Last night the Pirates promoted 2015 first round pick Kevin Newman to West Virginia, despite not so strong numbers from the shortstop in Morgantown. On the season, Newman had a .226/.281/.340 line in 159 at-bats. However, he showed some improvement recently, after struggling for most of the first month of the season.
Newman had just a .158/.238/.193 line in 57 at-bats through July 11th. Since that point, he has put up a .265/.306/.422 line in 102 at-bats, and the live play has looked even better than the stat line.
“Coming off the draft I had three weeks off between college and professional [baseball],” Newman said about his early struggles. “It took a little bit to get adjusted. I made a couple of tweaks to my swing, and coaches here have helped me out. Just seeing the ball better, and more comfortable, more relaxed. I’ve kind of gotten my feet wet, and now I kind of know what it’s about here in professional baseball.”
Newman said that he worked on sitting back in his stance more, rather than getting out in front of the ball, which makes it easier to see the ball deeper and hit off-speed pitches. That’s a common approach the Pirates take with all of their hitters, having them focus on hitting to the middle of the field and opposite field, while capitalizing on a short swing. They haven’t been making major changes yet with their first rounder, but they are already working on this system-wide approach.
It makes sense for the Pirates to avoid major changes. They typically have a “hands off” period that runs around the length of the short-season leagues. During this time they evaluate a player and see his game before making any adjustments to that game. Newman happens to have a lot of the skills the Pirates like in a player. He’s a good hitter with advanced plate patience who won’t hit for a lot of home run power, but drives the ball well and should have plenty of extra bases, especially with his speed.
“They told me they drafted me for who I am,” Newman said on the feedback the Pirates gave him about his game. “That was one of the first things they said after they drafted me and I went to Pittsburgh. Met a lot of people, they all said ‘we like you for who you are, we don’t expect you to change, we don’t expect you to hit for home runs.’ I’m a blue-collar, hard-working player, and that’s who they drafted. That’s who they want me to be.”
The whole “blue-collar, hard-working player” part sounded a lot like a cliché when Newman said it on Thursday night in Morgantown. But he walked the walk on Friday night. Newman ripped a fly ball/line drive down the left field line that night, and immediately sprinted out of the box with his head down. He rounded first, ran hard to second, and slid into the bag. At that point, he looked up and noticed the other team running off the field. While Newman was busy trying to stretch a single to a double, everyone else knew that the left fielder had ranged far to catch the ball for the final out of the inning.
“He’s a hard-nosed player. He plays hard,” Black Bears manager Wyatt Toregas said after Friday’s game. “He hit that ball, and I think when he hit it, he thought double, and he was [thinking] right out of the box double. He put his head down and he ran all the way through. That’s what we teach.”
The out was primarily due to an impressive play by the left fielder, who had to range far to make the catch. At first it looked like the ball might drop in for a single that Newman could stretch to a double.
“It shows you what Newman is thinking about,” Toregas said. “He’s not thinking about whether the guy is going to catch it or not. He’s thinking ‘I’m getting a double on this.’ And that’s the aggressive mindset that I love about him.”
I was only able to see Newman for three games, and it’s hard to get a good read on a guy in that short amount of time. I’ll get to see him make his debut tomorrow in Charleston, but even that won’t give enough time for an accurate evaluation. What I’ve seen so far has been impressive. He doesn’t swing at bad pitches and makes solid contact with the ball. He’s got plus speed, and the biggest thing that stood out to me is that he’s an all-out player, as indicated above.
Defensively, it’s hard to grade Newman based on the field in Morgantown, which is turf and sees a lot of balls spring up really fast, almost as if they’re taking a bad hop on a dirt field. Considering the situation, Newman handled the fielding duties well. Errors aren’t the best way to evaluate defense in the minor leagues, but Newman has shown some improvements there. He had an error in each of his first two games in Morgantown. Since then, he has only had two errors in 15 games at home, suggesting that he got used to the field. In my limited view, he looked smooth on the field, with the arm strength needed to stick at shortstop.
I’m looking forward to seeing more of Newman in his West Virginia debut on Monday, and in the fall instructional leagues. My first impression was a good one. He comes across as a smart player who knows his strengths, and isn’t temped to move away from those strengths to try and be something he’s not (a power hitter). As for those strengths, Newman looked much better than his numbers in Morgantown, and the total package of speed, defense, a good approach at the plate, and consistent solid contact should make him an interesting shortstop prospect to watch in the future.