Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Kevin Newman’s offensive production has taken a nosedive over the past two seasons. So what happened to his bat?
Kevin Newman was a first-round pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015. Coming up through the minors, he was an all-hit, no power infielder. While he was never a high-end prospect, he was a solid mid-tier prospect with potential.
During Newman’s first year in the majors he showed that potential. In 531 plate appearances, the right-handed batter posted a solid .308/.353/.446 line, .339 wOBA, and 109 wRC+. For a no-power prospect, Newman hit 12 home runs with a .138 isolated slugging percentage. Pretty good output for a guy who had a .100 isolated slugging percentage throughout 4 minor league seasons. Newman walked at a poor 5.3% rate, but his 11.7% strikeout rate was the 5th lowest qualified mark in baseball.
However, since the outset of the 2020 season, Newman has been one of baseball’s worst hitters. His last 726 trips to the plate have yielded just a .226/.268/.302 line, .250 wOBA, and 54 wRC+. Just to show how bad Newman has been the last 2 years, among position players with at least 600 plate appearances, Newman’s wRC+ is 10% worse than the next closest. Outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. ranks second to last at 64. He’s also dead last in OPS, wOBA, and is next to last in fWAR.
So how did a guy who hit .300 with a wRC+ approaching 110 in his rookie season end up as one of baseball’s worst hitters? What happened between now and 2019 that changed Newman’s offensive output?
Well, the reason his power output has significantly decreased is because of the juiced ball. In 2019, the baseball was juiced beyond belief. The league average HR/9 rate was 1.4, the highest mark of all-time. 6776 total home runs were hit, 671 more than the previous single-season high. So players like Newman were greatly benefiting from this. He has just a .076 ISO throughout his last 2 seasons comapred to a .100 ISO during his time in the minor leagues.
Regression also should have been expected after his first year. Newman had just an 85.3 MPH exit velocity and a 24.8% hard-hit rate. Both were well below the 10th percentile of players. A player with that few hard-hit baseballs isn’t going to keep up a 10-12 home run pace without the juiced ball. This hasn’t changed much in 2021 as he still had an 85.3 MPH exit velo and 26% hard-hit rate. Plus was in the bottom 18th percentile of xwOBA and bottom 13th percentile of xSLG.
Another reason is that infielders started to play Newman differently. If you go on Baseball Savant and view fielder positioning data vs Newman, you’ll notice that there is a very slight difference in infielder positioning. It’s a very minuscule difference, but a few feet is often the difference between a bloop single and a catch.
Plus, his spray chart from 2021 shows much fewer shallow outfield singles compared to 2019. Sure, he had fewer overall hits, but the rate at which balls were falling into no-mans-land was much lower, especially to the left side of the field.
Newman has also become flyball-prone. In 2019, his fly all rate sat at just 28.4%. However, over the past 2 years, he has a 34.7% FB%. It became even more extreme in 2021 with a 36% fly ball rate. With more flyballs has come a whole lot more infield flies. He has a 10.9% infield fly rate over the past 2 years (10.9% in 2021) compared to just 7.4% in 2019.
He just isn’t built to be a guy with a 35%+ fly ball rate. Among all qualified players who had a flyball rate that matched or exceeded Newman and had a wRC+ of at least 100, only 5 had an average batted-ball distance of 170 feet. Most sat around 180+. Newman on the other hand had an average batted-ball distance of 150 feet. That, combined with his low hard-hit rate and exit velocity, is another major reason he has declined so much.
So what does Newman need to do to improve? He needs to become a line-drive-centric hitter. Even soft-hit line drives still land for a hit well over 60% of the time. The lowest league-wide wRC+ on soft hit line drives since 2010 is 269, coming in 2012. The likes of Adam Frazier, David Fletcher, Myles Straw, Josh Harrison, and J.P. Crawford have managed to be 90-100 wRC+ hitters despite usually sitting among the bottom of the leaderboard in terms of exit velocity and hard-hit rate because they consistently have an above-average line drive rate.
Newman’s downfall over the last two seasons has been dramatic. He went from an above-average hitter to the worst batter in the sport. A mix of the juiced ball going away, fielders positioning themselves to dampen the impact of bloop singles, and becoming a fly ball hitter when he simply does not have the power to be one has culminated into him becoming an awful hitter. If he wants to ever improve his game and become more than just a glove-only middle infielder, he needs to up his ability to hit line drives rather than fly balls.