ALTOONA, PA – “Obviously, he was on the map as a first rounder, but, he’s opening eyes and making [the Pirates] think about to what they are going to do next year. Once you are [in Triple-A], you never know.”
Joey Cora hit the nail on the head when talking recently about how shortstop prospect Kevin Newman is opening eyes this year, as last year’s first round draft pick has steadily climbed the ranks of the Pirates’ minor league system. This season, he has definitely shown exactly why Keith Law had him ranked as the second best player in the 2015 Draft Class.
Other than a short period of time in the New York-Penn League for West Virginia, Kevin Newman has hit — and hit extremely well — at every stage of his baseball career.
Newman hit .336, .304, and .370, respectively, in his three seasons with the Arizona Wildcats. He came in as a freshman and started at shortstop right away to earn All-Conference honors all through his collegiate career. He was the first two-time batting champion in the Cape Cod League, a collegiate summer league in Massachusetts, while hitting .375 his first season and .380 in his second with the Falmouth Commodores.
Disregarding the on-field numbers last season in half of a professional season and going off of the live scouting reports that we provided, Newman still passed the eye test at the plate. Going into this season, those eye test results have gone to pen-and-paper.
Newman hit .366 with a .929 OPS during his first half of the season in Bradenton. He had ten doubles, a triple, and three home runs in the pitcher friendly Florida State League, leading to a career best .128 ISO (collegiately or professional during his time at one particular level or season).
Since he has reached Altoona, the hitting has yet to stop, as he is batting .326 with an .805 OPS in 33 games (as of 6/27). He had two hits in his Double-A debut on June 18th, then he began a 17-game hitting streak in his third game at the new level. He had a slash of .371/.418/.471 during his 17-game streak, and he only struck out three times in 70 at-bats.
Altogether, he has at least one hit in 25 of his 33 games for Altoona. In total this season, Newman has a .348 batting average between A and Double-A ball, best out of all full-season Pirates minor league players.
Since his promotion, Newman said that he has needed to make some adjustments to be able to continue at a similar production level.
“I think you have more polished pitchers here that really know how to get outs,” Newman said. “They can throw their off speed stuff for strikes when they want. They do a good job keeping you off-balanced. A lot of them try to make you get yourself out rather than getting you out. Pitchers are simply just smarter and know how to pitch.”
Newman said that his time at the University of Arizona helped prepare him for what he is currently seeing from pitchers at Double-A.
“College actually prepared me really well,” Newman said about Double-A pitching. “The Pac-12 is a great power conference, and a lot of pitchers threw changeups and curve balls even when they were behind in the count. I was exposed of those pitch sequencings before, and as I moved up the levels of the minors, they would work more off of the fastball. [In Double-A], it’s back to how it kind of was in college. Obviously, the stuff is better here than when I was in college, but I can adjust well to what the pitchers are throwing here.”
Neal Huntington recently praised the work of Newman as he moved up levels.
“For a guy to be one year out of the draft, and doing the things that he’s doing in Double-A, it is really encouraging,” Huntington said. “[Our evaluators] loved the intelligence and the baseball feel, as well as the tools and the skills.”
Those tools and skills frequently need to be refined, though, and Kevin Newman is not unlike anyone else. Huntington said that coaches have worked with Newman on “mechanical changes to get him to drive the ball more.” I asked Newman about those changes, and he told me that there were two minor adjustments that he has recently made with his swing — a more narrow stance and a low finish after getting through the zone.
Keith Law may have been on to something before the draft, saying “his wide stance may be the reason [he doesn’t have much power], and closing it could unlock some doubles power in no time.”
Newman considered the stance one of many “minor tweaks and changes” that players frequently make.
“You do things here and there, but it hasn’t been anything major,” Newman said. “[Huntington] said it best — it’s just a couple of minor tweaks. It’s a game of adjustments. You can always get better, and that’s what we are trying to do.”
As for the low finish, Newman said that following through lower after the swing allows him to have a strong, level bat through the strike zone.
“It gets the most line drive potential out of my swing,” he said.
Newman already has great hand-eye coordination and bat speed, and continuing to make slight adjustments to his swing really can’t hurt him trying to unlock his full potential. Compare him to Josh Bell, who alike has great hand-eye coordination and bat speed, and he frequently is tinkering with his swing and trying new things to continually try to be better.
According to a Baseball America article around the draft last year, Newman had the second lowest ISO (slugging minus batting average, measuring a batter’s raw power) out of Top 50 Division I picks in the last ten years. Newman had a career .078 ISO at Arizona, and only three other drafted players within those parameters had a career isolated power number under .100 while in college.
Newman only hit two home runs during his time with Arizona, but he has already hit four this season — one with Altoona and three with Bradenton. His slugging numbers have steadily improved over the past two years, and he has a combined .116 ISO between Bradenton and Altoona this season so far.
If the change in stance can help Newman unlock some more of that power potential, his potential as a MLB shortstop may be much higher than what was envisioned on draft day. For now, though, he is just working on hitting line drives and continuing his progression as a professional hitter.
“With how my swing is and what I try to do up there, home runs are accidents,” he said. “I just try to hit line drives, and occasionally that will happen.”
Even with all of the attention that a first round draft pick will undoubtedly receive, Newman has kept an extremely level head and really seems to take the game day-by-day in a very mature manner. He stepped into a leadership role in Altoona right as Austin Meadows was being promoted to Indianapolis, and definitely has the looks of a man with a good head on his shoulders.
As for recently, Newman has run into a few no-hit games; however, his swing has looked good as he has lined out numerous times. He has taken it all in stride.
“That’s just how it is,” he said. “You just have to show up and get your work in every day. You got to just grind through it. Everybody gets in slumps and the best way to work through it is to keep grinding.”
Newman jumped to number four in our mid-season Top 50 list, and you can expect him to possibly make the move to our second rated prospect if/when Tyler Glasnow and Josh Bell move to the majors on a more full-time basis. The biggest move for him will be his eventual move to the majors, when he is expected to take over as the long-term shortstop for the Pirates.