Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Kevin Newman has had a solid season, but does this change future plans involving Newman?
Statistically speaking, Kevin Newman was MLB’s worst hitter between 2020 and 2021. The Pittsburgh Pirates infielder had a dreadful 726 plate appearances, batting just .226/.268/.302 with a .250 wOBA and 54 wRC+. The difference between him and the second worst batter in the league in terms of wRC+ was a 10% difference. Jackie Bradley Jr. clocked in with a 64 wRC+. Newman had a lead of at least ten points in on-base percentage (OBP), slugging percentage, and weighted on-base average (wOBA). The gap between Newman and the league average (100 wRC+) was the same gap between Jose Ramirez (146 wRC+) and the league average.
However, something has changed this season. Newman isn’t a bad hitter this year. He’s hitting for a slash line of .278/.324/.398 with a .291 wOBA and 104 wRC+. Instead of being 46% worse than league average, he’s been 4% better than the average. He isn’t hitting for a ton of power, but a .398 slugging is still slightly above the MLB average of .396.
Since returning from the injured list nearly a month ago, he’s slashing .294/.333/.412. Newman registers a .326 wOBA and 110 wRC+ throughout his last 90 plate appearances. Although those might not be great numbers, he has the same wRC+ as Cardinals outfielder Dylan Carlson and better wRC+ than All-Star Dansby Swanson in the same time frame.
Newman is having a nice season, but does this change his future with the Pittsburgh Pirates?
A lot of Newman’s production is because he is playing to his strengths. Newman is a guy who has to hit line drives in order to be successful. Dating back to when batted ball rates started to be recorded in 2002, softly hit line drives have resulted in a wRC+ well over 200 every single season (meaning 100%+ greater than league average). 263 in 2006 is the lowest single-season wRC+ on softly hit line drives, which is still 163% better than the average.
Newman’s current line-drive rate sits at 24%, a 3.9% increase from 2020-2021. Newman is hitting fewer ground balls as well. His ground ball rate in 2020-2021 was 45.2% and now sits at 42.3%. His flyball rate has remained relatively the same, going from 34.7% to 33.7%. Of Newman’s 36 hits, line drives currently make up 20 of them.
But while Newman is playing more to his strengths, that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of concern. He’s put up just an 85.8 MPH exit velocity and 29.5% hard-hit rate. That’s an improvement over the 85.3 MPH exit velo and 26.3% hard-hit rate he had in the two seasons prior but still is well below the league averages of 88.4 MPH and 35.7%.
Newman’s expected numbers aren’t very pretty either. According to Baseball Savant, which factors in his Statcast data, Newman’s expected batting line comes out to .266/.291/.332 with a .291 xwOBA. This isn’t far from his 2020 expected line of .253/.290/.337 with a .290 xwOBA. These expected stats are based on his exit velocity and launch angle, and despite posting a career-high launch angle of 13.7 degrees, his numbers haven’t changed very much.
However, the most concerning part of his 2022 season are his lack of plate discipline. Newman has always been a low-walk/low-strikeout guy, having just a 5.3% walk rate and 9.9% strikeout rate from 2019-2021. Newman has kept an almost identical walk rate of 5.8%, but his strikeout rate sits at 17.4%. That’s still well above the league average, but for a guy who strikes out in less than 10% of his plate appearances, that’s a worryingly high increase. His whiff rate of 16.7% should be a major concern, as should his chase rate and chase contact rate.
But Newman does have a 99 DRC+ (or deserved runs created plus), Baseball Prospectus’ version of wRC+ (FanGraphs), and OPS+ (Baseball Reference). DRC+ plus is much more predictive than the other two baseball database measurements because it considers factors outside of the player’s control, along with their batted ball data. That comes out to league-average production, which, for a guy whose value relies on his glove, is good enough. Newman doesn’t have to be a good hitter to be productive. A ~90 wRC+ would be passable for him.
The problem with Newman is that unless he brings something exceptional to the table, he can easily be replaced. The future of the Pirate middle infield is in the hands of Oneil Cruz, Nick Gonzales, Liover Peguero, and Ji-Hwan Bae. Tucupita Marcano could replace Newman’s production at the plate and provide more versatility in the field.
While Newman is having a solid season at the plate, being a slightly better than league average hitter, I don’t think this changes his future with the Pirates. He’s more valuable now as an offseason trade chip than a long-term piece of the puzzle. If anything, he’s only increasing his trade value.
The Pittsburgh Pirates also shouldn’t change their view on Newman. While Newman has made some slight adjustments, he’s still a concerning player. It’s better for the Pirates to get what they can and get out before the floor falls out from under him.