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How To Fix The Braves’ Young Pitching

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Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson. What do all these guys have in common? They can all get better

Washington Nationals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

The good thing about bad baseball is that there’s never any shortage of things to talk about fixing. With the Braves rotation this season, boy oh boy do we have plenty to drone on about. The young pitching has failed the Braves this season, and while all were forced into the rotation through extenuating circumstances they’re there now and it’s not looking so hot. Each guy is talented, and I’ve got no reason to believe one or two can’t eventually turn things around and break out especially with the amount of information the Braves are armed with to make those decisions. Today, I’m gonna run down some of the Braves young arms, including prospects that haven’t debuted, and look at statistics and scouting as to how they can improve. It’s worth noting that other than Touki Toussaint none of these players really have enough MLB experience to make meaningful conclusions on them based in statistics, but I’m going to do the best I can with what I have. Also, Sean Newcomb will not be included in this article, because he could get a whole write up on his own and I do not have the strength to delve deep into that mess.

Touki Toussaint

Toussaint is, at present, the best pitcher on this list and is probably a lot better than his numbers to this point in his career. His bouncing between the bullpen and rotation and lengthy adjustment to the new MLB has delayed his rise a bit, but I think it’s fair to assume that he’s a serviceable major league starter at worst. Right now that’s about the most the Braves can hope for. Touki’s flashes of brilliance are on par with a star pitcher, but consistency is obviously the big problem. Consistency is a metric that is difficult to quantify, but put simply Toussaint has only once had back-to-back outings of 2 or more innings and no runs allowed, only once put together back to back six strikeout games, and only twice gone multiple games in a row without a walk despite being used primarily in relief last season. Almost all of his numbers have gotten better this season. He’s throwing more strikes and more first pitch strikes, contact rates are down, chase rates are up, swing and miss is up, and fly balls are down, but the contact profile has seen more hard hits balls. Most of those are coming from one single pitch.

Touki’s curveball, splitter and fastball(s) have been fantastic this season. The splitter is one of the best pitches of any pitcher in the league and his fastball/sinker have both taken steps forward. Touki added a pitch though, and that is his slider. A slider with an average exit velocity of 91.5 mph against it, a wOBA of .811, and an xwOBA of .576. Touki is, at least presently, a significantly better pitcher without throwing that terrible pitch 12.6% of the time and he just needs to drop it until it develops more. That doesn’t seem like a huge percentage, but overall the line against Touki this season is .235/.316/.456. In non-slider at bats it’s just .183/.279/.333. Another offseason might be enough for the slider, but the Braves can’t afford to have him tinker in-season with such a weakened rotation and a now exhausted bullpen that has the third most innings pitched in the league. Otherwise Touki really has been fantastic this season, and I see no reason why he can’t be an effective pitcher now if he just moves off of the slider until it’s ready.

Much can be made of Touki’s command troubles, and they boil down solely to his mechanics and how consistently he can repeat his arm slot. When he struggles the release point charts show expectedly wild variation. Command is not the only problem, but purely his location and how he uses his pitches can limit their effectiveness. Toussaint’s four seam fastball is all over the place, but he still concentrates up in the zone and his pitch charts show a clear intent with his pitches. That is not so the case with his sinker and split finger fastball. While the splitter is good enough to get swings and misses regardless of locations his sinker is not, and the location trends for the pitch are an issue. He tends to attack directly down the middle, or more accurately it seems he really has no clue where the ball is going and just throws it at home plate and they tend to end up center center. This is never a good location, but with him not being able to get the sinker down he effectively eliminates the lower half of the zone on fastballs and allows the hitter to shrink the zone he’s looking for a pitch. Hitters can simply chase middle to up fastballs because that’s where he’s throwing them all, and his ability to get the sinker to take on the bottom of the zone is paramount to him having success with the pitch going forward.

Some of the positive signs for Touki are as follows. In his short career he’s actually been significantly better as a starter, with an OPS against of .652 vs .830 as a reliever and a better strikeout to walk ratio. His splitter has done wonders for his platoon splits, as he’s improved so much that he’s equally as effective against left handed batters and right handed batters. He’s great at getting the first guy out in the inning with a .558 OPS against for leadoff hitters. His struggles come with runners on as he has an .841 OPS against with runners on base and a 1.057 OPS against with runners in scoring position. If he can improve his career LOB% of 66.5%, which is in the bottom 10% of the league, his career could take another leap forward.

Kyle Wright

I did a thread on twitter with regards to Wright, which is really what inspired this article, and I’ll regurgitate some of that information here. Simply put, Wright has never been a good MLB pitcher for any stretch of time and perhaps he never will be, but there are changes he can make right now to be a better pitcher. The first is to drop the fastball and curveball completely. His usage of those pitches have dropped consistently and significantly since his debut, but it’s time to make their usage 0%. Neither has ever been effective as an MLB pitch, with the fastball having a .503 xwOBA and the curveball a .701 xwOBA. Why they continue to use those pitches a combined 34% of the time is beyond me, especially given they have more effective replacements (sinker and slider). For the curveball, the issue could also be location. Wright attacks away from hitters with the curve, which is good, but he doesn’t drop the ball below the zone. In fact, the only pitch he does drop below the zone is the changeup and it’s his best offering. He attacks with the curveball in the exact same location (away from right handed batters) as he does with the slider and that’s not the most effective approach with a curveball.

Wright also struggles to get the first out in an inning (leadoff hitters have a 1.026 OPS against) and the final out (1.091 OPS against with two outs). He struggles just altogether with the bases empty and contrary to what pitchers usually do he has a significantly lower OPS against with runners on. This points me to two things. One, maybe it’s time for Wright to pitch out of the stretch full time. There’s not sign that his command improves with runners on, so that may not be the issue, but if a guy is having trouble repeating his delivery and throwing strikes then you need to make the change. The second is simply his approach. Wright is too fine with his pitches. He’s got fantastic stuff, working low in the zone with the sinker and focusing on contact when you have a fantastic defense behind you is always a decent approach, especially when you have the arsenal to just get swing-and-misses regardless of how you pitch.

The final major statistic to look at is his performance by pitch count. Through the first 25 pitches in a game he has a .631 OPS against in his career with 22.2% strikeouts to 12.3% BB. After that his numbers go to a 1.130 OPS with a ratio of 14.8% K to 21.7% walks. If you’re wondering how much of that is the fact he was better as a reliever, that wouldn’t be much as his OPS for the first 25 pitches this season is .573 vs 1.073 after that. One way to look at this is that maybe Wright is just a reliever, and I would be inclined to agree with you on that front but I think it can also be fixed. Starters don’t get fatigued after 25 pitches. Him suddenly not being able to get outs 26 pitches in isn’t a physical change in him. Something mentally, whether it be him losing confidence after giving up some hits or him losing focus or even just overthinking his strategy, something there is wrong in a major way. Whatever is going on with Wright, and none of us here know what that is, is likely not a physical problem and the services need to be provided to him to be able to keep himself in that right mindset and be able to extend the ability he has shown he has to get outs.

Bryse Wilson

Bryse Wilson is an interesting case here. There’s no evidence statistically from his minor league stints that he should struggle to make the transition to the major leagues, but yet he has. Some of that is contributable to him not having a usable third pitch. Left handed batters don’t have a significantly better OPS, but it is better despite a BABIP 60 points lower than righties. Bryse’s peripherals against left handers are terrible. Against right handed batters Wilson has struck out 20% of batters in his career and only walked 8.6%, which is a respectable ratio. Against left handed hitters he is just awful, walking 21.2% of hitters and striking out 15.2% of them. He can’t get left handed batters out and unless he develops a third pitch that won’t change. Still, it’s not like it can’t happen and his potential rotation mate Touki Toussaint and his splitter are an obvious example. Until Wilson develops a third pitch he is not a major league starter because his fastball and slider are not good enough, but that also begs the question why they aren’t.

Major league hitters are a different breed, no one is doubting that, but up until this point his fastball and slider have at least been good enough to get guys out. One thing to point to is pretty lackluster spin rates. That could be just who Wilson is, but it could point to a bigger issue for him. With his command also going haywire it’s very possible if not likely that he is struggling to grip the different ball that major league baseball uses. Other guys have had this issue, even Touki seemed to have this problem when he debuted, and it’s something that Wilson can learn to overcome. I still don’t think that adjustment makes him a starter, but it at least makes him a more effective reliever.

Huascar Ynoa

Ynoa’s problems were exposed early on than most of the guys on this list, and he possesses a much greater variance of outcomes to his career. Ynoa’s third pitch is better than Wilson and his fastball is a tick better, so he lacks the consistent problems against left handed batters. Still, command is a major problem and with his delivery and pitching style it’s not hugely beneficial to rely on that as a major source of development. For Ynoa, it’s about getting command to respectable levels and continuing to develop the changeup. Ynoa has had an unorthodox path to getting to the major leagues and it’s too early to make too many assumptions because he’s not fully ready, but overall he’s the classic high octane, poor command starter that may figure it out and become a solid option or not and find himself as a bullpen or AAAA guy.

Ian Anderson

We’ve now moved into guys who have never pitched at the major league level, and on to the top pitching prospect in the system in Ian Anderson. You might think I don’t have a ton of negative things to say about Ian, but I may actually be harsher on him than anyone on this list simply because most of his flaws haven’t had ample time to be exposed like the other pitchers. Ian is a fantastic pitching prospect, there’s no doubt in that, but he’s not without fail and some of those are actually extremely concerning for me and others who follow the system.

There’s been a lot made of Anderson’s low fastball spin rate, but that’s not necessarily a huge problem if he has the right approach. Attacking up is the most effective fastball location for most pitchers, but the low spin rates and not truly elite velocity gives him a lower margin of error when he does go up. Mixing location to get around that will be important, and he does that, but mixing location is dependent on a certain level of command that he did not show at Triple-A. Ian struggled to grip the ball at Triple-A last season (they were using the tighter, slicker MLB balls) and it was obvious watching him in his short stint. The ball drifted away from his intended location far more than we’ve seen in the past, and his curveball did not have the same bite he had shown in Double-A. That led to him giving up the same number of home runs in 25 Triple-A innings than in his previous 313 innings from A ball through Double-A. He also saw a stark increase in walk rate. Reports are better from camp this year, but the grip issues are going to be something to keep an eye on going forward and it’s bad enough with Ian that there is concern he just might not figure it out. This will also contribute to even lower spin rates on his fastball.

Anderson has a fantastic changeup and as such has never had trouble with left-handed batters, that is until he reached Triple-A. Partially due to grip issues Ian walked 27.8% of left handed batters and only struck out 13.0% of them while against right handed batters he was walking 5% and striking out 30%. Why did the changeup, other than grip, suddenly lose its effectiveness. Ian, at least in the starts I watched in Triple-A, tipped his pitches quite noticeably. To the point I was calling out every pitch he was throwing as he delivered it, and if I noticed it the other team can too. hat’s something that can be fixed, but with the changeup relying on deception and location to be effective and Ian having neither it was clear he wasn’t going to get outs with it. It’s also a part of his delivery and not part of his setup or pre-pitch routine which does make it a little more difficult to work around withou making mechanical tweaks. Ian as he was last year - a full 365 days ago mind you - was not good enough to pitch at the major league level and that tipping would get him absolutely hammered. I assume the Braves are aware of the tip, I hope they pay as much attention as a random minor league blogger at the very least, so I have no doubts it will be fixed. Ian also has a major efficiency problem, even at his best, due to chasing strikeouts and with a team that needs starters that can go deep he may be a risky and inconsistent option. With the reports coming out of camp I am more confident in him than I was a few weeks ago, but I still worry that if these problems haven’t been fully resolved he’s going to be a major disappointment early in his career.

Kyle Muller

It is honestly a little difficult to find a glaring problem with Muller so far, other than the standard “yeah he just has to throw strikes”. Muller is, in all senses of the word, the ideal pitching prospect. A big, athletic lefty with a power arm and a competitive mentally is a dream pitcher, and Muller fits that description to a T. The biggest problem last year, command notwithstanding, was the calf injury he suffered in late August. It’s not something I have a huge level of concern about, but big guys with higher effort deliveries can have their bodies break down so it’s worth watching at the very least.

Kyle avoids hard contact, avoids contact altogether, and the changeup is more effective than he gets credit for giving him no real weakness against right handed batters. He does occasionally struggle to get that first out of the inning, but that in my opinion comes down to him having poorer location due to a less repeatable wind up. This also affects his efficiency, as he tends to have higher pitch counts due to being a strikeout first pitcher and frequently pitching with runners on. He is a guy who is worth pushing to the stretch full time in my opinion, because a 6’7 frame with a high effort delivery is asking for command problems regardless of Muller’s premium athleticism. The numbers support me in that conclusion, with Muller posting a 17.9% BB rate from the windup versus an 11.3% BB rate from the stretch in 2019. Ultimately Muller just needs to command the ball better and repeat his delivery, which is a pretty small list of complaints to have about a Double-A pitcher.

Tucker Davidson

Tucker is a lite version of Muller, and in a lot of ways that may be better because there’s not as much of him to have to control. Tucker’s is a similar delivery to Muller, but because of having less mass to move he’s been better with his command than Muller and of all the guys on this list save Touki, I’d bet on him to be ready to get outs in the major leagues right now.

Tucker’s fastball is a tick lower than Muller, and more importantly his changeup isn’t quite as ready as Muller which makes him more vulnerable to issues against right handed batters. It’s close, and with a year of work is probably ready to be a decent major league offering. He also adds a slider to the repertoire that Muller does not have, and it’s a solid average offering that give his breaking stuff more versatility.

Tucker’s major statistical weakness last season was the same as Muller’s - walks and pitching from the windup. Tucker doesn’t have the same athleticism as Muller and so it’s going to be more reliant on him having proper mechanics to succeed. He could benefit from going to the stretch full time as well, and is about one step away from being a solid middle of the rotation starter. Right now I see no downside to Davidson being in Atlanta because he provides a similar upside to the other pitchers on this list while also being older and not having quite as serious command issues.

Jasseel De La Cruz

De La Cruz is a tough guy to really evaluate. The arm talent is doubtless, with high spin rates and velocities but he’s also filled with potential pitfalls that make him quite the project to fix into a major league pitcher.

De La Cruz has a funky and violent delivery, and overall I just don’t think he’s ever going to be a command guy. I don’t feel like spending time on fixing his command because it’s not going to happen and it’s more worth saying that if he can keep his walks at four or so per nine then we’re looking at a legit starting prospect. De La Cruz has to work on the changeup for him to stick in a rotation, because he struggles to put away left handed batters and relies more on defense to get outs in that regard. The changeup flashes signs of brilliance, but he’s not yet gained the consistency and needs to keep pushing and getting reps on the pitch to get it to the level it needs to be. I’m higher on the pitch than most, as while I think he’ll probably always spin it too much for it to have that elite fade away from his fastball I also think his jerky delivery gives him a level of deception that allows the changeup to play up to an average or better pitch at its best. With a fastball that can tick into the upper 90’s and a wipeout slider all it has to be is that and I’m confident he can get there if he works at it.

While De La Cruz doesn’t have particularly good command he’s never had egregious walk rates because he’s efficient, attacks in the zone, and has the spin on his fastball to get swings and misses and keep the ball out of the air. His command plays up due to is approach, and his stuff is good enough to beat MLB hitters in the zone.

Patrick Weigel

Patrick Weigel made this list for me but I honestly don’t know if he should be here. He’s 26, already on the 40 man, and playing for a team that desperately needs starters but he’s still not gotten a single opportunity. That says to me that he’s not trusted to ever pitch in that role, and I’m very curious as to the reason why.

Patrick Weigel’s number one “fix” is to just pitch a full, healthy season. He hasn’t reached 80 innings since 2016, so showing he’s capable of handling a full time role again is paramount. Beyond just actually playing I don’t think there’s much to do for Weigel. He likely is who he is at this point - a high velocity pitcher with decent breaking pitches and a changeup who has okay command. He needs to make the general improvements to be a better pitcher, but there’s nothing glaring in his profile to fix other than just....getting a chance.