Some 16 Major League teams have their fans excited about postseason possibilities. But in Pittsburgh, the fans seemingly are always having to look to next year or even five years down the road. So, it’s not too early to think about what 2022 and beyond will look like for the Pirates. Here, we ponder the shortstop position and make a case for Kevin Newman.
Last year, The Pirates brought in Ben Cherington as general manager to oversee their latest rebuilding phase. Established players were traded away for prospects in the hopes of building the minor league system. It’s not exactly a novel idea compared to how his predecessors approached the task. This time around it does feel a little different. He has a track record and has been able to acquire some highly ranked prospects. Although the Pirates won’t admit it publicly, it seems clear the goal is respectability by 2023 and contention by 2024.
The hot prospects
Cherington inherited one hot shortstop prospect (Oneil Cruz) and acquired another (Liover Peguero) in his first major trade. Current shortstop Kevin Newman may not be a household name. He could change that with a 2021 Gold Glove Award, which is a realistic possibility. Surely, Cherington planned on Cruz or Peguero ultimately serving as the every-day shortstop. The question is whether the plan should change given the current level of Newman’s defensive play. Ask the average Pirates fan and you’ll find they’re anxious for Cruz or Peguero.
Pittsburgh fans are passionate about their teams and often hard to satisfy even in good times. They demand instant results and want fast changes if they don’t get them. It always seems their favorite Steeler is the back-up quarterback and their favorite Pirate is the hottest minor league prospect. Lately that prospect has been the six-foot-seven-inch Cruz. He is a highly touted five-tool player who resists talk of moving to the outfield. He may not have much choice in the matter, however, given the the highly regarded Peguero’s presence in the Pirates farm system.
How they’re progressing
Cruz has had a rough couple of years. In 2020, an automobile accident involving Cruz in his native Dominican Republic left three people dead. The unfortunate trio were riding a motorcycle at night with the lights out. Cruz was absolved of any guilt but this certainly had to be stressful for the 22-year-old. Currently with double-A Altoona, he has also battled injuries this season. Most recently, a strained forearm has suspended any thought of employing him in the outfield for the remainder of 2021. Lately his bat has gotten hot. Meanwhile, in single-A Greensboro, Peguero is on a hot streak of his own at the plate. Peguero is one of the top batters in the High-A East League at .271/.332/.444 going into Saturday’s action. According to the Pirates’ website, Cruz and Peguero are the team’s #3 and #5 ranked prospects, respectively.
Sorry, couldn’t resist the Seinfeld reference. This brings us to Newman. Now that Gregory Polanco‘s disappointing tenure has come to an end, Pirates fans are fixated on Newman’s offensive numbers. His .576 OPS is one of the lowest of any regular player in Major League Baseball. They’re anxious to see Cruz get a September call-up that doesn’t appear likely to happen. For them, Newman’s 2019 rookie season, when he posted a .308/.353/.446 slash line at the plate, seems like the distant past.
Newman’s defensive stats
Meanwhile, Newman’s defense has shown stark improvement this season to the point where he has emerged as a legitimate Gold Glove candidate. He began the season with a 76-game errorless streak. For the year, he has been charged with only three errors at shortstop, for a .993 fielding average. Recent analytics experts have dismissed fielding average as an accurate barometer of defensive proficiency because of the lack of accounting for range and the subjectivity in charging errors. That’s true, but it’s still impressive that official scorers have seen fit to charge Newman with errors only three times in 2021.
Newman’s ARTful defense
For all of the analytics geeks out there, I note The Fielding Bible ranks Newman #6 among all Major League shortstops in 2021 in ART Runs Saved, an improved version of Defensive Runs Saved, which incorporates positioning, air balls, range and throwing, the latter three making up the ART acronym. In each of the two previous seasons, Newman was ranked #27.
Whether one’s approach to evaluating defense is old school or new school, Newman’s defense passes the eye test. He takes good angles to balls, fields them cleanly, shows some nifty footwork and makes smart decisions and strong, accurate throws. The improvement over past years is obvious.
So assuming Newman never again hits at the level he did in 2019, if the Pirates “get good” — a big if — is it far-fetched that he would continue to be their regular shortstop? I don’t think so.
A historical perspective
One of the many great things about baseball is in deciding whether to put Player X in the line-up at any position, a manager may have to weigh whether to sacrifice offense for defense or vice-versa. With the emergence of Cal Ripken, Jr. and Alan Trammell in the 1980s, teams began to crave shortstops that provide more offense. At the same time, managers who ignore the defense at shortstop do so at their own peril. It worked for the 1968 Tigers but not for the 1979 Orioles, just to give two examples.
The 1968 World Series
In 1968, the Tigers won the American League pennant with shortstop Ray Oyler, who slashed a mere .135/.213/.186 for the season. In the World Series, center fielder Mickey Stanley replaced him. This allowed all four of the Tigers’ slugging outfielders in the line-up. Stanley didn’t hurt them there and the Tigers went on to win the Series.
The 1979 World Series
From 1969-79, the Orioles won four American League pennants and one World Series with Mark Belanger at shortstop. Belanger carried a paltry career .228/.300/.280 slash line. They won one of those pennants in 1979, when Belanger hit .167 and the Orioles lost the World Series to the Pirates. Belanger started the first two Series games for the Orioles. From the third game on, manager Earl Weaver decided to employ Kiko Garcia, a better hitter, at shortstop.
Game six in Baltimore was scoreless in the top of the seventh inning when the Pirates’ Omar Moreno singled with one out. The next batter, Tim Foli, hit a slow grounder up the middle. Garcia waited for the ball with his foot on second base, hoping to turn a double play, but the ball arrived too late to get either runner out. Belanger’s instincts and internal clock surely would have compelled him to charge the ball and get a sure out at first. Both runners eventually scored to give the Pirates a lead they never lost. The Pirates won the Series the next night when Bill Robinson‘s sixth-inning grounder eluded Garcia’s back-handed grasp before Willie Stargell clubbed the Series-winning homer.
More recent history
More recently during the Pirates’ wild card run of 2013-15, shortstops Clint Barmes and Jordy Mercer seldom made notable contributions offensively. But like Newman, they played every day, weren’t flashy, made the plays they should have and never sat out with “discomfort” in body parts nobody ever heard of. Their teammates speak highly of their importance. I’m sure their presence in the line-up had an unquantifiable calming effect on the rest of the team.
I claim no ability to predict the future. I’m just saying if the Pirates become contenders in the near future, it wouldn’t surprise me if those in charge see value in what Newman brings to the table every day and prefer to ride with him.