Instead of giving up on Sean Newcomb, the Braves could benefit from transitioning him back to the bullpen, where he finally found consistent success last year.
Newcomb was optioned to the Braves’ alternate training site in Lawrenceville, Ga., after he was chased during the second inning of a 13-8 loss to the Phillies on Monday night at Citizens Bank Park. Seven of Atlanta's runs came in a ninth-inning rally, which included homers from Johan Camargo and Austin Riley, as well as Nick Markakis' 500th career double.
“We’re going to need him before this thing is over,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s just got to go back and keep pitching.”
Snitker’s message was slightly different than the one delivered when Mike Foltynewicz was designated for assignment after his first start on July 27. Foltynewicz’s steep and sudden decline befuddled everyone.
Newcomb’s struggles have unfortunately been similar to what he has experienced as a starter since flirting with an All-Star selection through the first few months of the 2018 season.
“It’s frustrating for him, too,” Snitker said. “We’ll just kind of keep working with him.”
Having already lost four projected starters since the start of Summer Camp, the Braves are running thin on available internal depth. But at the same time, they can’t confidently rely on Newcomb, who has totaled 41 outs over four starts. That’s essentially an average of 3 1/3 innings per start.
Or maybe it’s better to point out that Newcomb has completed at least five innings in just one of the eight starts he has made since the start of 2019. However you cut it, he has a 11.20 ERA this year, and he has really only shown encouraging signs in one of his four starts.
Newcomb’s ERA was severely damaged as he allowed the Phillies eight runs on six hits and two walks in just 1 1/3 innings. He surrendered a three-run homer to Bryce Harper before recording his first out and retired just one of the six batters faced in Philadelphia’s seven-run second inning.
When Newcomb exited after allowing J.T. Realmuto’s RBI single in the second, Robbie Erlin surrendered a Didi Gregorius grand slam on the first pitch he threw for the Braves. The left-handed reliever was acquired last week from the Pirates to add depth to a team that entered Monday having totaled the third-most bullpen innings in the National League.
So would Newcomb be better suited back in the bullpen?
“As of right now, probably yeah, just on what I’ve witnessed the last couple years,” Snitker said. “He had a really good year [as a starter in 2018], but he’s been inconsistent since then. We put him in the ‘pen last year, and he actually did a pretty good job. It’s a young strong arm. He can still be a productive Major League pitcher in some capacity.”
Newcomb posted a 3.04 ERA and limited opponents to a .291 on-base percentage over 53 1/3 innings as a reliever last year. Command has always been the issue for this former top prospect, who produced a 22.9 percent strikeout rate and an 11.5 percent walk rate as a starter during the 2018 season.
After being optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett three starts into the 2019 season, Newcomb moved to the bullpen. He produced a 25.6 percent strikeout rate and an 8.5 percent walk rate as a reliever that year in the big leagues.
Newcomb’s hope was the aggressive approach he used as a reliever would translate to better success as a starter. But a little more than two weeks into this season, he joins Mike Soroka, Cole Hamels, Félix Hernández and Foltynewicz as projected starters who are not currently in the mix.
At some point, the Braves may need to call upon top pitching prospect Ian Anderson, who has made just five starts above the Double-A level. But as the numbers dwindle, there is an even greater need for Kyle Wright and Touki Toussaint to continue making strides while attempting to prove themselves as big league starters.
“I feel like we have some young guys with stuff who have gotten some really good experience,” Snitker said. “I’ve already seen those guys make improvements and take a step forward. I think this is a great opportunity. They are young guys with stuff and that plays here.”
Toussaint will attempt to build on last week's impressive start when he faces the Yankees on Tuesday at 7:05 pm. ET. Toussaint recorded a career-high nine strikeouts and retired 18 of the first 20 batters he faced in a strong 6 2/3-inning effort against the Blue Jays on Thursday. The game will be shown on MLB.TV.