July 13, 2024

When the Arizona Diamondbacks signed Kevin Newman in January, they couldn’t have anticipated the impact the undervalued shortstop would have. Initially, his January signing was for a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. Competing with other middle infielders during spring training, Newman seemed unlikely to make it to the majors with the reigning National League champions. He shared that sentiment and opted out of the deal on March 27.

However, a lot can change in baseball in just four days. Jordan Lawlar injured his thumb, Jace Peterson was underperforming, and Blaze Alexander, the frontrunner for the backup shortstop role, struggled defensively. Suddenly, Newman and the Diamondbacks appeared to be a perfect fit once more. Newman signed another minor league contract with the team.

Kevin Newman a Pleasant Surprise for Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks must feel like they’ve hit the jackpot with Newman. On April 7, Geraldo Perdomo, a 24-year-old defensive specialist, tore his meniscus, leading Arizona to place him on the injured list and call up Newman from Triple-A Reno. Newman stepped in at shortstop on April 8 and has surpassed expectations. As of Tuesday, he’s batting .256/.293/.393 with two home runs and 11 RBIs in 39 games. These numbers, respectable for a backup shortstop, are thanks to a low 12.4 percent strikeout rate and an up-the-middle hitting approach, with 53.5 percent of his batted balls going to center field. Newman has six career walk-off hits, including one that clinched a 6-5 victory over his former team, the Cincinnati Reds, on May 13.

Observers highly praise Newman’s defense. Statistically, he has zero Fielding Runs Above Average and one Defensive Run Saved, with only two errors and participation in 19 double plays. If these numbers seem ordinary, it’s because Newman has always been an underrated shortstop. He rarely makes the nightly sports highlights or impresses on Statcast. We’ll delve deeper into his defense shortly.

Hello, Newman

Diamondbacks Sign Kevin Newman To New Minors Contract - MLB Trade Rumors

Newman was the Pittsburgh Pirates’ top pick in the 2015 MLB June Amateur Draft from the University of Arizona. Their second pick that year was another shortstop, Kevin Kramer. Both were called up to the majors late in 2018. If Kramer had remained at second base as Newman’s double play partner, announcers would have had a field day with Seinfeld references.

In any case, Newman’s rookie year was 2019, during which he batted .308. Another rookie on the Pirates, Bryan Reynolds, hit .314. This marked the first time since 1975, when Jim Rice and Fred Lynn of the Boston Red Sox both batted over .300 as rookies, that a team had two rookies achieve this feat. You might have heard of Rice and Lynn.

A New Regime Takes Over

The 2020 season was challenging for many players, making the statistics from that year difficult to interpret. Some players were prepared for the hastily organized, pandemic-shortened season, while others were not. Newman struggled, hitting only .224 in 2020. In 2021, under the guidance of new manager Derek Shelton, Newman focused on improving his defense and had one of the best defensive seasons in baseball history. He committed just three errors, had seven Defensive Runs Above Average, and seven Fielding Runs Saved. This performance tied the records of Cal Ripken Jr. and Omar Vizquel for the fewest errors in a season by a shortstop, but since Newman played only 132 games, compared to their over 150 games, he is not officially listed among them.

Despite his defensive prowess, Newman hit just .226 in 2021. Shelton challenged him again in 2022, this time to improve his hitting. Newman rose to the challenge, leading the Pirates with a .274 average.

For his efforts, he was traded to the Reds as Pirates prospect Oneil Cruz was ready for a major league promotion. However, when Cruz was sidelined for the season after only nine games in 2023, Newman would have been a better option than the rotating cast of shortstops the Pirates employed.

Underrated Shortstop Newman Defies Analytics

Somehow, Newman was never a favorite among Pirates fans, especially those vocal on talk shows or social media. They believed a No. 1 draft pick should be a better player, which is an unfair criticism. Newman had no control over his draft position and couldn’t change it.

Do Newman’s six career walk-off hits indicate he’s a clutch hitter? Analytics argue against the existence of clutch hitters, suggesting that a player like Newman, with a career average of .259, can’t suddenly perform like Ted Williams in crucial moments. The idea is that clutch situations are too small a sample size to be meaningful, and over many at-bats, his average would remain .259. Newman’s WPA (-.03 for 2024, -3.10 for his career) supports this view. However, he clearly remains calm in late-inning, high-pressure situations—a quality no statistic can measure.

Newman’s contributions as a shortstop are also significant. He recalls past Pirates shortstops like Tim Foli of the 1979 World Series champions, and Clint Barmes and Jordy Mercer of the 2013-15 Wild Card teams. These players were reliable in avoiding errors on routine plays. The psychological comfort of having an infielder who won’t mishandle an easy grounder in a close game is invaluable. Barmes and Mercer were particularly praised by former Pirates for this reliability. Similarly, the underrated Newman brings this dependable quality to the team.

The Last Word

Perdomo is reportedly nearing a return to the Diamondbacks, and manager Torey Lovullo has announced that Perdomo will resume his role as the starting shortstop once he’s back. However, this doesn’t spell the end for Newman. Lovullo plans to keep Newman on the roster as a backup infielder. Newman has come full circle, now playing major league baseball in the same desert where he played college baseball. Perhaps he has finally found his baseball home.

 

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