The first week of spring training for the Atlanta Braves was eventful because it took maybe an hour or two before we got the first gloom and doom moment of the entire season. That was when Cole Hamels walked into the door for his first official day at his new gig with shoulder soreness after he hurt himself tossing around a medicine ball. The shoulder ailment is enough to basically wipe out all of his spring training and he won’t be ready to go once Opening Day rolls around.
It’s absolutely not an ideal situation since Hamels had already been penciled into the rotation. The Braves weren’t bringing him in here to compete for a job or to simply eat innings — ideally, they wanted him to be a vital cog in improving Atlanta’s rotation while also bringing veteran stabilization to what figures to be a pretty young rotation with all things considered. Now, Hamels is going to be on the back foot to start his 2020 season and there figures to be a major fight for two spots in the rotation.
Oh wait, scratch that: While there’s still going to be a scrap for the fifth spot in the rotation (and I figure we won’t have a clear winner of that spot until the very end of spring training), the fourth spot might already be locked down. It would be a return to a familiar spot for this particular guy if he was to end up returning to the rotation, as well. With news coming out that the Braves are stretching him out to compete for the job, then the fourth starter spot could be Sean Newcomb’s to lose.
Now, there are some reasons that the Braves could decide to just keep Newcomb as a reliever for the foreseeable future. Mark Bowman went over those reasons on his take on things a few days ago and it was definitely a reasonable argument in favor of keeping Newcomb as part of what already figures to be a pretty good bullpen:
Still, it might be in the Braves’ best interests to continue utilizing Newcomb as a reliever. Will Smith stands as the only left-hander who is essentially a lock to be in the Braves’ bullpen. Putting Newcomb back in that mix might be beneficial, especially if he extends last year’s trend of being more effective against right-handers than left-handers.
In this current baseball landscape where MLB’s efforts to get you out of a ballpark as quickly as possible have resulting in things like a three-batter minimum for pitchers, it’s a pretty good idea to have guys in your bullpen like Newcomb who are lefties who are at least competent at getting out guys on both sides of the plate instead of being strictly a LOOGY. Keeping Newcomb in that bullpen would make the bullpen better than it already is and that alone is a strong argument to keep him there.
However, I’ve never really gotten the feeling that the Braves were using Sean Newcomb as a reliever on a permanent basis. It always felt like they were putting Newcomb in a bullpen role as a way to get right without having to throw him right back into the fire of starting after his initial run in the rotation got off to such a poor start in 2019. Bowman also pointed out that this could’ve been similar to how Max Fried was put in the bullpen to end 2018 before he got the green light to show his stuff as a starter for the 2019 season.
That’s worked out decently for the Braves as far as Fried is concerned and I think there’s a chance that this could work out similarly when it comes to Sean Newcomb. The main thing that you look for when it comes to Newcomb is the walks. That’s always been his Achilles heel as a pitcher — even dating back to his days as a minor leaguer and things haven’t changed too much for him as a major leaguer. At this point, it’s not about completely wiping out the walks but mitigating them to an acceptable level. So, using his calamitous first three starts from 2019 as a baseline, the level that we never want to see Newcomb reach again is a walk rate of well into 13 percent and even approaching 14 percent. If you’re walking that many people, it’s clearly untenable. For comparison’s sake, Dakota Hudson was the “leader” in walk rate among qualified pitchers in 2019 with a walk rate of 11.4 percent.
So with that in mind, Steamer is projecting Newcomb to have a walk rate of around 10.2 percent, ZiPS has him at 10.5 percent and he finished last season with his walk rate at 9.9 percent. So basically, I believe you can pencil him for a walk rate this season of somewhere at 10 percent if he has a typical season. That’s not all that great since a walk rate of around 10 percent would have him in the proverbial cheap seats of the walk rate standings among qualified pitchers in baseball, but it’s still enough to where you wouldn’t consider him a complete and utter liability as a starter.
I’m not going to say that I’m basing my complete evaluation of the situation based on walks, but that’s still the point of emphasis that you need to look at when it comes to Sean Newcomb. It’s basically why I think that Newcomb has the inside track to getting into the rotation while Cole Hamels is injured and could even be the fifth starter once the season gets rolling. While it would take a pretty big leap of performance and a really, really impressive spring for young guys like Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson to snatch a spot and a bit of a spring renaissance for a veteran like Felix Hernandez to return to the lofty heights of a major league rotation, all Newcomb has to do is continue to make steady progress as a pitcher during this spring. As long as he doesn’t fall back into his bad habit of walking the entire ballpark, Sean Newcomb’s going to have a very good shot of landing in the rotation once Opening Day rolls around.
The question after that will be just how long he stays in the rotation. The obvious hope is that if he gets into the rotation, he can stay there this time and the return of a hopefully healthy and effective Cole Hamels would see Newcomb just bumped down to the fifth spot in the rotation instead of having to return to the bullpen for another stint as a reliever. The common string between spring and a potential return to the starting rotation during the regular season is that in both cases, Sean Newcomb has his destiny in his own hands.