Welcome to the Strike Zone, Sean Newcomb

All along, Sean Newcomb has been very much an individual pitching prospect. And yet, he’s also been several pitching prospects, innumerable pitching prospects. Newcomb has been one of so many young pitchers with tantalizing stuff, but just not enough control. Every single one of those pitchers has always been unique, but it’s such a familiar profile. Throwing hard is hard. Throwing different pitches hard is hard. Controlling those pitches might be the hardest thing of all. Newcomb’s always been young, so he’s always had time, but each and every one of us has been burned. We all recall that pitchers who just couldn’t make it.

After being drafted in the first round some years back by the Angels, Newcomb was good without being very good. In 2015, he missed bats, but he yielded too many walks. In 2016, he missed bats, but he yielded too many walks. Earlier in the minors in 2017, he missed bats, but he yielded too many walks. There were small signs of progress, sure, but nothing dramatic. Newcomb remained a work in progress.

Here we are now, suddenly, with Newcomb having started four games in the majors. And he’s…thrown strikes. Newcomb has left his old identity behind.

Newcomb has faced 98 major-league batters. He’s struck out 21 of them, while issuing seven unintentional walks. Those aren’t dominant numbers, but they’re encouraging, and I’ve prepared two plots to try to show Newcomb’s sudden progress. Here’s a rolling-average plot showing Newcomb’s walk rates, going back to the minor leagues:

That plot is two things: modestly encouraging, and noisy. It’s mostly a function, I think, of the sample sizes involved — over any given four-game span, Newcomb would’ve faced right around 90 or 100 hitters. I have a way of sort of artificially increasing the size of the sample. It’s not really that; I just want to shift the denominator from batters faced to pitches thrown. Forget about small-sample walk rates. How about larger-sample strike rates? This plot is far more revealing.

Just for the sake of being thorough, I need to say there are a few blips in Newcomb’s minor-league game logs, where data isn’t available. So this doesn’t capture every single game Newcomb has professionally pitched. But in the major leagues, Newcomb has thrown more than two-thirds of all of his pitches for strikes. In the minors, he’s struggled to get above three-fifths. This year, in Triple-A, Newcomb’s strikes got a little better. Since rising to the majors, they’ve been a lot better.

It’s true that anyone can look amazing for four starts. Wild pitchers aren’t *always* wild, just as control pitchers don’t always have control. It’s still a small sample of action, facing hitters who’ve mostly never seen Newcomb for themselves. The larger point is just that, this isn’t what many people expected Newcomb to look like upon getting promoted. Not given where he’s been, and not given the numbers in the upper minors. In the majors this season, 190 different starters have worked at least 20 innings. Newcomb ranks 18th in first-pitch strike rate, seventh in zone rate, and third in strike rate. One might’ve expected Newcomb to throw as many strikes as, I don’t know, Tyler Glasnow? To this point he’s thrown as many strikes as Max Scherzer and Chris Sale.

Newcomb remains unfinished, and he hasn’t been overwhelming. I’m just floored by the extent to which he’s been controlling his pitches. More than just pounding the zone, he’s been pitching with an idea, as conveyed by the following heat maps from Baseball Savant. Newcomb’s a southpaw. Here’s how he’s pitched to righties and to lefties:

Newcomb has mostly stayed away, but that means pitching to the arm side against righties, and pitching to the glove side against lefties. That takes some skill, and as I look at the video, I see some pretty clean, smooth, and consistent throwing mechanics. Here’s Newcomb throwing an arm-side fastball:

Here he is throwing a glove-side fastball:

Here’s a slider:

And here’s a curveball:

I can analyze only so much from looking at MLB.tv clips. I don’t have access to information generated by hypothetical sensors placed on Newcomb’s body. (There were no sensors placed on Newcomb’s body.) (As far as I know?) Furthermore, I couldn’t find good video of old Newcomb, which would’ve been younger Newcomb. I know the Braves have set to work attempting to simplify Newcomb’s delivery, and I don’t know what the change has looked like. All I know is what Newcomb looks like today, and those mechanics don’t scream “wild pitcher” to me. And, I mean, the pitcher from the videos hasn’t been wild. Maybe when Newcomb has a terrible game, the video will look different. But this isn’t a guy who’s been lucky to throw strikes. Newcomb has resembled a starting pitcher in command, and it’s fair to call that shocking, given how much he’s struggled with the zone before.

Doesn’t mean it’ll keep up! Absolutely, doesn’t mean it’ll keep up. But the sample doesn’t have to get too much larger before we’d have to consider Newcomb a changed man. The coaching staffs might’ve just gotten to him. The organization might’ve implemented a successful plan. This is, after all, the organization that got Mike Foltynewicz to throw strikes, although some of that has deteriorated this season. The Braves got Newcomb because they believed in him. Newcomb has shown up on prospect lists because evaluators have believed in him. Not as a guarantee, but as a good possibility. Newcomb, over a few games, is making good on the promise.

He could still probably use a changeup. I’m sure he knows that. The one he has, he doesn’t use much. So far, 95% of Newcomb’s pitches to righties have been fastballs or curves. According to the data at Baseball Savant, that’s the highest rate for any lefty starter. It makes Newcomb come off like Rich Hill or Drew Pomeranz, and his curve isn’t there. Now, if the curve were to improve, hey, that’s workable. But Newcomb is probably a decent changeup away from being rather quite good. A decent changeup and control that’s more proven. The latter bit — that’s going well.

Newcomb has work to do, and some guys never pick up a good change. But all of a sudden, it seems like Sean Newcomb has found the strike zone, and I was skeptical that *that* development would ever take place. We have to watch him to see if this continues, but it’s a promising possible step. The Braves are all about trying to get the most out of the young pitching they have. Getting Newcomb going would be one hell of a boost.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

Not enough credit given to Tyler Flowers causing ridiculously huge strikezones I don’t think. There’s been some, uh… suspect ones while he’s been behind the dish this year. (Seriously it’s been pretty incredible)

That said, Eric Longenhagen said as recently as this April that he had 35 command on his fastball, but to me it looks like he’s almost always around the strikezone, hence why Flowers has been able to be so effective. But he also was walking 13% of batters in AAA this year so the coaches didn’t fix it there, apparently he just decided to cut that down by 5% by moving into the majors. So who is the real Newcomb?

John S
5 years ago

If you believe in framing skills, and I do, then you have to say Tyler Flowers was pretty amazing last night.

5 years ago
Reply to  John S


There’s been two starts he’s caught for Folty this year, the most recent one against the Brewers and one against the Reds, where he stole probably 15 or so strikes. And not like the ones where they’re a ball’s width off the plate, but like, “How are you possibly being fooled by this, you silly umpire?”

5 years ago
Reply to  John S

Flowers is an incredible framer. Very surprised he flew so far under the radar when he was looking for a post-White-Sox-team.

5 years ago
Reply to  John S

Flowers has been amazing pretty much every night. From what I can find, he’s having the best framing season since 2011, which is even more impressive considering how the baseline has changed. He has very likely been the Braves most valuable player so far.