Newman is, or when you do make contact, make as much soft contact as he is. The last player, and only other player ever to have a ground ball rate higher than 30%, a soft contact rate higher than 20%, a hard contact rate lower than 30%, and wRC+ above 100/league average over the course of at least 350 plate appearances was Jonny Gomes.

Just compare this to Adam Frazier. Between 2016 and 2019, the utility man batted for a solid .279/.342/.420 with a 103 wRC+ and .327 wOBA. Though not all-star numbers, they still represented a slightly above average hitter. Frazier did this while averaging just 86.8 MPH off the bat. Though he only had a 30.4% hard contact rate, Frazier only made soft contact 17.3% of the time. Now sure, he did have a 45% ground ball rate, but he also hit a line drive 25% of the time. But the fact soft hit ground balls made up just 7.6% of his plate appearances really helps. He also had a hard hit line drive on average about 7% of the time.

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If Newman wants to succeed, he needs to start hitting less softly hit ground balls, which have been responsible for 11.4% of his career plate appearances. It shouldn’t be a surprise that weakly hit ground balls are extremely unproductive. The 2019 average rate of those kinds of hits was 5.8%, and those also resulted in a .127 batting average. Only 5.7% of his plate appearances have ended in hard hit line drives in comparison.

The 2019 league average rate was 7.6%. Newman needs to take more of an Adam Frazier approach to the plate. Not necessarily go for hard contact, but avoid weak contact. If he can’t do that, then he needs to severly cut down his groundball rate to at least 35% or lower. If he doesn’t do one or both of these two things, then his 2019 rookie season might be an outlier where he got extremely lucky.