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Breaking down Jake Newberry: the good and the bad

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Jake Newberry’s slider has been one of the better pitches in baseball, but his fastball has some work to do.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Newberry has been really good out of the bullpen for Kansas City so far in 2019. He is currently sporting a 3.86 ERA through 11 23 innings, with 9.26 K/9 and just 0.77 BB/9. Newberry didn’t really stand out on the prospect scene for me until the beginning of 2018, when he began the season with AA Northwest Arkansas. Newberry posted the best K/9 of his career over 29.2 IP to begin the year (11.22) and really looked like a legitimate big league option for the first time in his career.

Newberry has really followed through since getting off to a great start in 2018. He’s continued to add velocity to his fastball and has really developed a wicked slider this year. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen my pitch value rankings at some point in time. When I ran them on Sunday afternoon, Jake Newberry’s slider registered as the 15th best slider in all of the MLB:

That’s the good news. Newberry’s slider has been absolutely filthy and Newberry is throwing the pitch nearly 50% of the time as a result. Here’s the bad news though: Newberry’s 4-seam fastball ranks as the second worst 4-seam fastball in all of Major League Baseball. 292nd out of 293 qualifiers. I was a bit stunned to see that but, then again, given Newberry’s current 3.09 HR/9, is it really that surprising? All four of the home runs that Newberry has given up have come off the fastball.

I was really curious to figure out what could be going so wrong for Newberry’s fastball so, naturally, I took a stroll over to Baseball Savant. What I found is pretty interesting. Let’s talk about a couple things first:

1.) Speaking very, very generally, pitchers should abide by this rule of thumb regarding their fastballs: high spin rates up in the zone, low spin rates down in the zone. Again, this is a very broad generalization of where pitchers should make their living, not a rule that all pitchers must abide by in order to have success throwing fastballs.

2.) The ability to tunnel your pitches together is a big deal. Jake Newberry is tunneling his fastball and his slider well, but there is some significant room for improvement as well. Let’s get into it.

Here is a heat map of all of the 4-seam fastballs that Jake Newberry has thrown in 2019:

Jake Newberry fastballs

And here’s a heat map of all the fastballs he’s thrown to right-handed hitters (RHH):

Newberry fastballs vs RHH

The current average spin rate on four-seam fastballs in Major League Baseball is 2,285 RPM. Jake Newberry’s fastball registers on average at 2,343 RPM. The average fastball velocity is 93.1 mph and Newberry’s average velocity is 93.2 mph. What this means to me is that Jake Newberry doesn’t need to be working down in the zone on a regular basis like he is. He ought to start working right-handed hitters up and in more frequently, him the ability to tunnel his slider on the outer half of the plate.

Jake Newberry sliders

Newberry does a great job tunneling his four-seamer with his slider at present. I’d just argue that there’s a couple of problems with the way that he’s doing it. For starters, Newberry’s fastball needs to be worked predominantly up in the zone. If Newberry could work his fastball 93-95 up and in on right-handed batters more frequently, he could then begin tunneling his slider with his fastball so that the slider winds up inside the strike zone more often. Newberry isn’t walking hardly anyone at the moment, but hitters start laying off of his sliders that he’s throwing way out of the zone, then he’s going to be forced to go to that fastball more often.

By no means am I suggesting that Newberry stop pitching right-handed hitters low and away with his fastball. I was just shocked to see how little he has been coming up and in to right-handed hitters. Only two of the four home runs he’s given up this year have been to right-handeders, and one of them was on this pitch:

Pitching right-handed hitters up and in keeps them from diving out over the plate. What I mean by that is, they can’t get comfortable looking for a pitch to hit outside. They have to respect the fact that Newberry is willing to bust their hands on the inner part of the plate. Then, when he throws his slider toward the inner half of the plate, it looks like that fastball in, before breaking all the way across to the outer half of the plate. That’s the effect of tunneling. See here:

So, anyway. This article isn’t meant to be some kind of damming evidence that Newberry is going to regress. In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite. Newberry has had a lot of success and I think there’s a lot of things that he can do to improve even further. By making a small adjustment to the way that he pitches to right-handed hitters, Newberry could see a ton of improvement to his fastball success.