Sean Newcomb has turned a corner. On the heels of an erratic rookie campaign that saw him go 4-9, 4.32 in 100 innings for the Atlanta Braves last year, the 24-year-old former Angels prospect is rapidly establishing himself as one of the best pitchers in the National League. A dozen starts into his second big-league season, Newcomb is 7-1 with a 2.49 ERA and he’s held hitters to a paltry .198 average and just three home runs.
Improved command and confidence have buoyed the young southpaw’s ability to flummox the opposition. His 4.3 walk rate (down from 5.1 last year) remains less than ideal, but he’s no longer the raw, strike-zone-challenged kid that Atlanta acquired from Anaheim in the November 2015 Andrelton Simmons deal. He’s making the transition from thrower to pitcher, and the results speak for themselves.
“I feel more comfortable now,” Newcomb told me prior to a late-May start at Fenway Park. “I had last year’s experience to take into the season, so I’ve felt more settled in. My fastball has also been working well, and I’ve been able to go from there.”
The fastball in question is by no means run-of-the-mill. It’s very good, and not for reasons that jump out at you — at least not in terms of numbers. Newcomb’s velocity (93.3) is right around league-average. His four-seam spin rate is actually lower than average (2,173 versus 2,263), as is his extension (5.6) versus 6.1).
Somehow it plays up, which Mookie Betts learned firsthand when Atlanta visited Boston. When I talked to the Red Sox outfielder after he fanned twice against Newcomb, he explained that the lefty’s heater got on him a lot quicker than he expected it to. Other hitters have said much the same.
Newcomb told me this: “I’ve heard that it looks faster than it is, and that it has a bit of an upward effect kind of like high-spin-rate one would, even though I guess mine is below average.” He had no explanation for why that is.
A rival pitching coach I spoke to did, at least in theory. He wasn’t familiar enough with Newcomb to address him specifically, but he was able to explain why a four-seamer with the aforementioned characteristics could be sneaky fast.
“It’s about having a connected, one-piece delivery,” proposed the pitching coach. “It’s basically getting the sum of the body parts into the throw, versus just some of the body parts where there’s a disconnection of the rotating torso. That typically gives you life out of the hand, but then the ball tends to peter out as it gets down the lane. But if you can get your delivery connected more to your rotation, you’re applying leverage through the baseball. When you leverage the baseball there’s an effect that it’s not jumping out of your hand, it’s just kind of laying back in the wrist and coming off the fingers. Then, as the ball gets closer to the batter’s eye, the appearance is like a car. If you’re watching a car coming at you from a distance, it doesn’t seem fast until it gets to you.”
Newcomb’s pitching coach offered a simpler, more-old-school explanation.
“Think back to pitchers we saw back in the day, guys who had that nice, easy fluid motion,” said Hernandez. Jim Palmer was nice and easy. Bert Blyleven. (Newcomb) has that easy motion that kind of lulls you, and then the ball jumps on you. It has that carry, that hop. It’s got late life.”
Pair sneaky hop with improved confidence and a better command of the strike zone, and what you have is one of the hottest pitchers in the game. Since the beginning of May, Newcomb has allowed just six runs and 22 hits in 41 innings.
Trey Mancini has exceeded expectations. An eighth-round pick in 2013 out of the University of Notre Dame, he was anything but prominent in top-prospect lists. Topping out at No. 5 in a Baltimore Orioles system that was ranked among the worst in baseball, Mancini was labelled “a low-risk, below-average regular” by Eric Longenhagen.
Hindsight being 20/20, his ceiling may be higher than that. While his raw tools are far from flashy (and his last six weeks have admittedly been abysmal) Mancini finished third in American League Rookie-of-the-Year balloting last year after slashing .293/.338/.488 with 24 home runs. And if there was a little man on his shoulder telling him that he wasn’t supposed to be succeeding in MLB, the words went in one ear and out the other.
“I learned a long time ago to not listen to that,” Mancini told me earlier this season. “I’m used to people doubting me. I might not have the most beautiful swing, or the most beautiful playing style, but I feel that I can get the job done. I don’t let what other people think bother me too much.”
Which isn’t to say he didn’t get in his own head a few times. The thoughtful slugger admitted as much when I asked if ever found himself thinking too much during his rookie season.
“Absolutely,” answered Mancini. “I went through quite a few mini slumps and every time I could feel myself tensing up. I’d be gripping the bat tighter. I’d be trying to do too much. I’d be thinking about driving the ball, but that’s something that comes naturally when you’re not thinking about it — and probably less so when you are thinking about it.”
Mancini credited his coaches and veteran teammates — “I’d be remiss if I didn’t seek their counsel” — for getting him back on track.
“They could see when I was struggling with the mental side of the game, and they knew how to help me snap out of it,” said Mancini. “They would get me to take a step back and realize that every player in the majors — even the best hitters in the game — go through little funks. It isn’t anything that’s particular to me. It’s something that’s going to happen throughout my career.”
Befitting the Orioles’ season, Mancini spent much of last month in a funk. After putting up a solid .766 OPS in April, he scuffled to the tune of .192/.280/.317 in May. And June has been even worse (5 hits and 13 strikeouts in 25 at bats). The trick now will be to keep his ears closed to criticism and get back to doing what he’s shown he can do — exceed expectations.
When I first interviewed him, JaCoby Jones was less than a month removed from having been selected in the third round of the 2013 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of Louisiana State University. His long-term position was up in the air at the time. Jones was shuttling between shortstop and centerfield with the short-season Jamestown Jammers, and he was comfortable in either spot. As he told me then, “I love both.”
The Pirates ultimately decided he was an infielder —Jones played short exclusively the next two seasons — but then came a trade. After acquiring him at the 2015 trade deadline in exchange for Joakim Soria, the Detroit Tigers decided Jones was better suited for the outfield. The uber-athletic 26-year-old had no qualms with the switch.
“I actually feel that’s more of my natural position, because I can use my speed out there,” said Jones, who has played all but 34 of his 887 big-league innings in the outfield. “I think playing shortstop most of my life allowed me to be a good outfielder, because I approach center field and left field the way I played shortstop.”
I asked the former LSU Tiger if he could elaborate.
“Al Kaline said to do that,” explained Jones. “Me and him and Tram (Alan Trammell) sat down and had a conversation. They were talking to me about moving to the outfield from the infield, and he told me, ‘How I became a great outfielder is that I played outfield like I was playing infield. Charge the ball, go get it, want it hit to you every time.’ It’s kind of the same in the outfield — the ball just goes up in the air — so I approach it the way you play shortstop.”
Fans of the Tigers are learning something Twins fans came to know well during Ron Gardenhire’s 13-year tenure as Minnesota manager: The amiable “Gardy” has a good sense of humor and a way with words. Those qualities were in evidence when Detroit’s first-year skipper was recently asked about his son Toby, who spent seven seasons in the Twins system after being taken in the 38th round of the 2002 draft.
“Toby got drafted in the 93rd round and there were only 50,” quipped Gardenhire. “He had my swing, unfortunately. The Twins took him and he ended up making it all the way to Triple-A and played however many years… He was a futility player just like his father… Luckily, he had me as the manager of the Twins and I wouldn’t let us release him.”
More classic Gardy came the following day when I asked about Jeimer Candelario, his club’s talented young third baseman. I did so referring to him by first name only.
“Candy? Candelario? I don’t really know them by their first name,” responded Gardenhire. “I call them buddy. Okay, back to Candy. Candy is doing fine.”
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Clayton Kershaw is 3 for 21 against Madison Bumgarner.
Danny Duffy’s changeup was featured in an early-May installment of the Players’ View: Learning and Developing a Pitch series. Once a so-so offering, it became a primary weapon for the Kansas City Royals southpaw after he adopted the grip used by then-teammate Edinson Volquez.
He improved the quality of another pitch in much the same way.
“I got my slider by seeing how Greg Holland threw his slider,” explained Duffy. “This was three years ago during the 2015 ALCS. I used to grip mine with my pinky off the ball, and I’d manipulate it with my middle finger. Now I just kind of offset the four-seam, put more pressure on my middle finger, and just rip it down through like I’m throwing a football. That’s exactly what he did, and it’s what I do now.”
And then there’s Shane Greene. The Detroit Tigers closer learned multiple grips from multiple people.
“I learned all of my grips from teammates,” Greene told me earlier this week. “I learned my fastball grip from a guy I placed with in the GCL; I don’t remember his name at the moment. I learned my cutter grip from a guy named Caleb Cotham, who is no longer playing. He’s an agent now. I don’t throw a changeup, but I tried everybody’s changeup grip, probably every grip you ever try. My slider grip… I guess I learned that one from my high school coach.”
Red Schoendienst died this past Wednesday at the age of 95. The St. Louis Cardinals icon had been the oldest living Hall of Famer since the death of Bobby Doerr last winter. That honor now goes to 90-year-old Tommy Lasorda. Schoendienst, who spent seven decades in baseball in a variety of roles, played in 2,216 regular-season games and 19 World Series games. He managed 1,999 regular-season games and 14 World Series games.
Bill Littlefield, who has hosted National Public Radio’s Only A Game since the show’s inception in 1993, has announced that he’s retiring. His final broadcast of NPR’s only national NPR sports program will be on July 28.
MLB has announced that 24 hours of baseball and softball will be played in conjunction with this summer’s Midnight Sun Game. The annual event is in its 113th year and will be held in Fairbanks, Alaska on Thursday June 21.
Evan White, Seattle’s pick in the first round of last year’s draft, moved up two levels when he was promoted from high-A Modesto to Triple-A Tacoma on Friday. The 22-year-old first baseman out of the University of Kentucky has responded by going 4 for 8 with a pair of doubles in his first taste of Pacific Coast League action.
The Detroit Tigers batters recorded at least one double in 53 consecutive games before going without a two-base hit on Wednesday. The streak was the longest in franchise history.
Rick Renteria was asked on Friday about Yoan Moncada’s strikeouts, and his response came in the form of a critique — not of the young infielder with the 33.9% K-rate, but rather the performance of a veteran umpire. Two nights earlier, Moncada had been called out on strikes three times by CB Bucknor.
“He had a few this week,” the White Sox skipper said of Moncada. “In one particular game, and I’m not going to say that the strike zone was pretty liberal, but I thought the strike zone was pretty liberal. I wouldn’t have swung at any of those pitches myself. He’s actually got a pretty good eye.”
It should be noted that Renteria did qualify his comment. Not wanting to get on the wrong side of the men in blue, he shrewdly added, “Those guys have a tough job to do. I’m not knocking anybody.”
If you’re a regular reader of this column, you’ve probably noticed that in recent weeks a few paragraphs have been dedicated to the charitable efforts of MLB players. The practice will continue throughout the summer, and today we’ll hear from Atlanta Braves right-hander Peter Moylan.
“I try to get involved as much as I can,” the Attadale, Australia native told me. “I don’t have my own charity foundation, but I do try to support as many guys who do have their own. Brian McCann has a charity I support every year. Tim Hudson. Tom Glavine. Both are involved in childhood cancer. Any time you see a kid that’s had to deal with that sort of crap, it puts things into perspective with what you have to complain about on a daily basis.
“I don’t do anything back in Australia, as I only get home for a couple of weeks a year. I did actually do one for the Shane Warne Foundation back in the day, but that’s not around anymore. He’s a spin bowler from Australia and when we had the pink bats I auctioned one of them off. Basically, I try to do as much as I can for the guys who do have foundations and charities. I encourage other people to do so, as well.”
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Ten years after being drafted, Anthony Bass has earned a bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University (less than five percent of MLB players have a college degree). Chris McCosky has the story at The Detroit News.
Over at The Seattle Times, Scott Hanson wrote about how Mariners broadcaster Rick Rizzs (who once made the mistake of eating 33 cookies in three minutes) is living his dream.
Chicago Magazine’s Jared Wyllys told us about how Dr. Alan Nathan became baseball fans’ favorite physicist.
At The New York Post, Ken Davidoff took us behind the scenes of the wildest Subway Series run ever scored.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Johnny Vander Meer, famous for throwing consecutive no hitters for the Cincinnati Reds on June 11 and June 15, 1938, hit the only home run of his career on June 12, 1948. It also came with the Reds.
Von McDaniel was 18 years and 56 days old when he made his MLB debut with the St. Louis Cardinals on June 13, 1957. Exactly two weeks later, in his fourth game, the younger brother of longtime reliever Lindy McDaniel (987 appearances) allowed his first run after beginning his career with 19-and-two-thirds scoreless innings. In May 1958 — suddenly and mysteriously burdened by an inability to find the strike zone — Von McDaniel threw his last big league pitch.
In the second game of a June 14, 1963 doubleheader, Willie Kirkland homered in the bottom of the 11th inning to pull the Indians into a 2-2 tie with the Washington Senators. Kirkland then hit a walk-off home run in the 19th inning to give Cleveland a 3-2 win.
Johnny Weekly, an outfielder for Houston Colt 45s from 1962-1965, was born in Waterproof, Louisiana on June 14, 1937.
Norm Cash hit 377 career home runs, none of which was a walk-off (per ESPN’s David Schoenfield).
Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn hit at least one home run in 17 consecutive seasons.
Buttons Briggs pitched for the Chicago Cubs from 1896-1898 and again from 1904-1905. His interim seasons included stints with the Chicago Orphans, Cortland Wagonmakers, Sioux City Cornhuskers, Utica Pentups, and Toronto Maple Leafs.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.