JOHNSON CITY, TENN.—A long-held scouting axiom is that lefthanded pitchers tend to develop later than their righthanded counterparts. So do tall pitchers and prospects from the Northeast.
Those factors, and others, make Hartford lefthander Sean Newcomb one of this year's most fascinating draft prospects and a potential first-round selection.
Newcomb brandishes easy mid-90s velocity now, after he was a very different pitcher as a three-sport athlete with a mid-80s heater at Middleborough (Mass.) High.
"He was a very green player and didn't look ready for pro ball," a National League scout said. "He was an unknown because he really didn't start logging innings until his junior year."
Only one team asked him to fill out a draft questionnaire out of high school. He went undrafted.
The 6-foot-5 Newcomb, who played defensive end, considered playing college football but decided to concentrate on baseball. Hartford was the only school he visited.
After going 17-80 during Newcomb's junior and senior years of high school, Hartford changed coaching staffs entering his freshman year, hiring a young coach, Justin Blood, who had been a hard-throwing lefthander himself. As a coach, Blood was one of keys to building up a Connecticut program that produced two first-round picks in 2011, George Springer and Matt Barnes. Newcomb's velocity increased over the summer leading into his freshman year.
"The moment we knew we had something special was watching his first game of catch on the first day," Blood said. "We saw him throwing and said, 'Oh my gosh, what do we have here?' Just watching him play catch and the way the ball carries out of his hand and the effort level, or lack thereof. He was 86-89 and touched 90 in his first bullpen we ever saw."
Newcomb continued to add strength to his extra-large frame and touched the mid-90s as a sophomore.
"I started lifting a lot, then started gaining weight, and along with some mechanical changes it all started to come together," Newcomb said. "My sophomore year I could start to feel the effect of my strength gains. Freshman year I did pretty well, but I think when I was able to put it all together was my sophomore year."
He has gained 40 pounds since high school, sitting around 240. The composition of his weight has changed as well, as he has shed some of the softness to his build.
The coaches aided Newcomb's mechanical adjustments, curtailing the severity of his across-body delivery.
"There were times when I would cut off my body and step to the first-base side of the mound," Newcomb said. "So I straightened that up and that has allowed me to throw to either side of the plate. I had always been able to locate arm side, and with adjustments I have been able to come inside to righties to my glove side."
His arm action has become more compact and streamlined.
"He had a tendency to get a little bit longer in the back and straighten out at times as a freshman and sometimes as a sophomore," Blood said. "He has corrected that. He is fairly consistent with his arm path."
After those adjustments, Newcomb pitched in the Cape Cod League last summer, though he missed nearly a month with mono, and entered his junior season as a priority follow for Northeast scouts. He has allowed only one unearned run in three starts, striking out 23 in 18 innings against eight walks and eight hits.
Although his fastball has been 90-95 mph this spring and touched 96 in the past, how he produces that velocity stands out more than the radar gun readings. Newcomb throws with ease and looks like he is playing catch.
"You almost had to check the gun again after some of those fastballs where it looked like he just lobbed it in there," an American League scouting executive said. "But then you check and you are like, 'Wow, that was 94.' It comes out as easy as you will ever see 95 come out."
Scouts have to travel years through their mental databases to recall a lefthander that threw hard with so little effort.
"I don't think I have ever seen a lefthander throw that easily with that kind of velocity," the NL scout said. "It is really tough to think of a lefthander that produced velocity that easily. Maybe Scott Kazmir in 2002. This is something pretty unique."
When he stays on top of the ball, Newcomb produces above-average fastball life with arm-side run and sink when down in the zone, and glove-side run and late giddyup when working in the upper half of the zone. In the early part of the season, Newcomb has operated heavily off his fastball.
His curveball has improved over the last year, when it was a consistently below-average offering. It still lacks consistency but has shown the makings of at least an average pitch.
"Sometimes I get slider spin and sometimes I get curveball spin," Newcomb said. "I feel like when I go arm side it is more curveball spin and then when I go to my glove side across the plate it starts to have more slider spin."
"Sean has come an awful long way already, but where he has an opportunity to get better is with the consistency of creating spin," Blood said.
Because Newcomb pitched effectively off his fastball this spring he has not used his mid-80s changeup regularly, but shows surprising feel for the offering. It has shown the potential to be at least an average pitch, flashing above-average.
Newcomb is also working on a cutter that he rarely uses in game action.
"It's his new pitch and he doesn't throw it often, but it could look a lot better in a year or two," the NL scout said. "It is not there now but it could became a weapon, just like Jon Lester's."
As a durable-bodied lefthander with high strikeout rates and an easy, live fastball, Newcomb will be a closely examined draft commodity. His inexperience on the mound (117 innings pitched entering the season), the quality of the competition he has faced, his youth compared to his draft class (age 20 on draft day), breaking ball and control all provide touch points for a range of opinions. Newcomb could have as much projection with his stuff and control as nearly any college pitcher in the class, yet scouts prefer to not project on breaking balls from college pitchers like they do with high schoolers.
"This is a great case study because there are two or three lefthanders in the whole draft that have that sort of stuff," the executive said. "You could make a case for him pretty high and you could make a case for him a little lighter as well. Though he's a college junior, it is almost more how you look at a high school breaking ball, where you see the makings of one and enough to make you think it is going to be an average pitch. But he doesn't repeat it the way you want a college pitcher to."
Newcomb's control has improved significantly over his career. He walked 7.5 per nine his freshman year and 4.6 his sophomore year. Although his walk rate this year (4.6) is the same as last, scouts believe he had made legitimate improvements to his strike-throwing ability. He has posted high strikeout rates throughout his career; he entered the year with a career strikeout rate of 10.5 per nine and has struck out more than one-third of all hitters this spring. Some scouts to project average command, although he can struggle to repeat his delivery and can still occasionally throw slightly across his body.
Despite the gap between present ability and future impact compared to other college pitchers, it's hard to not dream big on a lefthander with this much physical talent.
"He lacks the finish and what you see has a chance to get really good in one calendar year," the NL scout said. "You could see him a year from now and go, 'Wow, everything has cleaned up.' There is so much room for growth and development that you don't normally see in a college junior who has the tool set that he does.
"Normally what you see is what you get. But a minor league system would be licking their chops to get him because you have the makings of a very good starter, a big time starter. A lefthander with velocity and high strikeout rates who looks like Jon Lester? That could be special."