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Sailor’s Delight: Ljay Newsome’s Interesting Night

In which Ljay impresses and I try desperately not to be disappointing.

USA Today

Hello! You just clicked on an article about Ljay Newsome. Why did you do this?

I can think of three reasons:

1. You click on every article at LL.

2. (good move).

3. That’s probably the reason.

Or maybe you’re like me and think that prospects are just as interesting, if not more so, than major league players. Mike Trout, for example, is amazing and incredible and I do not find him interesting at all. He is great. He was great. He will be great. We know this.

I argue that Ljay Newsome is more interesting than Mike Trout. You might be thinking: that’s a dumb sentence. Or: How could you possibly type that, re-read, edit, and not delete that sentence when it is so very easy to delete things and, by the way, this sentence is getting long so you should probably—

He’s more interesting because interesting exists in the gap between our expectations and reality, the gap our mind wants desperately to close with logic. There is little difference between my expectations of Mike Trout, Hall of Famer, and his performance any given night, also Hall of Fame-quality. There exists a yawning chasm, however, between my expectations of Ljay Newsome and what he did on Thursday night in Modesto.

His profile has been covered already by better baseball writers than me (seriously, go read Kate’s interview), but for our purposes: he is a 22-year-old soft-tossing righty who didn’t crack a Top 30 ranking for the middle-of-the pack Mariners farm system (LL had him 48th). He was drafted in the 26th round. He is 5’11”. His fastball has been clocked in the mid-to-high 80s. Besides a respectable 8.6 K-rate in Everett, he’s never had a K/9 over 8. What he does have is elite command (2.2 BB% in High-A last year).

And yet, somehow, in the launchpad of Lancaster on Thursday, he put up this line:

Ignore the two home runs. Lancaster’s park is named The Hangar, which is probably because things that start inside usually fly outside.

There are a couple remarkable things about this. But first, the obvious: 9 Ks in 5 innings. That’s a K/9 of 16.2. That is Edwin Diaz territory; that is Paxton A’s Game pace. True, it is not that aberrant of a line for a pitcher in one start; in fact, if you watched the Travelers’ game you would have seen Dustin May put up essentially the same line. But Dustin May is a Top 30 prospect in all of baseball while Ljay Newsome barely cracked the Top 100 Minor League Names:

What’s more impressive about the outing is what you don’t see.

The amount of pitches he took to accomplish this? 63. That’s 12.6 pitches an inning. Given that Ljay gave up four hits and faced 19 batters, that means he threw an average of 3.3 pitches to each batter, nine of which he struck out. That is incredibly efficient. That is—here’s a word that has rarely described Ljay—dominant.

How did an undersized, control-specialist whiff so many batters? Some terrible MiLB video may illuminate.

Let’s start with a sequence against a righty early in the game.

Fastball, Foul: 0-1

Notice the late, half-swing on a fastball at the bottom of the zone.

Fastball, Foul: 0-2

Another fastball, this time at the top of the zone, and another late swing.

Cutter, Ball: 1-2

The batter doesn’t take the bait, but the pitch establishes Ljay can change speeds and hit the outside part of the plate.

Fastball, Swinging Strike: K

Look at how late the swing decision is, how the hitter’s back foot slides out as he leans across the plate, his momentum heading in opposite directions. This is an emergency swing. Not the swing you would normally take against a high-80s fastball.

Next up we have a lefty. After he gets him out front on a breaking pitch 0-1, Newsome dots a changeup on the outer half.

Changeup, Swinging Strike: 0-2

Early swing, good location, good result.

Fastball, Swinging Strike: K

Yet another awkward, late swing at a fastball at the top of the zone for the punchout.

This was the pattern for five incredibly quick innings. It’s a pattern we are seeing across baseball: bury the breaking ball, elevate the fastball. Yet, at Kate noted in her interview with Ljay last year, that hasn’t been his style:

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” (emphasis added).

On Thursday, Ljay mixed his pitches and spotted them on both sides of the plate but, unlike last year, he consistently ran his fastball at the top of the zone. He did yield two solo shots (“it just... flies”), but it was a noticeable shift in strategy for a pitcher whose greatest compliment on their fastball was that it “isn’t exactly overpowering.”

So, if he’s always been able to tunnel, locate, and sequence, why then did he trust his stuff enough to throw it up in the zone? And why did he get such a high chase rate on a “high 80s” fastball that night? Allow me to speculate wildly.

In a recent episode of the Wheelhouse, Jerry mentioned that over spring the org hosted a “Gas Camp” for selected pitchers. The goal of the camp? Unlock dormant velocity in pitchers who need it. Jerry mentioned that several pitchers saw big leaps in their fastballs, some as much as 3+ MPH. Unfortunately, we don’t know the names of all those selected (though we asked around, our current list is Reggie McClain, end of list), but I am willing to bet that the former 60ft 6in Award Winner with plus command and a slow fastball would have been, at the least, a consideration for the camp.

Walking further down Speculation Lane, while there was no radar available in The Hangar, our own Tim Cantu reached out to the local Lancaster announcer who said he noticed some “extra giddyup” on Ljay's heater. That’s cowboy talk for “notably increased velocity relative to previous exposure.”

So what don’t we know? A lot. What we do know is that Ljay struck out 9 hitters in 5 innings. We know that hitters were late on his fastball. We know that several Mariners were able to increase their velocity this offseason. We know that Ljay would have been a good candidate to do so. It’s not enough for a conclusion, but it’s enough to be fun to think about, which is all I ask from baseball.

Now, Ljay with increased velocity is still topping out in the low 90s. And, though he tunnels well, his secondaries are still fringe-average at best. His max ceiling is likely a lesser, same height-ed Mike Leake, or potentially a bullpen role throwing the kitchen sink for a couple innings a la Matt Festa.

Here’s the thing, though. If he reaches that ceiling? That’s still a major league baseball player. That is more than I would have expected last year. Ljay did something I did not expect. That dissonance is what makes us pay attention, what gives us permission to dream about the future.

That’s why I love following the minors. Prospects allow the pattern recognition machine that is our brain to attempt to complete puzzles without all the pieces. It allows us to imagine futures with wildly variant outcomes. In a season where the big league team is not expected to compete, we need these minor league performances. Not only to be interesting, but to be interesting in a good way. We need hope.

This is it; this is hope.

Every day the futures of the franchise stand before a few hundred fans and a video camera made out of several potatoes strung together. The night before, a player may have slept on a futon or against a bus window. But in the near-empty stadiums dotted through pass-through towns, the Mariners’ best hope for October Baseball are playing. The careers of Jerry, Scott, and the front office depend upon players making less than minimum wage. They’ve set the clock. 2021. It’s ticking.

For that reason, I plan on turning an eye to interesting and significant minor league performances this year and examining what they did, how they did it, and what it means for the future.

Minor League baseball is interesting. Let’s talk about it.