BRADENTON – The offensive approach the Pirates are taking this year at the big league level has received a lot of attention. The team is putting a bigger emphasis on getting on base and hitting for extra base hit power, while sacrificing home runs and cutting down on strikeouts. The result so far is that the Pirates rank first in the NL in OBP (.379), second in wRC+ (122) and wOBA (.359) and fourth in runs (110).
That approach isn’t just limited to the big league level. They’ve taken the same approach in the minors with their drafts in recent years, focusing heavily on guys who get on base, hit for gap power, have speed and play a premium defensive position, but don’t hit for home runs. No other player exemplifies this more than last year’s first round pick, Kevin Newman.
“We loved the defense, the athlete, the baseball intelligence as we were going through the draft,” Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said on Newman. “The hitter traits were very strong. We do see a guy that has the ability to drive the ball gap-to-gap.”
Newman is off to a great start this year with Bradenton, hitting for a .371/.429/.435 line in 71 plate appearances at the new level. That’s a small sample size, but from what I’ve seen from Newman live, he doesn’t look challenged at all by the pitchers in A-ball. He puts the ball in play consistently, and manages to find a way to hit it where the opposing fielders aren’t playing.
“There’s a lot of hits in the big part of the field,” Bradenton Manager Michael Ryan said. “He knows his approach. He has an idea going up to the plate. He sticks with that approach. He’s got very good barrel control. He works counts in the leadoff spot. If he sees one good pitch, he’s putting a good swing on it, and doing some damage. I love what I’m seeing so far.”
Newman uses a middle-away approach, which is something the Pirates preach to all of their minor league hitters. He shows off some power in batting practice, and has the frame that he could hit for more power than he does right now. But Newman doesn’t even attempt that approach, instead going for a wider stance at the plate, and more control over where he’s hitting the ball.
“I’ve narrowed up a little bit this year,” Newman said of the stance. “The Pirates drafted me for who I was. They haven’t told me they want me to go out and try to hit for power. I’m still just a gap-to-gap, low line drive hitter. That’s who I am. That’s who I’m going to be until I’m told to do otherwise.”
The Pirates have no intention of trying to get more power out of Newman. They definitely drafted him because he fits a lot of traits they like in hitters. They also drafted him because he’s the rare case of a guy who knows he will be a better hitter by staying away from power, rather than trying to get more attention by hitting for power.
“It’s reflective of his intelligence and his baseball intelligence,” Huntington said of his approach. “Ending his first full month in his first full season as a professional player, he shows remarkable maturity. There is the ability to drive the ball in there. But he’s not going to be a home run hitter. We don’t want him to be a home run hitter at the sacrifice of hitability and on-base.”
Huntington said that Newman is “showing signs that he has the ability to be a quality Major League hitter.” Right now, it doesn’t look like he has much to work on at his current level on the offensive side. That’s why most of the focus right now is on his defense, and improving his first step quickness.
“His setup on defense was a little bit late,” Ryan said. “There’s some things we’re trying to fix, to help his first step off the ball. Now he’s starting to read hops a bit better. He’s got to be a complete, everyday shortstop, so those are the things that he needs to do. That’s what he’s taking pride in.”
Newman has looked rough on a few plays we’ve seen live this year. He shows the tools to stick at shortstop defensively, but needs to smooth out his game. Ryan pointed out his work ethic, and that he strives to improve in any area where he can.
“He walks through that door everyday, and he asks me ‘What can I do today to get better?'” Ryan said. “If you mention something, he goes and does it. You can’t teach that.”
For the defensive improvements, the Pirates have Newman watching video of Jordy Mercer, and comparing how Mercer sets up early compared to how Newman has been setting up.
“He’s down and he’s ready really early,” Newman said of what he’s observed from Mercer. “So that’s something that I’ve watched, and that’s something that I’ve adapted now and started to use.”
Mercer wasn’t considered a strong defender in the minors, and really improved in the upper levels and the majors after focusing on his first step, and taking the right routes to the ball. Newman could follow that same progression, but isn’t focusing on routes or improving anything beyond the first step right now.
“Right now it’s just about that first step,” Newman said. “Obviously you can improve everywhere. I’m sure as I progress, that will be an area that I get better in, along with every other area that I play.”
The interesting thing is that Mercer came up and learned a lot from Clint Barmes, which really fueled his development. I could see a scenario where Newman comes up and learns a lot from Mercer, repeating the process. That will only help Newman in his quest to be a starting shortstop one day, which is where he projects to end up if he follows his current progression.
“He has enough ability to have quality extra-base hit power, he can be an on-base machine, play quality defense, be a good base runner,” Huntington said. “That’s a pretty good Major League player.”