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Atlanta Braves player review: Sean Newcomb

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Newcomb did enough in 2017 to show that he belongs in the majors.

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Sean Newcomb made his major league debut on June 10 and while there were some growing pains, he laid a solid foundation to build off of for next season.

What were the expectations?

Newcomb began the season at Triple-A with the expectation that he would eventually reach the majors in 2017. No one has ever questioned Newcomb’s stuff as major league quality but a lack of command and control has prevented him from reaching his full potential. He averaged 4.9 walks per nine innings across four seasons in the minors with the Braves and the Angels.

The failure of the Bartolo Colon experiment allowed Newcomb the opportunity to reach the big leagues a little earlier than expected. He continued to walk batters at a high rate after reaching the majors, but he was able to maintain his high strikeout rate which led to his success. For reference, he had the 36th-highest strikeout rate among all starters with 80 or more innings in 2017 (a top 75th percentile mark), but also had the third-worst walk rate among this group of pitchers.

Sean Newcomb 2017 Projections/Stats

Name W L ERA GS IP K/9 BB/9 FIP WAR
Name W L ERA GS IP K/9 BB/9 FIP WAR
Sean Newcomb (ZiPs) 5 7 4.57 27 124.0 9.29 5.95 4.83 0.4
Sean Newcomb (Actual) 4 9 4.32 19 100 9.72 5.49 4.19 1.3

2017 Results

Newcomb put up 1.3 fWAR which was the third best total for a Braves starter, not counting Jaime Garcia, who was traded at the deadline. The impressive part was that he obtained that total in just 100 innings pitched. He led all Braves starters with 9.72 strikeouts per nine innings and put up a 4.19 FIP. On a rate basis, Newcomb had the best fWAR/200 among all Braves starters other than Luiz Gohara, who made just five starts (29 innings) for Atlanta at the end of the season, and Garcia.

The result was a solid half-season that many overlooked simply because of the high walk rate. I’m not suggesting that Newcomb doesn’t need to improve his control and command. Walking more than five batters per nine innings isn’t conducive to success. But other pitchers have had also struggled with their control and gone on to future success.

For example, Clayton Kershaw, perhaps the best pitcher of the current era, started his career with two seasons with BB/9 in the mid-to-high 4.00s, and walk rates of 11.1 and 13.0 percent, in comparison with Newcomb’s 12.5 percent walk rate this season. Kershaw’s walk rate in his sophomore season was the worst in baseball. And while Sean Newcomb is highly unlikely to become Clayton Kershaw, he should be judged on his overall effectiveness, without the walk rate magnified outside the context of his total performance. Keep in mind that Kershaw put up 4.4 fWAR in that sophomore season.) Going back a little further, Randy Johnson walked 6.8 per nine in 1991 and 6.2 in 1992 with the Mariners before getting a handle on his overwhelming stuff. He was a good pitcher in the early nineties that became legendary after he improved his control.

I’m not suggesting that Sean Newcomb is Randy Johnson, but that is an example of a pitcher that struggled with walks in the minors and in the majors before he figured it out.

2018 Outlook

Newcomb showed enough this season to prove that he belonged in the big leagues. He is still very much a work in progress but was able to experience a lot of the growing pains that all young pitchers have to go through. Barring something unforeseen, he will go to spring training with a rotation spot in hand.