Make no mistake about it, the Braves rotation was a bit of an adventure in 2020 with a slew of injuries, opt-outs, and on-field struggles that made it, at times, the weakest link of the organization. However, there were some definite silver linings in this group and it seemed as though the starters rounded into form at the perfect time as they carried the team through the opening playoff round against the Reds, dominated the Marlins in the next round, and held their own for the most part against a very tough Dodgers team in the NLCS.
Below, you will find a quick rundown of how the rotation performed against their peers in the 2020 with breakdowns of what went right, what went wrong, and how the unit looks going into the 2021 season.
2020 Overall Stats and Ranks
Overall rank by fWAR - 26th, 2.0 fWAR
Overall rank by ERA - 28th, 5.51 ERA
Overall rank by FIP - 23rd, 4.98 FIP
To say that the Braves’ rotation was not great is a bit of an understatement because when you look at the group as a whole, they were one of the worst units in all of baseballs. They did get a little bit unlucky when you consider that they underperformed their FIP by a full half of a run, that still wouldn’t make one feel that much better about them. Essentially, they had two starters that performed well in Max Fried and Ian Anderson and the rest were, on the whole, not great. The rotation’s collective 4.04 BB/9 most certainly left something to be desired and contributed to their problems, but that is only part of the problem as the rotation struggled to strand runners and had some weird peripherals that would normally be encouraging like their groundball rates and average exit velocity, but things obviously didn’t work out that way.
What went wrong
So, how much time do you have?
Lets start with Felix Hernandez as his part in this tragic tale is fairly short. King Felix was, surprisingly, expected to contribute to the Braves’ rotation coming out of spring training, but after the shutdown and when baseball activities started ramping back up, Felix decided to opt out of the season due to the pandemic.
Then there were the injuries. Cole Hamels, who was the Braves’ big free agent acquisition for the rotation, dealt with shoulder issues that dated back to spring training and once baseball started back up again, he remained hurt until he finally debuted late in the season. However, after that debut, he did not recover as well as he would have liked and the Braves shut him down for the season...effectively ending his career as a Brave. Then there was the back-breaking injury to the Braves frontline starter Mike Soroka. In just his third start of the season coming off a breakout 2019 season, Soroka tore his Achilles tendon on routine play that ended his season immediately. Soroka should be back at least by the early part of the 2021 season, but losing arguably your best starter for the year during his third start is not ideal.
And then there were those that were just not good and that list is fairly lengthy. Mike Foltynewicz, who was going to be counted on for significant innings, showed up after the shutdown looking thin and had lost a decent chunk of velocity from his fastball. He did not look good in spring training and after one start where he looked horrendous, the Braves sent him to the alternate training site and he never saw the majors again in 2020. Sean Newcomb posted an 11.20 ERA in four starts and, if you watched a couple of those early starts, one wonders if that number couldn’t have easily been much worse. Touki Toussaint showed flashes at times, but he also would lose his command and get knocked around on his way to a 7.52 ERA in five starts. While Kyle Wright did post a strong start in the playoffs for the Braves, his 2020 season was not ideal with a 5.21 ERA that overperformed his FIP significantly. It is worth mentioning that he looked significantly better as the season wound down.
And then there were the new additions to the team in Robbie Erlin and Tommy Milone. Erlin was claimed off waivers from the Pirates early in the 2020 season while Milone was acquired near the trade deadline. The idea behind both of them was to provide a stopgap in the rotation and buy the Braves some time to get some of their young arms ready to go, but instead it just threw gasoline on the fire as they were not very good at all. Erlin kept inexplicably getting starts over superior young arms on his way to an 8.15 ERA in five starts. Milone was somehow worse with a 14.90 ERA in three starts before getting placed on the injured list. A .486 BABIP against Milone certainly didn’t help matters, but his stuff also didn’t look very live and if you throw a bunch of strikes, you can’t be throwing junk.
In short, not great.
What went right
Its easy to get caught up in what went wrong in 2020 for the rotation, and with good reason, but there were several positives as well. Max Fried stepped into the void left by Soroka nicely as he was very clearly the ace of the staff in 2020 with a 2.25 ERA while sporting a really good 83.4 average exit velocity against him. Some of his later season starts weren’t as crisp as they were earlier in the season, but Max was great and really carried this staff when things were dire.
Then there was the call-up of Ian Anderson...what do we say about this dude? After FINALLY getting called up, Ian made six regular season starts and posted a 1.95 ERA in those starts while striking out 11.41 batters per nine. He will need to keep an eye on those walks, but as we saw in the postseason, this kid can be absolutely dominant as he made three scoreless starts in the postseason before finally giving up a couple of runs in his second pass against the Dodgers. He is going to be very good in the rotation for a long time.
There were other bright spots as well. Bryse Wilson should have gotten more chances earlier in the season, but when he did finally start getting some starts, he made them count as he dominated when the Braves clinched the NL East title and then pitched the Braves to a 3-1 series lead against LA when everyone thought that the Dodgers were going to eat him up. Its hard to say if this is the Bryse we can realistically expect to see every game, but his outlook as a starter is far more encouraging now.
One last note...while Huascar Ynoa certainly had some low points in the 2020 season, there were also times that made one think that he could make it as either a starter or long reliever. He certainly bailed the Braves out a couple of times where he single-handedly saved their bullpen, including in the playoffs, and he made a couple of good starts as well. He is far from a sure thing, but it was good to see him show something on the mound.
Outlook for the 2020 season
Look, basically a perfect storm of terribleness befell the Braves’ rotation in 2020. Even with just Mike Soroka back in the fold, the group becomes significantly better and that isn’t factoring in real contributions from Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, or other young arms that the Braves have stashed away like Jasseel de la Cruz, Tucker Davidson, and Kyle Muller.
We are also likely to see some pretty significant changes. At this point, Mike Foltynewicz getting nontendered seems likely. Cole Hamels is going to be a free agent and it is hard to imagine the Braves signing up to try that again. It is pretty clear that the Braves do not trust Newcomb in a starting role and the same goes for Touki at this point.
All of that uncertainty means that the Braves very likely need to sign or trade for an impact starter this offseason. They have a pretty significant to-do list this offseason including an extension for Freddie Freeman, trying to keep Marcell Ozuna in the fold, and seeing if they can keep their excellent bullpen at least mostly intact, but just signing one good starter likely makes this team a really viable World Series contender in 2021. They might be one without that signing, but with one...well, at the very least, we can realistically expect a rematch with the Dodgers.