Despite the Jerry Dipoto era beginning in late 2015, the Mariners haven’t had many opportunities to flex their player development chops. Given the nature of their previous core, many were traded to try and compete, and then the others are just getting a chance to come up to the big leagues and contribute. To me, the makings of a good player development system is not necessarily that they can assure that their Logan Gilberts pan out, but that they can take players who teams don’t think much of and turn them into productive players. It’s just two games in, but Ljay Newsome is one of the first lower-ranked prospects to rise organically through the Mariners’ system.
Newsome ran elite walk numbers through the lower-levels of the minor leagues, but he didn’t boast strong strikeout numbers, nor did he do a good job of limiting home runs, or runs in general. At this point, it’s likely that you’ve heard that Newsome is the poster boy of the Mariners’ lauded Gas Camp. After his first Gas Camp, he came back sitting 91-94 mph instead of in the high-80s, and his strikeout percentage jumped about ten percent while maintaining similarly low walk numbers. It’s why FanGraphs’ Alex Chamberlain and I have been keeping a close eye on him for a few years now, and ostensibly driving the Newsome hype train.
One of the things that’s made Newsome overwhelming for hitters is that he’s historically thrown a barrage of pitches in the zone for strikes. Through today, his 51.4% zone percentage ranks in the 97th percentile in the major leagues. For Newsome, if he can avoid bats while throwing in the zone (or at least mitigate hard contact), he has the makings of a good pitcher.
Here’s a fastball to Wil Myers from Thursday:
An elevated, riding fastball to his arm-side — it’s Newsome’s bread and butter. You wouldn’t confuse it for a Gerrit Cole fastball, but his fastball does have a lot in common with, say, Andrew Heaney. Chief among their similarities are their release points, given that release point holds so much weight in affecting pitch properties.
First, a screenshot of Newsome’s release point:
And then Heaney’s:
It’s not particularly easy to tell considering that they’re throwing from different sides with differing camera angles, but they throw out of nearly identical arm slots. Heaney and Newsome throw at vertical release points of 5.26 and 5.13 feet, respectively, which rank in the fifth and seventh percentiles in baseball. Of starting pitchers in particular, they throw out of two of the lowest arm slots in the league and, as I said, that has considerable ramifications for who they are as pitchers.
One place Heaney sets himself apart is that he throws his fastball with elite raw spin and active spin, with a sinker-like tilt (which cannot necessarily be said about Newsome), but at the end of the day, they get similar ride on their fastballs. There aren’t that many pitchers that can throw out of such low arm slots with and still get good carry on their fastballs. Edwin Díaz and Josh Hader are two relievers that come to mind, and then there’s Luke Weaver on the starting pitching side.
Consider the following scatter plot, with fastballs plotted by vertical movement and vertical release point:
I included some pitchers in Newsome’s general proximity, but you can see here that there are few pitchers with Newsome’s combination of release point and fastball ride. Heaney is there — I told you Heaney would be there! — and then there are a host of other interesting names. I’m not here to say that Newsome has an elite fastball, but it seems like the 10.4% swinging-strike percentage that he’s posted over two games can hold. For a starting pitcher with plus command, that’s an awfully strong starting point.
Maybe you’re wanting to know more about my Heaney-Newsome comp. I hope it resonates! Or, at the very least, I hope it’s interesting. I think they’re far more similar than not, and I could go into them, but I’m more interested in examining Newsome’s outing against the Padres. So that’s what we will do.
I tweeted a bit about his outing as it unfolded, but there were several notable things about his approach against the Padres. We’ll get to that, but first I think it’s important to see some video of what made Newsome tick in the minors. A lot of that is peppering the zone with strikes, but generally speaking, he’s at his best when he’s elevating his fastball and throwing his secondaries low and below the zone.
Here’s a set of clips that are pretty representative of Newsome:
You can see that why I described above is also what you see in the video. Lots of fastballs up, others in the zone, and plenty of secondaries in the dirt. That’s not really what took place on Thursday, though. His pitch plot, courtesy of Baseball Savant:
The first thing to notice is that there’s quite the concentration of pitches in the zone. Other than, I don’t know, three pitches, each of his pitches were alluring enough that it was at least somewhat likely to get offered at. What comes with that, though, is that Newsome hardly buried any of his secondaries. Perhaps that was the game plan. Maybe it was nerves. Or he could have just been trying throw strikes in his starting debut. Whatever the case, I don’t think this is what Newsome looks like at his best. That feels sacrilegious to say, given he posted a 33% CSW with four strikeouts and no walks over 4.0 innings, but I think he could tap into much more.
We’ll start with his curveball:
If you’re looking to miss bats, this isn’t a very good looking pitch plot. But if you consider Newsome’s 36% CSW on his curveball against the Padres, you may find yourself scratching your head. That’s because he did a lot of this:
He flipped curveballs in the zone all day. A few of them were swung through, and but more of them went for called strikes. Given his CSW, I like this approach plenty! The thing I’d wish he’d do, though, is also pair throwing those curveballs in the middle of the zone with some below the zone, too. It’s hard to argue with the results, but it seems like an obvious tweak to help him gain some versatility and throw even more swinging strikes.
Then there’s his changeup, which is arguably his best offering:
Lots of changeups, perfectly placed at the bottom corner of the zone. Again, there are a lot of upsides to this. This should mean a lot of soft ground balls — and he did induce some ground balls — but he also allowed a few hard-hit base hits on changeups in the zone.
We saw some of this:
But what we want to see is more of this:
And even this:
The changeup to Tatís Jr. above? That’s an impressive pitch. There aren’t that many pitchers that can feature a changeup to batters of the same handedness as them, but I think Newsome is one. As I showed in the scatter plot above, Aaron Nola throws out of a similar arm slot, which is part of the reason he throws a similar changeup. It’s his most-used pitch — a large reason for this is that 58.4% of his changeups are against righties — but perhaps even more relevant to Newsome is that Nola also throws it in the zone just 27.3% of the time, mostly below the zone. Newsome could stand to benefit greatly from using Nola as a blueprint.
So, if you’re looking for a precedent for Newsome, I don’t think it’s out of the question for him to look something like a Nola or healthy Heaney. It’s not that I think he’s a burgeoning ace, but he inarguably fits the general profile of an ace and could-be ace, and I think that’s awfully impressive. The Mariners and Newsome have collaborated to make the most out of the pitcher that he is. At worst, that’s looking like a reliever. At best? I think that’s a little more ambiguous right now. For now, we can say with near-certainty that he’s a major league contributor, and a plenty interesting one, at that.