For some reason, I got in on Ljay Newsome on nearly the ground floor. It happened mostly when he put up 129.2 innings of 3.61 FIP in Clinton in 2017 as a 20-year-old in A-ball. That’s not the most impressive, but the more I looked at Newsome, the more fascinated I was. He was a 26th rounder in 2015 out of the delightfully named Chopticon High School, a little school in the middle of nowhere in Maryland (Mechanicsville has a population of just 1,765) that is also just 50 miles from the nation’s capitol. At the time, Newsome didn’t project for much—not quite cracking 6 feet, his fastball correspondingly couldn’t crack 90, and without any kind of a dynamite secondary you couldn’t really see him cracking a big-league bullpen. Nevertheless I was smitten by this blond everyman, even if I figured he’d be selling insurance in five years or what have you. (Or a chef? I still remember this photo of an omelette he proudly posted on his instagram. Positively moon-esque.)
It was about what you’d expect from a 20 year old living on his own in Iowa. Unfortunately, 2018 looked like exactly what you’d expect from someone with his profile—Ljay jumped to the relative launching pad of Modesto and, though he held the walks down again, his home runs skyrocketed and between his physical profile and his arsenal, it seemed his time in the minors was just about up. I certainly thought around then I’d be seeing “Ljay Newsome released by Seattle Mariners” in the not-distant future. But wait! In the distance! What do I hear?
[throng enters, chanting GAS CAMP GAS CAMP]
Ljay and Gas Camp were a match made in heaven. Whatever secret sauce they sprinkle on things there, it was tailor-made for Ljay, who reappeared in 2019 with two things: a fastball that could touch 94 and a lower body that rivaled Ann Veal for center of gravity (seriously, nothing can knock him over.) Having rebuilt himself into a squat 210 pounds, Ljay’s quads blasted through Modesto, giving him Cal-League-leading strikeout ability and a midseason promotion to Arkansas. The strikeouts dropped significantly there (11.09 K/9 went down to 6.47) but the ERA and FIP stayed sparkling (2.77 and 3.57 over 48 innings in Arkansas to end his year). At the end of 2019, Ljay had revitalized himself and shown enough that it was more a question of when than if he would make his big-league debut—even if his long term role remained questionable.
2020 brought his debut and, at last, some good ol’ Savant data for us to look at, even if only 15.2 innings’ worth. Jerry Dipoto has preached repeatedly on the Wheelhouse (remember the Wheelhouse?) about the virtues of having either very high or very low spin and Ljay fits neatly into that latter box. His fastball and curve spin rates rank in the 11th and 2nd percentiles among MLB pitchers (and that added velocity gets him all the way to the 29th percentile!). As for how he uses those pitches? We can’t draw too many conclusions, but these two starts tell the Good Ljay vs. Bad Ljay story pretty effectively.
Against the Padres in August, Ljay had his fastball command, and it’s really neat to see how his pitches can nearly have neat lines drawn between their areas: fastball in one, curve the other side, and the changeup that must look like it falls off a table relative to the fastball. Next month against the Giants, it certainly appears he didn’t have his fastball command: it’s all over the place, and while the curve and change are generally in their areas, the fastball’s scattershot location betrayed him. Against San Diego, Ljay posted a sparkling 4 innings, marred only by a home run: 3 hits, 1 run, 4 strikeouts over 4 innings. The Giants rocked him for 5 runs (all earned) in 3 innings, with two home runs and his season’s solitary walk to match with a single strikeout. When he has his command, he can throw any pitch in just about any count (as you can see down at the bottom there) and the stuff is juuuuuust good enough to confuse hitters and get them out. If he doesn’t, well, yes.
With the Mariners’ apparent reticence to add further this offseason, Ljay seems all-but-assured to have some sort of regular role to play this season. If he doesn’t break with the MLB team, he may well find himself on shuttle duty to replace injuries or poor performers. In either event, I look forward to seeing what the Chef from Chopticon brings to the table in 2021.