I just drafted Kevin Newman of the Pittsburgh Pirates as my fourth shortstop in the 45th round (Pick 675) of an NFBC Draft Champions league. Draft-and-hold aficionados will tell you that plate appearances are everything in these leagues, and yet Newman sat at the top of my queue long after pretty much every other regular player in 2021 had been taken. Granted, Newman stunk in 2021. Rostering single digit home runs and steals with a .226 batting average is sort of like looking medusa in the eye, but plate appearances are plate appearances.
The thing is, I have been talking about Kevin Newman's 2021 season on social media for a few months. Here I am, quoting something I Tweeted about Kevin Newman with another comment on Kevin Newman:
I still think this is wild. The best strikeout hitter in the league had the worst on-base percentage in the league. What a weird profile.
It's extreme too. Newman's 7.4% strikeout rate beat David Fletcher's second place rate (9.0%) by nearly two percentage points (or, a 20% difference), and Michael Brantley's third place rate (10.4%) by a full three percentage points (a 40.5% difference!)!
The other end is equally extreme. Newman's league-worst .265 on-base percentage is six percent worse than Randal Grichuk's second-worst on-base percentage of .281.
Why on earth would they keep trotting Newman out there day after day? Well, here's another extreme: Kevin Newman was the best defensive shortstop in baseball in 2021 and the third best player defensively at any position, per Defensive Runs Above Average (Def). According to Def, a +10 defender is 10 runs better in the field than the average player at that position. Newman was 12.4 in 2021, which was truly elite. Sadly, his elite defense did not make the Pirates a respectable team in 2021, but it was so damn good that it made up for a -27.4 offensive rating, resulting in positive WAR (0.3).
Ok, fine. He's extremely good at not striking out, not getting on base, and playing defense. So what?
Well, what do we think Newman's prospects are of 1) holding the job in 2022, and 2) making any kind of improvement on offense. Even half of a season would make him worthy of the 675th pick in a draft-and-hold league, so a full season and/or any marginal improvement in hitting is house money.
Will he hold the job? The defense works in his favor. Pittsburgh has a stable of young arms and a solid defense up the middle is helpful in developing that talent. That, alone, I would expect to be enough for him to open 2022 as the starting shortstop. His only plausible competition from the jump is Cole Tucker, but Tucker will likely be the starting second baseman, and the team has tried him in several positions. Nothing has stuck.
The elephant in the room is Oneil Cruz, who I've already written about this offseason. Cruz is coming, and he could be up permanently in a hurry. He only played shortstop in 2021, so unless he starts 2022 on a different position in AAA, I would expect him to come up and play there, which would slide Newman over to second base.
How long can Newman last at second base? It depends on how well he plays. True, his horrid 2021 wRC+ of 54(!) is an exact extension of his 54 wRC+ in 2020, but he wasn't always a 46% worse than league average hitter. In 2019, Kevin Newman hit 12 home runs, swiped 16 bases, and posted a .308 batting average. Yes, 2019 was the year of the rabbit ball, but that was the case for everyone, and he was a league average hitter that year.
Newman's 109 wRC+ over a full season in 2019 says he has a league average bat within him. In his age 28 season, it's not too late for him to find it again. If you look at his four seasons in the majors, his elite contact rate is consistent (around 87%-88%), so what's the problem? Well, here's another extreme: Kevin Newman's .236 BABIP in 2021 was the fourth lowest among qualified hitters in baseball. To be sure, there's plenty of luck involved in that, but there's also a trend contributing to it.
Kevin Newman is in the midst of a three year trend in which he is hitting fewer ground balls and fewer line drives. Those hits have gone into the fly ball bucket, which make for easier outs. For a player with so little power, Newman would be better served hitting more balls on the ground and legging them out with his 83rd percentile sprint speed. That is an adjustment he can make.
Baseball players' profiles are not set in stone. They make adjustments and change. My guess is that 2021 was Keven Newman's floor and his 2019 was a little bit better than his realistic ceiling. Given all of the extremes in his profile, Newman has the tools to be a solid baseball player in both real life and fantasy if he can shake off 2021 and show early on in 2022 that he's better than a 54 wRC+ hitter. In his age 28 season, I'm willing to take a flyer.
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