Young pitchers with physical attributes like Sean Newcomb’s always generate intrigue. He’s a big lefty with a big arm. He can finesse batters with that big, beautiful curveball.
Newcomb looks the part. His pitching matches only some of the time. There’s lots of big guys throwing hard in the big leagues. The ones who stick around figure out how to pitch.
Newcomb said that now he knows what it takes after making 30 starts in 2018, following 19 in 2017.
“Mentally, after having that year under my belt, I think I am more prepared to go starts one through 30 and kind of know what to expect at each point,” Newcomb said this week at Braves spring camp. “Right now, I can kind of picture it in my mind a little easier than I did last year.”
It would fill a big Braves hole if Newcomb can be steady in 2019. Starting pitching probably is their biggest question mark. Mike Foltynewicz is penciled in as the No. 1 starter. I’m confident he will build on his All-Star season, but the rotation gets a little dicey after “Folty.”
It’s hard to count on Newcomb to be the No. 2 guy. That’s not to be too harsh on Newcomb, who still is just 25-years old with 49 career starts. But the Braves desperately need another reliable starter, and he’s yet to show that kind of consistency.
If Newcomb can’t do it, there are young pitchers and prospects waiting in the wings. I want to believe Newcomb can do it because he has the talent and he’s shown it in spurts. I know it’s not that simple.
“You forget some of the layers you are pulling off,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “Some of the mental challenges, the expectations, in addition to the physicality of what they are doing.”
When Newcomb harnesses his talent, you can get outings like his near no-hitter against the Dodgers in July. When he doesn’t, Newcomb can go through stretches where he can’t get anyone out - such a spell prompted the Braves to skip his start last September as they sought to clinch the National League East.
To his credit, Newcomb went on to be reasonably effective in the postseason. He was among the few Braves to perform well against the Dodgers in Game 1 of the Division Series with two scoreless innings out of the bullpen. He started Game 3 and gave up one earned run over 2-2/3 innings.
“I struggled with some of my starts late in the year, but I was still ready to go, ready to be on the postseason roster,” Newcomb said. “It was a good confidence booster having them put me out there and doing pretty well. That’s something to build on.”
True, but it was only two games and 4-2/3 innings. It was the playoffs, yes, but the Braves need Newcomb to be that kind of pitcher most of the time over a full season. At least he’s proved he’s got the repertoire for it now: a four-seam fastball that averages about 94 mph, that big curveball and a change-up that he’s willing to use.
Newcomb said he’s always had the good curveball. Maybe that was part of the problem. He relied heavily on that pitch while becoming a first-round draft pick and taking a speedy path through the minors.
Newcomb debuted with the Braves in June 2017 and was effective over his first four starts. But starters don’t make it in the majors with only two good pitches. Newcomb was too predictable, got behind in counts, and walked too many batters. He got the bad results he deserved.
Newcomb began his second season in the majors throwing his change-up more often. He ended up using it twice as often as he did in 2017, per pitch tracking data.
“The change-up was always there,” he said. “It was just a matter of using it.”
In 2018 Newcomb got mostly good results in 16 starts through July despite a walk rate that was still a bit too high. On July 29 at SunTrust Park, the Dodgers didn’t get a hit off Newcomb until Chris Taylor singled with two outs and a 2-2 count in the ninth inning.
Newcomb was effective in his next start, against the Nationals. Then he posted a 7.44 ERA over his next seven starts. When he wasn’t walking batters during that stretch he was getting hit often and, according to StatCast data, hard.
Newcomb threw 134 pitches during the near no-hitter and didn’t pitch again until eight days later.
“I think I got not so much fatigued as out of a rhythm,” Newcomb said.
As Newcomb prepares for his second full season in the majors, he can look to Foltynewicz as a model. Like Newcomb, Foltynewicz once was a touted prospect with a big body, big arm and inconsistent performances. It took Foltynewicz a while, in part because of health issues, but he broke through in 2018.
Now Foltynewicz’s pitching matches his talent. The Braves need Newcomb to make that same leap.
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