KEVIN NEWMAN, SHORTSTOP
|Born: August 4, 1993
Drafted: 1st Round, 19th Overall, 2015
How Acquired: Draft
College: University of Arizona
WTM’s PLAYER PROFILE
|Newman was one of the better pure hitters in the 2015 draft, having won the last two Cape Cod League batting titles and hit .370 in his junior season at Arizona. He seldom strikes out, but also may not hit for much power. He had just two homers in his junior season and didn’t hit any his first two seasons. He was 22-for-25 in stolen bases and so could profile as a top-of-the-order hitter. Exactly how valuable he becomes will turn largely on whether he can stay at short, as not all observers are convinced he has the range to do so. Some scouts consider his arm either average or above, while others aren’t sure it’s sufficient for short. Baseball America ranked him 29th among draft prospects, while Keith Law ranked him second and projected him to be an excellent defensive shortstop.
The Pirates’ selection of Newman came as a surprise, as they’d been almost universally linked to prep pitching. The pick may have been influenced by a conviction that high-contact hitters will have more success against fireballing pitchers and increasingly common shifts; in other words, it may have been the flip side of the Pirates’ heavy use of shifts. Newman signed quickly after the draft for a little below the slot value of $2.273M.
Kramer got off to a slow start at Morgantown, causing one faux prospect commentator to declare him a bust a few weeks into his pro career. The Pirates promoted Newman to low A anyway, probably because it became clear that Cole Tucker wouldn’t be returning from his shoulder injury in 2015. After starting off 2-for-18 there, Newman got hot and went 28-for-80 (.350) the rest of the way, controlling the strike zone much better than he had at Morgantown. Newman actually showed a little power with Morgantown, but not with the Power. He did a good job of stealing bases. He had a large platoon split, posting an OPS of .872 against LHPs and .584 against RHPs. Baseball America rated him the seventh best prospect in the NYPL, with league managers expressing doubt about whether Newman would stay at short but also thinking he might eventually hit for some power. He didn’t have enough ABs to qualify for the SAL list.
Tucker’s injury probably removed any issue about assignments, leaving the Pirates to send Newman to Bradenton. That’s what they typically do with an early round college draftee in his first full season. As the numbers show, Newman had little trouble with the pitching there, despite the offense-suppressing nature of the Florida State League. In late May, Newman was hit in the fact with a pitch and was thought to have suffered an orbital fracture, which could have kept him out for a couple months. The injury proved to be less serious, though, and he missed less than three weeks. The Pirates had moved Tucker up to Bradenton when Newman went out, so when Newman went 7-for-11 in his first three games back, the team promoted him to Altoona. Newman started off hot there as well, batting .324 through the end of July. He slumped after that, batting just .227 from August 1 to the end of the season. The Pirates moved him from the leadoff spot to the #3 spot at the beginning of August. They believed he was seeing too many fastballs batting leadoff, although Harold Ramirez being traded at the end of July probably played a role, too. Whatever the reason, Newman didn’t exactly struggle badly. He struck out only nine times in his last 103 plate appearances and drew 11 walks. In fact, he had a good walk rate and very low K rate throughout the season. For the year his OPS was .850 against LHPs and .804 against RHPs. He also stole bases well enough to be a threat. Defensively, he showed probably just solid range, but he was extremely reliable, committing only six errors with Bradenton and just two in 60 games for Altoona. Baseball America ranked Newman the third best prospect in the Florida State League and 19th in a very strong Eastern League.
Newman had a disappointing season. He started off at Altoona and had a decent first month, but he cratered in May, batting 172/234/253. He rebounded in June and July, batting 307/339/398 through July 20, when the Pirates promoted him to Indianapolis. He hit for a solid average and some gap power, the his walk rate dropped sharply, leaving him with a weak OBP. On the season, Newman struggled with RHP, posting just a .653 OPS against them. On defense he remained very reliable.
Newman went back to AAA and got off to a very slow start, with just a .565 OPS in April. He got going after that and eventually got his average over .300 while finishing fifth in the International League in doubles. He seldom struck out, but didn’t have a high walk rate. He also started running a lot more than he had previously and finished second in the league in steals, although his success rate wasn’t great. He played very well defensively and was voted the league’s top defensive shortstop. The Pirates called Newman up in mid-August when Jordy Mercer got hurt, but he played little at first because they also obtained Adeiny Hechavarria. They finally started playing him semi-regularly in September after they’d traded Hechavarria. Newman struggled at the plate, with uncharacteristic strikeout problems. He made three errors in 24 games at short, which sent some fans into hysterical overreactions.
Newman’s season didn’t start auspiciously. His performance late in 2018 plainly had the Pirates down on him, as shown by their foolish decision to hand the shortstop job to Erik Gonzalez. He opened the season in a utility role, then got hurt late in April, leading to Cole Tucker being called up to play short with Gonzalez also hurt. Tucker struggled, though, and when Newman returned he hit his way into the shortstop job. He went on to have a strong rookie season, even showing respectable power. He had a reverse platoon split, with an .824 OPS against RHPs and .729 against LHPs. Defensively, he was more solid than good, and both UZR and DRS rated him as below average. He attempted a fairly large number of steals, but didn’t have a good success rate. He batted leadoff in nearly half the Pirates’ games.
Like nearly all the team’s position players, Newman had an intensely disappointing season. He made contact consistently, but it was extremely weak contact; he was near the bottom in MLB in average exit velocity. Possibly due in part to the weak contact, his BABIP was just .250. Newman also struggled defensively and lost the shortstop job to Erik Gonzalez. He ended up splitting his time between short and second, and didn’t play well at either spot.
Newman had a season of extremes. He improved dramatically on defense, probably in part because he was able to stay at one position instead of being burdened with the Pirates’ philosophy of every player being a utility player. By most measures, he was above or well above average, and he committed only three errors, leading the majors in fielding percentage at short. His glovework was good enough to make him a Gold Glove finalist. Newman’s hitting, on the other hand, was historically bad. Among players who qualified for the batting title, he was last by a wide margin in wRC+, wOBA and OPS. He rarely swung and missed, but also rarely hit the ball hard; he was near the bottom in MLB in every stat related to making hard contact, including average exit velocity and frequency of barreling the ball. Given that he hit with so little power, pitchers obviously weren’t going to walk him much, so he had a very low walk rate.
The Pirates face some tough decisions about the shortstop position. They can’t afford to continue starting a player who can’t even come close to a .600 OPS. They can hope for Newman to improve, but it’d have to be dramatic improvement and it’d need to happen quickly. Top prospects Oneil Cruz and Liover Peguero on the way, but Cruz probably isn’t quite ready and may not stay at short, and Peguero is a couple years away. The team has prospects who probably are major league ready, like Hoy Park and Tucupita Marcano, but they profile more as utility players. And they have to decide between Newman and Tucker, who showed signs of life late in the season, both for the shortstop job at the start of 2022 and for the 40-man roster. It’d make little sense to carry both, given the Rule 5 crunch they’re facing.
|2021: Major League minimum
|Signing Bonus: $2,175,000
MiLB Debut: 2015
MLB Debut: 8/16/2018
MiLB FA Eligible: N/A
MLB FA Eligible: 2024
Rule 5 Eligible: N/A
Added to 40-Man: 8/16/2018
Options Remaining: 3
MLB Service Time: 3.047
|June 8, 2015: Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1st round, 19th overall pick; signed on June 15.
August 16, 2018: Contract purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates.