BRADENTON, Fla. -- Kevin Newman spent most of his rookie season with his head down, focused only on the next at-bat, the next play, the next game. He reported to Spring Training trying to win the starting shortstop job that went to Erik González, then his priority became just making
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Kevin Newman spent most of his rookie season with his head down, focused only on the next at-bat, the next play, the next game. He reported to Spring Training trying to win the starting shortstop job that went to Erik González, then his priority became just making the Opening Day roster. He used a frustrating first month as fuel to prove himself the rest of the year.
By the end of the season, he had become the Pirates’ everyday shortstop. He hit .308 with an .800 OPS and 3.1 Wins Above Replacement. His emergence might have been overshadowed by the breakthroughs of All-Star first baseman Josh Bell and fellow rookie Bryan Reynolds, but Newman accomplished just about everything he set out to do on a personal level.
At the end of the season, after a week spent relaxing with his wife in Cabo San Lucas, Newman finally looked up and let himself appreciate all of it.
“During the season, I definitely steer away from looking at numbers. I steer away from people complimenting me on whatever’s happening,” Newman said. “In the season, it doesn’t matter because anything can happen. When the season was done, it was cool to look back and see that.”
It’s easy to forget now, but Newman’s rookie year didn’t get off to a great start.
He spent Spring Training in a position battle he ultimately lost, answering questions about his shaky 31-game debut at the end of 2018 and his ability to handle the workload of a full season. He made three errors at Wrigley Field on April 8, his third start of the season. Two days later, he cut the middle finger on his right hand in a bizarre accident with a pitching machine and went on the injured list.
After a few days of frustration, Newman set out to make things right. The former first-round Draft pick didn’t want his teammates, fans or the front office to view him as the player they’d seen in the Majors to that point.
“I kind of had to decide if I wanted to let that last game before the injury define who I was or if I wanted to really work hard and bring everything I have to the field and try to change,” Newman said. “So I worked hard every single day to change that narrative, because that first stint in ‘18 and that first couple weeks in ‘19 weren’t who I thought I could be, and weren’t who I wanted to be defined as, as a Major League player.”
Now, there’s a new definition. Newman enters Spring Training as the Pirates’ starting shortstop and likely leadoff hitter, two roles he earned with his performance last season, and he prepared accordingly during the offseason.
Near the end of last season, Newman said, hitting coach Rick Eckstein pulled him aside and offered some valuable guidance. Going into the year with a job secured would be different than anything Newman experienced before. He didn’t need to be in midseason form for the first full-squad workout, but he must use the spring to prepare himself to play at a high level from Game 1 through Game 162.
Newman only pushed the start of his offseason workouts back a few weeks, but he said he needed Eckstein’s advice. In previous offseasons, he’d work hard almost to a fault. If he didn’t like his first four rounds of batting practice in the middle of the winter, he’d take 100 more swings. He’d wear himself out to make sure he was ready by Day 1 of Spring Training.
“It was weird for me, because I’d never done that. So I was sitting at home, and I’m like, gosh, I need to do more!” Newman said, smiling. “If something doesn’t feel good, I like to attack it. But there’s no point in attacking it three months before the season starts when I have all this time. So I had to sit there a little longer than I wanted to, but hopefully it’ll work out at the end of the season.”
In a way, Newman’s desire to train explains another role he could assume this year. The shortstop is only 26 years old with 161 games of Major League experience, but starter Joe Musgrove recently pointed to players like Newman and Reynolds as potential leaders on a young Pirates roster.
Newman doesn’t possess the loudest voice or the most experience in the clubhouse. But he has always led by example with the work ethic, preparation and the mentality that drove his rise last year.
“Guys like Reynolds and Newman, who are in their first year of big league time but are extremely respected by the entire clubhouse, that’s leadership,” Musgrove said. “Guys that go out every day and strap it on and they’re giving you their hardest every day, and they’re guys who are producing regularly. Whether you feel like you are or not, you’re a leader just by your actions.”
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter @adamdberry.