Pittsburgh Pirates: Future of Kevin Newman

PITTSBURGH, PA - JULY 31: Kevin Newman #27 of the Pittsburgh Pirates in action during the game against the Philadelphia Phillies at PNC Park on July 31, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - JULY 31: Kevin Newman #27 of the Pittsburgh Pirates in action during the game against the Philadelphia Phillies at PNC Park on July 31, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) /

Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Kevin Newman has looked like a solid batter this past month despite a poor performance up to then since the start of 2020. But does he has a future with this team?

Pittsburgh Pirates middle infielder Kevin Newman is playing a position that will have a ton of competition at within the next season or two. With the likes of Oneil Cruz, Liover Peguero, Diego Castillo and Ji-Hwan Bae as the team’s top shortstop prospects, and Hoy Park also looking like a potential long-term infielder, Newman has a ton of competition at short.

Over at second base he’ll have to fight amongst the likes of Nick Gonzales, Rodolfo Castro, Tucupcita Marcano, and Jackson Glenn for a spot. After that, there are plenty of very young middle infield prospects like Maikol Escotto, Bubba Chandler, and Juan Jerez. So with so much competition among Kevin Newman’s two primary positions, does he have a future role with the Pittsburgh Pirates?

Newman hasn’t shown much with the bat since his 2019 rookie campaign. Between the last two seasons the infielder has a .226/.269/.295 line, .249 wOBA, and 54 wRC+. Newman showed a bit of pop in 2019 with a.138 isolated slugging percentage. That kind of power was unprecedented with his highest ISO being just .106 in any minor league season (not including the 8 games he played at Indianapolis in 2019). However, since then, he has had a mere ISO of .069. Plus it’s likely his 2019 offense was influenced by the juiced ball.

A big part of his poor performance is a mix of ground balls and lack of being able to hit the ball hard. He has a 46.8% GB%, which is much higher than the league average rate (43% this year for reference). His exit velocity has never reached about 86 MPH with him averaging just 5.5 MPH in 2020 (MLB average is around 88 MPH), and his hard-hit rate never approaching 30% (average is about 35%). His highest hard-hit rate is 28.3% in 2020.

Though, there is a silver lining. Over the last month, he’s been a better hitter. His last 88 plate appearances have yielded a .289/.310/.410 line, .308 wOBA, and 92 wRC+. Now not outstanding numbers by any means. But as Jeffrey Cupp recently talked about, line drives are going to be Newman’s meal ticket and he’s been hitting them more frequently. Over the past month, he’s had a 29.3% rate. Line drives are by far the most productive batted ball result, having a 68.6% chance of falling for a hit, and a 336 wRC+ this year. Plus, he has had a ground ball rate of 41.3% in this time.

While his offensive numbers aren’t outstanding, it’s helped by the fact he’s become a plus defender at shortstop. This year, he has +5 DRS, a 7.1 UZR/150, and is in the top 85th percentile of outs above average. Overall, he’s been comparable to a Jose Iglesias-type player the past month. Since 2018, the shortstop has a .285/.319/.411 line, .313 wOBA, and 94 wRC+. Very similar numbers to Newman over the past month. He, like Newman, has been a line-drive heavy hitter with a 24.6% line drive rate. Overall, he’s averaged about 2.5 fWAR/600 PA’s, which if Newman can put up that kind of production, he might find a future role with the Bucs.

Now granted, even if Newman keeps being a .310 wOBA, 90-95 wRC+-type hitter, that’s still a low bar for Peguero, Cruz, Castillo, Bae, Park, Gonzales, Marcano, Glenn, and Castro to reach, as well as the other young players in A-Ball and below. It’s also a small sample size. We’re looking at less than 100 trips to the plate. Who knows if he can continue to hit like this. Up until July 16th, he had a wRC+ of just 43. If a glove-first, sub-50 wRC+ guy is all he is, the Pirates will have no trouble moving on from Newman.

But let’s say Newman does keep hitting as he has. Does he have a role with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the future? Well like I said earlier, he’s not necessarily setting a high bar for 10+ other players to reach. If the Pirates decide to keep him around, rather than use him as a trade piece, they could move him around the field as a super-utility man. Newman hasn’t played much of any other position than shortstop and second base. He’s put 31.2 innings in at the hot corner and 42 innings in the outfield. But he’s athletic enough to play the outfield if need be. He has a 28.5 feet/second sprint speed, which is in the top 84th percentile, and fast enough to man even center field.

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Even at his best, Kevin Newman doesn’t look like a future regular for the Pittsburgh Pirates. His numbers aren’t very hard for someone like even Hoy Park to surpass. But that doesn’t mean he’s not worth keeping around. I think over the course of the next year, Newman should start getting some reps in the outfield. A .280/.310/.400 hitter with a 90-92 wRC+ who can play multiple positions at an above-average level has its value. If Newman has a future role with the Pirates, it’s going to be through a super-utility role.