LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Sean Newcomb entered last June as an All-Star candidate and exited the regular season wondering if he had done enough to earn a spot on Atlanta's postseason roster. The inconsistent nature of his first full Major League season enhances the difficulty of projecting how valuable he might be to the Braves from both an immediate and long-term perspective.
"When you stack up everything he did over all of last year, it was pretty good," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "He was right there with some of the elite pitchers in a lot of categories. He went through a lot and went through some really good experiences. There was a lot he went through from start to finish."
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In a world where the most recent impressions often serve as the strongest influence, it's easy to focus on the fact that Newcomb produced a 5.50 ERA over his final 14 starts and had his turn skipped as the Braves were fighting for a playoff spot in September. But it's worth noting that the 3.91 ERA he compiled over 30 starts ranked 16th among qualified NL starting pitchers.
At times, Newcomb showed why he once ranked as one of the game's top starting pitchers. But at other times, he dealt with the harsh realities that come with learning how to successfully navigate a first full Major League season.
"After having that year under my belt, I think I'm more prepared to go from starts one through 30 and kind of know what to expect at each point," Newcomb said. "Right now, I can picture it in my mind easier than I did last year."
Newcomb will enter this season as the Braves' No. 2 starter. If he makes strides similar to those experienced by Mike Foltynewicz last year, he'll enhance his team's bid to defend a division title and strengthen his place in the club's future.
But if he extends last year's late-season struggles, he could find himself in position to be passed by Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint, Ian Anderson and some of the other top-flight pitching prospects fast-tracking their way toward the top of Atlanta's system.
"Like with any baseball player, consistency is where success happens," Newcomb said. "Just getting that as much under control is all I can do. I think, physically, I was strong all year. So, there isn't much I needed to work on there."
With just 49 starts under his belt, Newcomb remains a work in progress. The 25-year-old lefty widened his repertoire as he used his changeup much more frequently last year. This prevented hitters from simply sitting on his four-seam fastball or curveball. But command remained an issue as, per Statcast™, he produced baseball's second-lowest first-pitch strike rate (54 percent) and was ahead in the count just 25.5 percent of the time -- the game's ninth-lowest mark last year.
"Improving with first-pitch strikes is one of my number-one goals," Newcomb said. "I think I do a decent job bouncing back. But, obviously, the numbers are there when you get ahead [with a first-pitch strike]."
Newcomb allowed three earned runs or fewer in 14 of the 19 starts he made before the All-Star break, but he found himself with a 3.51 ERA because he struggled against the challenges he faced at Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium and Miller Park. He then proved capable of matching up against a strong offense when he came within a strike of no-hitting the Dodgers on July 29.
After throwing 134 pitches while flirting with history that afternoon at SunTrust Park, Newcomb had to take responsibility for some insensitive tweets that had been unearthed from his high school days. He helped the Braves beat Max Scherzer eight days later. He produced a 7.44 ERA over his next seven starts, and then was briefly removed from the rotation.
"In the second half of the season, you are feeling more fatigued than you were in the first half," Newcomb said. "Then, mix that with a 10-day rest, I don't think I got fatigued as much as I maybe fell out of rhythm."
Provided five extra days of rest, Newcomb tossed five scoreless innings against the Mets on Sept. 26. The outing restored some confidence and led to him being assigned the chance to go through the Dodgers' lineup one time while starting Game 3 of the National League Division Series.
"You forget some of the layers you're peeling off," Snitker said. "They are dealing with mental challenges and mental expectations in addition to the physical challenges. But I think everything he went through is going to feed him well going into this year and lead to an even better 2019."