With roughly 75 percent of the 2019 season complete, there is no doubt the Braves are among the best teams in baseball. With more than a 95 percent chance of making the playoffs and an 80 percent chance of winning the division (according to most projections), Atlanta is currently one of the safer bets to make the postseason. There is also little doubt as to why the Braves are successful. They have one of the best offenses in the league, which has combined with a bullpen or rotation that have been above average at times, if woefully lacking at others.
While both the bullpen (among the league’s best at preventing runs from mid-May to the All-Star Break) and the starters (top ten in ERA, FIP, and xFIP since All-Star Break) have had success, they also have have struggled for extended stretches. When the bullpen was performing well in June, the starters were 25th in the league in ERA. While the starting staff has performed well in the second half, the bullpen has been the worst unit in baseball. The volatility and inconsistency has been maddening for everyone, including the Front Office, coaching staff, players, and fans. The fact that both team units have not been able to succeed for an extended stretch at the same time suggests the Braves have not yet played to their full potential.
A big contributing factor to struggles of the entire staff in 2019 has certainly been free passes. Atlanta is the third-worst team in the league for walks allowed per nine innings, with a 3.67 BB/9 mark. The bullpen itself is the worst in the majors, currently producing a 4.33 BB/9 measure on the season. Over the past decade, only eight of the 60 division winners have had a bullpen with a BB/9 rate above 4.00 during a division-winning season. The Braves are projected to accomplish that feat for the second consecutive year.
Atlanta’s Front Office knew that walks were potentially the fatal flaw of this team. As a result, they targeted some relievers who could throw strikes. With the additions of Chris Martin, Mark Melancon, and Shane Greene, the Braves hoped to significantly reduce the amount of extra baserunners allowed late in ballgames. This trio has helped a bullpen that produced a 4.39 BB/9 (worst in the majors) before July 31 improve somewhat to a 3.75 BB/9 rate (15th in baseball) since August 1. While the overall results have certainly been awful in August, the failures have been due to contact and luck rather than absurd walk rates.
Unfortunately, while the ability to limit walks has improved, a new issue has emerged. Yes, the Braves are throwing more strikes. However, these strikes are not leading to strikeouts. Currently, the Braves are 20th in the majors with a 8.59 K/9 mark as a team. Since 2012, only five other division winners have finished lower than 20th in team strikeout rate rankings. In that same time frame, only five LCS participants have finished outside the top ten in team strikeout rankings.
The Braves do have their strengths as a staff, as they are sixth in the league in ground ball percentage. However, recent history suggests that the Braves tendency to walk batters and allow contact will be a hard obstacle to overcome in the hopes of advancing in the playoffs. As the Braves face better teams down the stretch and in the playoffs, more talented offenses will have a better shot at productivity on contact. As a result, the ability for the Braves to find sources that can produce strikeouts is critical.
If the starting staff can continue its success, and the bullpen can get some positive results from throwing more strikes, the Braves’ arms could become dependable. Mike Soroka has been dominant this season aside from some hiccups, and compared to his peers, can easily be categorized as elite. However, his effectiveness comes from limiting walks and producing grounders. While not as consistent, Dallas Keuchel is usually at his best using these same methods. This strategy allows both Soroka and Keuchel to be dependable, but they are relatively average when it comes to producing strikeouts. This leaves the team without a deep well for stifling opposing offenses without allowing contact. Multiple members of the bullpen have displayed that ability, but they have struggled with walks and cannot work long stretches. As a result, one key for Atlanta to have the success it wants in the playoffs falls on the ability to find a starter or two who can generate punchouts.
Enter Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz.
Fried has enjoyed somewhat of a breakout year. After a wonderful April, he experienced periods of success and struggles in May, June, and July. Right after the All-Star Break, he went on the Injured List with the same blister problems that caused issues for him in the past. Before August, 2019 had been a lost year for Mike Foltynewicz. Elbow issues kept him out of Spring Training, and reduced velocity and control once he returned contributed to immense struggles. Foltynewicz was certainly nowhere near the same pitcher who finished seventh in NL Cy Young voting in 2018, and spent a good part of June and all of July in the minors trying to get back on track.
Thankfully, the stint on the injury list for Fried and the extended demotion for Foltynewicz seem to have helped. Max Fried is posting his best FIP and xFIP numbers of the season so far in August while maintaining his strong strikeout rate. Foltynewicz seems to be showing signs of rounding into form, as outside of the “one big inning” in each of his last two starts, he has been quite successful. Furthermore, though it has only been a 11 1⁄3 innings, Foltynewicz has seen his K/9 rate improve from a 7.58 mark in the first half to an 11.1 K/9 mark in August.
The reason why the performances of both Fried and Foltynewicz are crucial for the Braves down the stretch is because their skillsets have been a rare find in Atlanta this decade. Since 2012, only seven Braves have thrown more than 125 innings in a season with a K/9 rate above 8.75. Fried and Foltynewicz have the two highest marks of that group, with a 9.96 mark for Folty in 2018 and a 8.98 mark for Fried so far this year. (Editorial note: the increase in strikeouts league-wide does make it easier for today’s pitchers to meet these marks than the hurlers of yesteryear.)
If both starters can continue their August success, there is reason to be encouraged. The Braves are 5-0 in August Foltynewicz and Fried starts, including three wins over playoff hopefuls in the Twins and Mets. As the stretch run continues, a healthy and effective Fried and Foltynewicz will do wonders in supporting the rest of the staff.
Beyond August, and as the Braves get closer to the playoffs, having trust in Fried and Folty will be a significant boost for the Braves. Due to consistency (and perhaps investment), Soroka, Keuchel, and Julio Teheran will likely get the nod in playoff starts in some order. However, having arms that can can go multiple innings and can miss bats will give the Braves options if any of these three run into trouble. Whether it be as the fourth member of the rotation or an option in the late innings, Fried and Foltynewicz are exactly the type of pitchers the Braves need in critical situations in the playoffs.
In many situations over the past several years, we have seen teams turn to their ace instead of their closer to close out playoff games. While the Braves do not have an ace to the caliber of many of those past winners (at least not yet), having other options to consider other than Soroka for this role would be an amazing development.
Without a doubt, Fried and Foltynewicz have both struggled with consistency this year. However, they both have shown the ability to be dominant as well. While the Braves should be cautious in how they utilize both arms, Atlanta should continue to emphasize what has worked in August. By doing so, the Braves will have an added asset in their arsenal for the playoffs, one that’s proven to be very successful in the playoffs for other teams, and one that could help Atlanta earn its first playoff series win since 2001.