There’s no such thing as a flawless starting rotation one through five in Major League Baseball. Teams can only aspire to have rotation stability. For the Atlanta Braves, this is achieved by Sean Newcomb having a respectable season on the hill.
Two seasons ago Newcomb was a fixture in the Braves rotation. He made 30 starts, started in the postseason, and was a starter down the stretch of the previous season. The left-hander was a steady force in 2018, recording a 3.90 ERA and pitching out of mid-game catastrophes.
Then manager Brian Snitker made the bold decision to move Newcomb to the bullpen in 2019.
Newcomb was Atlanta’s most reliable reliever from start to finish. He worked his way out of trouble, logged strikeouts at a plausible rate, and recorded a 3.16 ERA across 68.1 innings.
The bullpen experiment worked. Now we’re back to where we started: Newcomb starting.
Newcomb made his first start of the season Sunday night on the road against the division rival New York Mets; it was problematic. Now, he only surrendered one earned run. That said, Snitker had to remove Newcomb from the game in the fourth inning after surrendering five baserunners, hitters making considerable contact, and him laboring through at-bats. Newcomb finished the night with 82 pitches through 3.1 innings.
The Braves won 14-1, so Newcomb’s pitch count wasn’t a factor in the end result (he was removed from the game with an eight-run lead). At the same time, if Sunday night was a glimpse into what’s to come for Newcomb, the Braves are in trouble with the 27-year-old.
Newcomb’s issue his been providing length. He averaged slightly over five innings per start in 2018. In the modern-day game that gets the job done, and the Braves have improved their bullpen. At the same time, their bullpen doesn’t have an array of long relievers: it’s a bullpen of one-inning arms.
They need length from their starters. You get length from pitchers finishing at-bats and challenging hitters. You don’t get it from them frequently trying to paint the strike zone and spotty in doing so. That’s what Newcomb did Sunday night, and it forced the bullpen to get 17 outs in a game they won by 13 runs; that’s not supposed to happen.
Newcomb heavily relies on his four seamer. In 2018 he threw the aforementioned offering roughly 56 percent of the time, while throwing his changeup roughly 23 percent of the time. Newcomb’s fastball has typically registered in the low-to-mid 90s.
If he can get through an order two and a half-three times a start, it’s a game changer for Atlanta.
Mike Soroka was a finalist for the National League Rookie of the Year Award last season and looked like his stellar self on opening day against the Mets, tossing six shutout innings. The right-hander is a hurler of deception. He gets savvy movement on his slider and sinker, catching hitters off-balanced which leads to weak contact. Soroka recorded a 2.68 ERA and 1.11 WHIP across 29 starts last season.
Max Fried is coming off his first season as a full-time starter. Recording a 4.02 ERA and 173 strikeouts across 30 starts, he was a respectable force. Fried is only going to improve as a starter and gain better command of his offerings.
The Braves won 97 games last season with a cruising Soroka, a work-in-progress Fried, a collectively shaky Mike Foltynewicz, and a moderate Dallas Keuchel and Julio Teheran, who each left in free agency. Cole Hamels, who the Braves signed to a one-year, $18 million deal in the offseason, now looks unlikely to pitch this season due to an arm injury.
Foltynewicz was designated for assignment on Monday night after surrendering six earned runs, including three home runs, on the road against the Tampa Bay Rays across 3.1 innings. A year removed from pitching at a Cy Young Award-caliber level (Foltynewicz recorded a 2.85 ERA, a 1.08 WHIP, and 202 strikeouts in 2018), the right-hander has an uncertain future, and the Braves have a vacant rotation spot. Maybe Jhoulys Chacin and/or Josh Tomlin are asked to take on a rotation role?
Atlanta’s offense can go toe-to-toe with any unit in the sport. Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Marcell Ozuna, Ender Inciarte, and Austin Riley, among others, form a formidable, high-octane offensive attack. Run support won’t be an issue for the Braves. What will be an issue is their division, the NL East.
The defending World Series-champion Washington Nationals have a line-drive hitting offense, an improved bullpen, and the best starting rotation in MLB; the Philadelphia Phillies have an improved rotation and a capable offense of high-profile hitters; the Mets have an energetic lineup.
Newcomb is a former first-round draft pick. He was once one of the brightest faces of the Braves’ rebuild. Now they need him to be a calming force.
This is a contending team. They take the next step with another reliable hurler taking the hill every fifth game.