Pittsburgh Pirates: Line Drives the Path Forward for Kevin Newman

PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 22: Kevin Newman #27 of the Pittsburgh Pirates reacts after reaching on a bunt single in the seventh inning against the Chicago White Sox during interleague play at PNC Park on June 22, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 22: Kevin Newman #27 of the Pittsburgh Pirates reacts after reaching on a bunt single in the seventh inning against the Chicago White Sox during interleague play at PNC Park on June 22, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) /
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While Kevin Newman has been one of the best shortstops in the league for the Pittsburgh Pirates, his bat has been one of the worst. Why are they still playing him? Is there any hope his bat will improve?

Kevin Newman has shown he is more than a capable defender at shortstop this season. He’s third in both defensive runs saved (DRS) and ultimate zone rating (UZR) at shortstop throughout the MLB. Coming up through the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system, many thought Newman did not have the arm strength to stick on the left side of the infield. Even when he debuted in the majors many still believed him to be Adam Frazier’s eventual replacement, rather than Jordy Mercer’s.

Newman’s bat was never really an issue. Besides a down year in 2017 splitting time at both Altoona and Indianapolis, Newman has hit relatively well at all levels of the minors. He even translated that into a solid rookie season where he had a 109 wRC+ and carried a 2.3 fWAR over 130 games.

Unfortunately, he hasn’t been nearly as good in the 146 games since, albeit part of that is due to a strange 2020 season that threw many good hitters through a loop. Most of those guys have rebounded in some fashion this season, but Newman has not. In 172 PA last season, he had a 54 wRC+ to go alongside a -0.4 fWAR. So far this season he has seen almost 400 PA and has posted an even worse 47 wRC+ to go with a -0.1 fWAR.

A big factor in this is Newman’s batting average on balls in play (BAbip) which fell from .333 in 2019 to .250 in 2020, and now to .229 this season. I wrote this off-season about how the Pittsburgh Pirates offensive struggles hinged on a lot of bad luck and just about every hitter identified in the article has bounced back up the BAbip ladder, even Gregory Polanco. Newman, on the other hand, has fallen even further.

On July 8th, Newman carried a 41 wRC+ in 305 PA. Since then Newman has posted a 71 wRC+ in 86 PA (not good, but better). He’s been making a little less contact in that time and hitting the ball harder, but not enough to make it seem like a big difference. What has changed, however, has been the types of balls he’s put in play.

Something interesting to note is Newman’s hard-hit rate (per FanGraphs) has dropped 7% from 27.5% in 2020 to 20.5% in 2021, while his medium hit rate has risen from 50.7% to 61% this season. He’s dropped his strikeout rate from 12.2% to 7.7% as well. He makes a ton of contact and a ton of it is medium, rather than hard. Newman sometimes is un-sarcastically called “ground ball Newman” and to this point in the season, his 46% ground ball rate is characteristic of that. There’s no change in that stat on either side of July 9th.

The big change is in his fly ball and line drive rates. Newman put 34% of balls in the air and just under 19% on a line in his first 305 PA. in the 85 after he has a 27.5% line drive rate and a 26.1% flyball rate. Line drives are always good. Lightly hit flyballs are not.

Newman’s struggles this season might revolve around his fly ball rate. Newman makes a ton of medium contact, which doesn’t get a fly ball out of the ballpark or into a gap very often. Over the past 3 calendar years, the MLB as a whole has a -59 wRC+ in 43,532 PA that has featured a medium hit fly ball. That’s absolutely awful. Meanwhile, medium hit line drives have carried a 347 wRC+ in 27,289 PA.

As you can see the difference is substantial. Hitting a line drive, any type of line drive, is always going to be better than hitting ground balls or fly balls, no matter how hard you hit it (except hard-hit fly balls, which usually end up as home runs). Newman getting more line drives means more hits and more offensive production from the defensive-minded shortstop.

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A really good defensive shortstop with a 70 wRC+ bat can typically produce a 2.0 fWAR season, something of which Newman will be capable of doing if he can continue to line the ball like he has been the past month. His improvement with the glove this season has been very impressive. If the bat can follow in any fashion that will make Newman a valuable everyday player in the MLB.

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