Max Fried was a star in the high school ranks out of southern California, and when he was taken with the 7th overall pick by the Padres in the 2012 draft the expectation was that he would eventually be a star in the major leagues. His first two seasons with San Diego were a success and he was ranked as one of the top 60 prospects in the game by most sources. The good feelings last long after that for Fried and after just 10 2⁄3 innings in 2014 he was done for the season and had to undergo Tommy John Surgery. That offseason the Braves began the teardown of their roster, and Fried was shipped off to the Braves as the centerpiece in the deal that sent Justin Upton back west. With Fried poised to miss the entire 2015 season recovering from surgery the Braves had to exercise patience.
Fried was asked to repeat A ball for the third time when he first pitched with Rome in 2016, and for the first two months of the season it seemed Fried’s recovery would be much more difficult than hoped. By the end of May Fried had pitched in 10 games with a 5.21 ERA and 40 strikeouts to 28 walks in 48 1⁄3 innings. As the switch flipped for the Rome team and they took the South Atlantic League by storm, so too did it for Fried, and over his next 7 starts he struck out 44 batters in 34 innings with only 11 walks and a 1.06 ERA. Max then missed a full month of time dealing with blisters, and returned to struggle down the stretch with a 5.66 ERA in his final four starts. Rome made the playoffs and Fried was the star in the postseason for Rome. In his first game struck out a career-high 11 batters over 7 2⁄3 innings with just one run allowed, ending the first round series with Charleston in the decisive third game. Fried was called upon to pitch the potential championship clincher six days later, and responded again with another career high in strikeouts with 13, and allowed just one run over seven innings as Rome won their first South Atlantic League title since 2003.
Expectations coming into 2017 were sky high for Fried, and the hype grew with a strong spring training season that saw him pitch four scoreless innings with five strikeouts. Once again injuries became a problem, and he left his first start of the year without completing two innings and allowing four runs. He missed his next start due to a minor back injury suffered in his first start, and returned nine days later seemingly better and allowed only one run over six innings. As the season wore on it became clear something was wrong with Fried, as all three of his pitches had taken a step backwards and over his next 14 starts he allowed a 6.98 ERA and walked 34 batters in 69 2⁄3 innings. Fried went on the DL again in late June, having battled blister problems the entire year. Fried missed three weeks, but came back with a vengeance. Over his past three starts since returning from the DL he has slowly ramped up his activity, but he hasn’t allowed an earned run and in his most recent outing struck out five batters with only one walk over four innings. More importantly his stuff has begun to return to 2016 levels and his struggles against right handed batters have significantly improved. In his first 16 starts of the season right handers were hitting .291/.368/.500 against Fried, but in the small sample since he has returned from the DL they have only managed to hit .231/.300/.269
Coming out of spring training the expectation was for Max Fried to join the big league club by the end of the season. He had already been placed on the 40 man roster to avoid exposure to the Rule 5 draft, and had shown two plus or better pitches and a developing change that itself flashed above average. The plans have come through, but not in the way they were expected to. Fried will be pitching as a long reliever in Atlanta, likely as a way to limit his innings as he is only 30 short of his career high. Fried is a very athletic presence on the mound at 6’4” and 200 lbs, and is able to repeat a very smooth and clean delivery. His athleticism also shows up elsewhere, as he fields the position well and has a great pickoff move that notched 19 pickoffs last season in Rome. Fried’s fastball sits 92-94 and he can reach back for 97, and he gets a good downhill plane on the ball with arm side run. He commands the glove side corner of the plate well when he is at his best, though this season he has regressed significantly in the command of his fastball. Fried likes to attack hitters, and isn’t afraid to pitch up in the zone. He does tend to give up some home runs when he can’t get the ball up as high as he wants, but his ability to move the ball vertically in the zone separates him from most minor league pitchers at this stage in their careers. Despite his tendency to work all portions of the zone Fried still uses his height to his advantage and has consistently posted a ground ball rate around 53% in his career.
Max Fried’s curveball is his best weapon on the mound, and is the most advanced of any offspeed pitch in the Braves system. While it may come just short of Toussaint in it’s movement, he does a far better job of commanding the pitch and consistently getting the movement he wants. Fried works two different curveballs, the first being a slower, less tight breaker that he controls well. He’ll use this in any count to get called strikes, and can hit his corners with the pitch. His second is a harder, better breaking ball that is his go-to strikeout pitch. Last season Fried effectively used this to both left handed and right handed batters, with neither having much of a chance against it due to his advanced nature going against A ball hitters. This season the bended has not been as clean or sharp out of the hand, and right handed batters have been able to put good wood on it. He’s also leaving the ball up more rather than burying it in the zone, and it has been a recipe for disaster. Since his return from the DL he has been snapping them off more consistently with the movement and location he showed in 2016, but still has shown less consistency in than in the past. If he regains his command of the curveball he will match a 65 grade curve with that mid-90’s fastball, a combination that few left handed pitchers in the game can stake a claim to.
The pitch that has made the most regression this season for Fried has been his changeup, as it has been a non-factor for a majority of the outing this season. Last season he struggled some with the location of the changeup, but even then you could see a feel for the pitch and the velocity separation and movement on the pitch that showed above average or better potential. Given the quickness of the arm action it’s also very difficult to pick up out of his hand. This season for Fried it has been a major struggle to locate this pitch or get the same sort of movement he showed last season. While it’s been a problem for both of his primary pitches it has been a major issue for the changeup, as he tended to walk a thin line with it anyway. The change was sparingly used in Rome anyway, given that two pitches is enough to get out batters in the lower minor leagues, but this season he’s rarely been able to throw the pitch with confidence and it makes his approach to right handed batters very difficult. He’ll have to recapture and improve the state of his changeup if he wants to be a long term starter, otherwise he’ll be another talented arm destined for a bullpen role.
Before the season, I would have predicted that Fried would be up by mid-July and felt comfortable saying he was going to settle into the role of a number 2. The lack of reported injury, the issues he’s had staying on the field, and the regression he has shown have all given cause for concern. Pitchers are volatile beings, and for a player 3 years removed from surgery and 2 years back from rehab still struggling to stay healthy there has to be concern. Fried at his best was a guy who could show 2 plus or better pitches, an above average third pitch, and above average to plus command, but I would hesitate to be so optimistic at this stage. Right now, Fried wouldn’t be successful in the major leagues as a starter due to the inconsistencies he has shown with his offspeed stuff. Starting him off in the bullpen and giving him a taste of the big leagues without requiring him to go through a lineup twice will be a clear advantage and allow him to let his stuff play up a bit. I’m confident he’s recovered enough from his issue early in the season to be one of the better relievers in the Braves bullpen, and as the season wears on he could very well earn more opportunities late in ball game to pitch high leverage situations.
Fried has a wide range of possible outcomes for his major league future, but that’s more due to just how high his ceiling is rather than his having enough issues to have a low floor. At the least you have a guy who can touch 97 now and would probably add velocity in short outings, who matches a devastating second pitch and improving fastball command. He has true closer stuff and shows it in the minor leagues, giving a very reasonable fall back option for Fried. My expectation for Fried is still for him to be a long term starter in Atlanta. It has been widely speculated that he has been battling injury more so than he has let on this season, and has looked uncharacteristically uncomfortable on the mound. If his stuff doesn’t make it back to where it was in 2016 Fried still has the stuff to be a back end starter. The command is there, the pitches are there, and Fried could be an average pitcher at the major league level without question. He’ll have plenty of competition in the system as well, and as a guy who feeds on that sort of atmosphere he’ll come in with a driven advantage. The major question for Fried will be how healthy he can stay. If he continues to show an inability to play a full season the Braves will have to relegate him to a bullpen role, where he would certainly be successful but also wouldn’t be able to show off his ceiling. With nothing in his delivery or his body type drawing a red flag to indicate he may see consistent injury problems, the hope is that he is facing nothing more than a hiccup that he will be able to move past. Say Fried comes out next year and his curveball is as sharp as before and he is able to command all three pitches the way he could in 2016, there is no reason Fried couldn’t be a #2/#3 starter in the major leagues. Max Fried has eye popping stuff and athleticism on the field, and has during stretches put that together and seemed like a top of the rotation arm. Fried has to be more consistent throughout the season, but he possesses a ceiling that only a few in the system can match and at only 23 years old has plenty of time to figure out how to reach that ceiling.