Braves: Is Sean Newcomb closer material?

newcomb 2020

You could easily make the case that, through the first 13 games of the 2021 campaign, no pitcher in the Braves bullpen has been as tough to hit as 27-year-old lefty Sean Newcomb. Through his first 4 ⅓ innings, Newk sports a cool 2.08 ERA to go along with a bound-to-return-to-normal but still crazy 22.8 strikeouts per nine as Atlanta’s 6th- and 7th-inning specialist. Admittedly, it is a small sample size, just 19 PA, but opposing batters have done very little versus Newcomb, and entering Friday’s series opener with the Cubs, the big lefty paces the Braves bullpen with just a .133 AVG allowed. 

This doesn’t appear to be early-season luck, either. While he’s been the best so far among Atlanta’s relievers at limiting contact, Newcomb also has had to overcome a bloated .500 BABIP, which per Statcast, makes his already-excellent ERA fall even further down to a 1.96 xERA — thanks to an xWOBA that’s currently 30 points below the .262 wOBA Newcomb has actually given up.

With exactly zero barreled-balls on his ledger, Newk is missing bats at a ridiculous clip as just over 50% of his offerings have resulted in a swing and a miss this season, including all three of his filthy changeups and three-quarters of the 14 cutters. Even his already-elite curveball, which when at its best can generate whiffs at a rate of anywhere from 25-35%, is missing more bats than ever, coming in twice as dominant at 66.7%. All in all, Newcomb has thrown 92 pitches during the 2021 season. You want to guess how many have actually resulted in a batted ball?… just four. And only two have ended up as hits. 

So far, it appears a lot of Newcomb’s success can be attributed to drastic improvements to his pitch-mix, as well as an added offering — a cutter. When looking at the characteristics of his repertoire in 2021, relative to the season prior, it’s obvious that he put in some serious work during the recent offseason, or maybe everything’s just finally coming together… but either way, literally all of his offerings are more effective.

The most apparent change to the casual viewer is obviously his fastball velocity. Per Statcast, Newcomb’s fastball has averaged 93.6 MPH during his four major league seasons, with a career-high of 94.3 MPH back in 2019. As of Friday, his average for 2021 is trending up almost two clicks, at 95.5 MPH, to also go along with a career-high spin rate. Typically, Newcomb’s heater has had a vertical drop of anywhere from 14 to 15.5 inches, but thanks to roughly 50 RPM more this season, that drop has fallen to 12.9 inches, giving opposing batters more of that “rising effect.” 

Then there’s the bugs bunny curveball: a pitch Newcomb has always had a great feel for during his career, allowing just a .188 AVG as a Brave. He’s throwing it much harder as well, adding almost 3 MPH to the pitch while, at the same time, maintaining its exact profile compared to previous seasons. 

In the past, Newcomb primarily used his curve to battle right-handed batters and a slider to go after lefties. And despite his slide-piece working rather well throughout his career, Newcomb has dropped it in place of a cutter, which should allow him to attack both sides of the plate; so far this season, he has mostly tried to locate the pitch outside and down in the zone versus righties. The cutter, naturally a harder offering than a slider, essentially gives Newcomb another fastball, though one that has some movement and can generate more whiffs. So far, it’s working as opposing batters are swinging and missing 75% of the time, and Newk’s throwing it more than any other pitch, save for his four-seam. 

Obviously, the season is still very young. We’re talking about just 13 games from the Braves overall and only three appearances worth of data from Newcomb. Regression is a given, and I’m definitely not trying to claim anything different. However, perhaps manager Brian Snitker should start using Newcomb’s newfound success in higher leverage situations or even allow him to share setup duties with the current 8th-inning man Tyler Matzek. You never know, if Newcomb responds well to the added workload, and Will Smith suddenly reverts to his 2020 struggles, the Braves might just have its next closer for the ninth.

Either way, give the man some more inning because no one’s hitting him right now.

 

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