For many members of the Braves, 2019 was a lovely 97-win dream. For lefty reliever A.J. Minter, it was a nightmare. Coming off an auspicious 2018 debut that saw him post a 3.23 ERA, collect 15 saves, and strike out more than a quarter of batters that dared face him, the 25 year old was expected to at least maintain his level of excellence and hopefully build upon it. As you already know or can probably surmise by this point, that didn’t happen at all. Minter’s season went off the rails almost immediately; a fender-bender in spring training led to shoulder inflammation that would put him on the IL to begin the season. He quickly returned, debuting on April 4, but Minter seemingly never got on track, finishing 2019 with a lower K-rate (23.8%), a ballooning walk rate (15.7%), a 7.02 ERA, and a severely diminished role with a team that no longer had confidence in him. So what happened? Was it merely the shoulder inflammation, which would again land him on the IL, this time for good, in early September? Did something change in his process? Or is this just life when you’re a reliever, resigned to a life of volatile statlines? Let’s see if, by diving into his numbers, we can find any answers.
First, let’s look at what made Minter a success in 2018. He managed to avoid hard hits and walks at a roughly league-average rate. Batters weren’t wildly fooled by him, either. Their command of the zone looked more or less near league-average. For some reason, however, Minter was fanning batters by the bunches. That reason was a nigh-unhittable cutter (or as Ivan more appropriately calls it, the “cutter-slider thing”) that batters whiffed on a whopping 37.3% of the time. Minter mystified batters with the pitch, resulting in a lot of off-balance swings. His pitch selection and good command of those pitches led to a ton of pop-ups, with over 12% of batted balls going straight into the air.
The first thing to wonder is - did the cutter die? Not at all. It lost some movement in 2019, but the pitch was still plenty effective, with batters whiffing 34% of the time and hitting a fairly lucky .274 against it. In his three big league seasons, he’s allowed a single home run on the pitch - the Christian Walker tie-breaking bomb in 2019 when Minter left it hanging in the zone. It’s still a great pitch, and it was still Minter’s most used pitch for good reason.
The problem appears to be with another pitch, one that, in his prospect days, was supposed to be his calling card: the four-seam fastball. From 2017 through 2019, the whiff rate on the fastball precipitously dropped from 31.1% to 25.1% to 21.1%. The difference between his K and BB rates with the pitch plummeted from 39.3 to 10.4 to 2.2. In 1955, Ted Williams hit .356, slugged .703, and walked 21.9% of the time. Against Minter’s 2019 four seamer, batters hit .368, slugged .684, and walked 19.1% of the time. When you’re turning batters into the Splendid Splinter every time you throw a pitch, and you throw that pitch 39.1% of the time, as Minter did, you’re gonna have a bad time.
The good news is, Minter seems to be realizing, over time, that the pitch that made him a notable prospect is slowly killing his MLB effectiveness. Here’s his game by game usage of the pitch over the course of his career:
Just for fun (I realize it’s a loose use of the term), let’s break down Minter’s 2019 appearances by whether or not he used the four seamer at least 40% of the time. Let’s start before his demotion:
When relying on it: 4 IP, 9 runs, 7 K, 7 BB
On the backburner: 7 IP, 3 runs, 9 K, 2 BB
Did things change after he returned a month later?
Relying on the fastball: 5.2 IP, 5 runs, 6 K, 6 BB
On the backburner: 12.2 IP, 6 runs, 13 K, 8 BB
Reliance: 9.2 innings, 14 runs (13.03 ERA), 13 K, 13 BB
Indifference: 19.2 innings, 9 runs (4.12 ERA), 22 K, 10 BB
The evidence at this point is pretty clear: A.J. Minter’s four seam fastball was poison to his chances of success in 2019. And even when he wisely steered away from it, he still wasn’t quite the same pitcher as before, because Minter only had the cutter and a changeup to go to. It’s not that the fastball even caught more of the zone than it did in previous years, as the pitch always has lived dangerously inside the strike zone. Perhaps Minter did a worse job at setting up the pitch than he did in 2018, or batters were more prepared, or maybe it’s as simple as the fastball losing a bit of movement and velocity - which it did, if only a bit. Circling back to the opening paragraph, perhaps it was small sample bad luck, or, likelier, the result of a rush to get back from his shoulder inflammation sooner than he should have.
I’m not a pitching coach and won’t pretend to know the solution for A.J. Minter going forward, but Rick Kranitz is, and one thing should be clear to both Minter and Kranitz. Be it improving the pitch drastically or re-assembling his arsenal to rely on it significantly less, Minter’s 2019 four seam fastball can’t realistically be asked back for the 2020 season. It has already derailed one season of the young reliever’s career. 2020 will be a pivotal season for A.J. Minter’s future, particularly in Atlanta. If he figures out a solution to his four seam problem, he should once again be an above-average lefty option out of the pen. If, on the other hand, he can’t remedy things in 2020, it may be Minter’s early success that ultimately feels like the dream, becoming fuzzier and increasingly unrecognizable over time.