Prospects are almost all high-variance, and pitchers are more high-variance than most, to the point that there’s an old chestnut in baseball: TINSTAAPP, or There Is No Such Thing as a Pitching Prospect. For fans of Jerry Dipoto-run teams, that might be better expressed as NLAPP, or Never Love a Pitching Prospect. Over the past two and a half years, Dipoto has traded almost every intriguing arm in the system, and some not so intriguing, and some “whoa, they wanted that guy?” [Quick IN MEMORIAM scrolls by: Andrew Moore, Tommy Romero, Nick Neidert, Robert Duggar, Emilio Pagan, JP Sears, Pablo Lopez, Brandon Miller, Ryan Yarbrough, Zack Littell, Luiz Gohara, Tylers Herb and Pike, Freddy Peralta, and the list goes on...] So it’s with a not-insignificant amount of trepidation that I find myself becoming attached to yet another Mariners pitching prospect, in the form of 21-year-old righty Ljay Newsome.
Newsome doesn’t pop up on any of the top prospect lists, even in a threadbare Mariners system that is even more threadbare for pitching. Standing just 5’11”, Ljay (said like it looks, Ell-Jay) is a command-control pitcher whose fastball nudges 90 on a good day. If you recognize his name, it’s probably because you know him from his Spring Training appearance this year, when he won an invite to big league camp as the inaugural winner of the terribly-named “60 ft. 6 in. Club” Award, given to the minor-league pitcher who does the best job controlling the zone. Over 130 innings with Clinton last year, Ljay posted a 111:16 K:BB ratio, the best among all Mariners minor-leaguers. What’s especially impressive about that number is Newsome is not a strikeout pitcher: “I live on the corners,” he says with a smile. While he’s been able to run a K-percentage in the low 20s over his time in the low minor leagues, that will change as he faces more advanced hitters, as he did in Tacoma the other night. What won’t change is Ljay’s approach as a strike-thrower who lives at the edges of the zone, the identity that has carried him through high school (at Chopticon High, which sounds like something out of Transformers), when he once struck out 17 batters over seven innings, and into the Mariners’ system, which preaches controlling the zone.
This year, Newsome has been challenged in a move from the pitcher-friendly Midwest League to the hitter-friendly California League. He opened the season at Lancaster, nicknamed “the launching pad” because of how the ball flies, and got knocked around for seven runs over five innings. Since, he’s given up between 3-4 runs each outing, with the exception of a three-game stretch in mid-May when he gave up no runs and earned Cal League Pitcher of the Week honors. Ljay continues to adjust to a league where, in his words, “they swing at everything,” and the ball flies considerably further in the Cal League, where he’s seen his HR/FB rate tick up to 8.5% (from 7% in the Midwest League). How has he made those adjustments? He’s focused on mixing his pitches, moving the ball around the plate, and most importantly, keeping the ball down in the zone, “because if you don’t, it just...flies.” As a fly ball pitcher, Newsome is especially suspect to a home run problem, although his infield fly ball rate of almost 30% suggests his pinpoint ability to locate jams a lot of bats even if he doesn’t miss them (although take that number with a grain of salt—it still means he’s getting a lot of shallow flyouts, no matter how they’re classified). What’s encouraging about Ljay’s performance in the Cal League so far is how consistent his peripherals are: he’s still posting his excellent K-BB ratio (a career-high 13.60) and actually striking out even more batters and walking fewer than he did last year, thanks to the free-swinging Cal Leaguers. His FIP, too, is significantly lower (3.88) than his ERA (4.48).
Last night, Newsome faced his toughest test yet in a spot start for Triple-A Tacoma against a lineup that featured Actual Prospect Raul Mondesi and MLB vet Jorge Bonifacio. His fastball initially sat 88-91, and he mixed that with a low-80s changeup and a low-70s curve, neither of which he was afraid to throw as a first pitch for strikes. Newsome was able to work through the lineup once without allowing a baserunner, although he got an assist from his right fielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who had several fine catches in right field, on one of those. Throughout his outing, Newsome showed why he is a poster child for the organizational pitching philosophy: he controlled the zone, working ahead in counts (of 19 batters he faced, he had seven 0-2 counts) and winning the 1-1 count five times, while only losing it twice. That approach helped him step right in against Triple-A batters with minimal nerves. “All I have to do is make my pitch,” he said, “and then I get ahead, and then they’re in defensive mode.”
Here’s one of those defensive swings from last night: Jack Lopez was in a 1-2 count and reaching for anything that was in the strike zone, resulting in this weak contact:
Ljay sailed until the fourth, when his curveball command ran away from him momentarily and he issued a rare walk on an even rarer four straight balls, which led to Omaha scoring their first run of the night. However, he battled back in the fifth to throw an eight-pitch 1-2-3 inning that probably should have signaled the end of his night if Tacoma wasn’t already down several men in the bullpen (he would give up a groundball single and a hard-hit double to open the sixth and be lifted after that). A 3.60 FIP isn’t bad for a 21-year-old getting his first taste of Triple-A, although of course Ljay has been around MLB vets and top prospects before, when he earned his invite to big-league camp. “It was awesome,” he says of that experience. “When I first showed up, I was kind of in shock, like, ‘man, I’m really here,’ it was crazy. But all the guys took me in as one and taught me a couple things.” He names Nick Vincent and James Paxton, specifically, as players who took him aside and offered tips both on the mound and off. He made two scoreless appearances in the spring and collected his first-ever save, impressing his big-league manager (Servais nicknamed him “the quiet assassin”) just as he did his Triple-A manager Pat Listach, who praised Newsome’s performance as “exactly as advertised.” They may not be tangible things like his “60 ft. 6 in. Award” plaque, but all these experiences are things Ljay holds close as motivation as he continues to work his way through the minor-league system armed with a crafty pitch mix and the confidence that he can succeed anywhere just by being himself.