Kevin Newman entered 2016 with several question marks surrounding him. Would one of the best collegiate bats in the 2015 MLB Draft translate to professional pitching after an up-and-down debut? Would he be able to stick at shortstop? Just how high on the Pirates’ prospect — and overall prospect — lists was he?
This season answered many of those questions, as Newman skyrocketed to top-five status in the Pirates’ system, while sitting on the cusp of the top-50 overall.
So, who is Kevin Newman?
Newman came into the spotlight in 2014 as one of the soundest hitters in the collegiate ranks when he locked up his second consecutive batting title in the Cape Cod League. He became the only player ever to accomplish the feat in the wooden bat summer league notorious for pumping out some of the biggest and brightest prospects college had to offer. He capped off his .375 2013 performance by improving to .380 on the Cape for the Falmouth Commodores in 2014.
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound right-handed hitter and thrower relayed that into a very successful junior season at the University of Arizona. He slashed a solid line of .370/.426/.489 while adding 19 doubles and going 22-for-25 on the base paths, becoming the hitter many projected he would. Newman is never going to wow you with breathtaking, enormous home runs, but he has a nice line drive swing that he can find the gaps and uses his speed to extend base hits.
The Pirates liked what they saw and selected him 19th overall in the 2015 MLB Draft. He began his professional career with the West Virginia Black Bears in the New York-Penn League and, simply put, it wasn’t pretty. Newman — who became known for advanced strike zone awareness by posting a 15-to-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio his junior season in Arizona — struggled with the zone in his first go with advanced pitching, striking out an uncharacteristic 22 times while walking a mere ten. He slashed an un-Newman-like .261/.281/.340, and even more uncharacteristically, he hit just two home runs in 159 at bats. Still, the Pirates felt they wanted to see more, so they promoted Newman to the West Virginia Power in the SAL.
The old Newman quickly returned against the pitching of Low-A ball. He slashed .306/.376/.367 while striking out eight times and walking nine in 110 plate appearances. He did raise question marks as a shortstop, posting a .949 fielding percentage behind limited range, but it wasn’t to the point where the Pirates were immediately considering a position change.
The 2016 season saw Newman get his first taste of Double-A ball by season’s end, and overall he had a spectacular season. He proved no match for the Florida State League’s pitching, an impressive feat in its own right as the FSL is considered a highly pitcher-friendly league. In 41 games with Bradenton, Newman slashed .366/.428/.494 while finding the best power numbers of his career with three home runs. He struck out 12 times (a remarkable 6.3 percent of the time) and walked 17 before he was promoted to Altoona in the Eastern League in mid-June.
His batting average came down once in Double-A, but the rest of the numbers remained the same. He slashed .288/.361/.378, continuing to show his good strike zone judgement behind just 24 strikeouts and 26 walks. He continues to show that he is a disciplined hitter that simply won’t strike out more than 10 percent of the time, an unthinkable number in this day of strikeout-heavy baseball. Most importantly, his defense seemed to improve as well. His fielding percentage rose to .981 across both levels, committing just eight errors in 420 total chances. He also saw an increased range factor, improving his 2015 mark of 4.05 to 4.20. Is a position change still possible down the road? It’s always a possibility, but he seemed to have silenced some critics for now.
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