Three Cuts: Sean Newcomb rekindles optimism surrounding Braves' future rotation
The Atlanta Braves’ hit-or-miss relationship between its pitching and hitting productivity continued in their four-game series against the New York Mets, scoring just six runs to provide precious little support for a rotation that finally found some semblance of a groove. After Sunday’s loss to their National League East rivals, Atlanta sits at 27-35 with an imposing series against the division-leading Nationals looming. Here are three observations from the week.
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1. Sean Newcomb’s debut reestablishes optimism for Atlanta’s future rotation
In the process of striking out seven Mets batters while allowing just one unearned run, however, the Massachusetts native rekindled the enthusiasm for what type of starting staff Atlanta’s hyped farm system can eventually produce.
Twenty-three months prior, another once-celebrated southpaw dominated a division rival in a Braves uniform in his debut — outdueling Max Scherzer in the process, no less. That was Manny Banuelos in July 2015. Before Banuelos it was Matt Wisler tossing eight innings of one-run ball in June 2015. The former Yankees farmhand (Banuelos) faltered while the jury is still out — though his stock has plummeted — on the former Padre (Wisler).
Enter Newcomb, the third Braves starting pitcher during John Coppolella and John Hart’s rebuild to post a 65 game score or better in his major-league debut.
A potential top-of-the-rotation arm when locked in mechanically and attacking the strike zone, Newcomb easily has the best arsenal of the trio … and he’s merely the tip of the iceberg of Atlanta’s pitching depth. Whoever is next in line will be hard-pressed to replicate Newcomb’s dominance as well as, surprisingly, his efficiency. In the process, he posted the third-highest game score of any pitching debut in 2017:
Eric Skoglund, Royals: 73
Amir Garrett, Reds: 70
Sean Newcomb, Braves: 68
Antonio Senzatela, Rockies: 66
Jacob Faria, Rays: 66
Garrett, a top-100 prospect for various publications, was the most efficient of this group by tallying only 78 pitches; however, no first-timer this season has attacked hitters quite like Newcomb. Seventy-three percent of his pitches landed for strikes. He walked just one batter unintentionally. The only reason the Mets dented the scoreboard was due to a throwing error.
In this light, he became the first left-hander to post a 65-plus game score while throwing 70 percent of his pitches for strikes since former Rockies top prospect Tyler Matzek pulled off the feat against Atlanta in 2014.
The Braves, of course, have a decision to make with Newcomb. He is line to receive one more start before Bartolo Colon returns from the 10-day disabled list, but even if Atlanta sends him back to Gwinnett for the short term (a move that would appear to make little sense from the outside looking in) it will not be long before he’s attempting to stretch out that productivity over the course of a season … and a career.
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2. Ender Inciarte, all-around contributor
With apologies to Michael Bourn, a player who accounted for 7.4 wins above replacement over the course of 254 games in a Braves uniform, Ender Inciarte is the best Braves center fielder since Andruw Jones and it’s not particularly close. (Evidence: Inciarte owns a higher batting average, on-base and slugging percentages and is a better defensive outfielder than Bourn, who was no such with the glove.)
This should illicit little surprise for anyone watching Inciarte cap the best season of his career with a torrid finish while keeping in mind that the franchise handed nearly 1,000 games to Melvin Upton Jr., Jordan Schafer, Nate McLouth and Gregor Blanco in the post-Andruw Era.
And if Inciarte continues at his current pace, he will be a top-10 center fielder in baseball for the foreseeable future.
At this rate, the only thing holding the Venezuelan star from four consecutive 3-WAR seasons is playing time in Arizona. In the ever-shifting landscape of one of baseball’s most athletic and demanding positions — setting aside the ethereal production of Mike Trout — locking up that level of consistency for, at minimum, $30.5 million over five years seems guaranteed to favor the organization over time.
For an idea of how injuries, performance or simply bad luck can prevent a player from hitting that run of reliability, here’s the list of center fielders to post three wins above replacement (per FanGraphs) each season since 2014: Trout and Kevin Kiermaier. That list excludes well-recognized names like A.J. Pollock, Andrew McCutchen, Kevin Pillar, Lorenzo Cain, Odubel Herrera, Charlie Blackmon and Dexter Fowler, among others, for a variety of reasons.
Much like Kiermaier, Inciarte’s defensive ability gives him a high floor to work with in his mid-20s prime. But as Inciarte continues to creep past league average at the plate — after reaching base twice on Sunday, he’s now hitting 4 percent above the MLB average, according to weighted runs created plus — his value skyrockets. He’s yet to fully break out as the can’t-miss, long-term answer at leadoff, but his .354 OBP ranks comfortably in the top-10 among leadoff hitters … all while challenging for his second consecutive Gold Glove.
He keeps getting better — and, though it’s early, Atlanta keeps looking smarter for making him a foundational piece of their rebuild effort.
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3. Swing-happy Braves avoiding high strikeout numbers
Quality contact outranks general contact.
The good news for a Braves offense in the middle of a paltry stretch: It’s made enough of both through the first two-plus months of the 2017 campaign, contributing to an abnormally low strikeout rate for a team that never hesitates to swing.
Only the Kansas City Royals have swung the bat more than Braves hitters this season, attempting to make contact on more than half the pitches they’ve seen. Atlanta leads the Rays, Giants and White Sox, respectively, by swinging at 49.2 percent of pitches seen heading into Sunday’s loss to New York.
Despite the quantity, the group is a middle-of-the-pack group in terms of swinging strikes and it has made medium-to-hard contact on 82 percent of batted balls this season.
All of this translates into an abnormally low strikeout rate for a team that gets the bat off its collective shoulders as much as Kevin Seitzer’s group does. The Braves rank third-best in the league in strikeout rate (18.9 percent), and while the reputation for high-strikeout players and teams is far less negative in the modern game, Atlanta’s particular hitting profile points to a collection of players capable of challenging defenses. (This mindset also contributes to the fact that the Braves have grounded into 66 double plays this season.)
In fact, it’s been more than a decade since an offense swung more than 49 percent of the time while simultaneously boasting a strikeout rate under 19 percent. That was the 2005 Cubs, a mediocre team in virtually every respect, though one suspects the Braves would (privately) welcome that club’s 79 wins as a sign of overall progress from the 2015 and 2016 cellars.