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Is AJ Minter back to his 2017-2018 form?

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AJ Minter has started the season well, but he is still under 10 innings pitched in 2020. Is this small sample enough to say he has bounced back from a rough 2019?

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins
AJ Minter
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Despite being “only a reliever,” AJ Minter has always had a close eye on his performance from the fan base. That could be because he was a somewhat controversial draft pick in 2015, an at the time injured, relief only pitcher with a short track record of pre-draft success who came off the board with the 75th overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft - a competitive balance pick the Braves acquired in a trade.

Passing up the likes of Brandon Lowe and Jordan Hicks among others happened because the Braves fell in love with Minter. In an interview from the night of the draft, now former scouting director Brian Bridges raved about him. Bridges pointed out that despite the injury and only four college starts, Minter was sitting mid to upper 90’s, holding his velocity, and throwing strikes. This in addition to his success the previous summer pitching in relief with USA Baseball that started to earn Minter some attention.

Minter didn’t pitch until 2016 in pro ball because of the injury, but dominated over three levels that year while making it up to Double-A. Then, a minor injury to start 2017 kept him from making his big league debut until late in the year, but he was dominant in 15 late season big league innings.

Minter came into 2018 ranked by Talking Chop as one of the Braves Top 30 prospects which was a massive accomplishment considering how loaded the system was then, the fact he was a pure reliever, and the fact he has a concerning injury history. Once the year got started, he didn’t disappoint not only spending the entire year in the big leagues, but picking up 15 saves along the way.

Just when it looked like Minter would never see the minors again as he established himself among the best young relievers in baseball, another minor injury to start the year in 2019 slowed him down. When Minter returned he just wasn’t the same guy, and he actually found himself optioned to the minors to try to figure things out.

Unfortunately for Minter, he never got things going last year, but the long offseason this year gave him plenty of time to heal up and improve upon his 2019.

It’s safe to say Minter has improved from last year, however we are looking at a sample size of just 9.2 innings over 10 games. That makes his great stat line limited in its use for determining if the 2017/2018 Minter is truly back, or if this is just a short sample fluke...but with his combination of stuff, eye test, data, and past results/pedigree, I do feel like we can make some assumptions already.

Pitch Usage

In 2017 and again in 2018, Minter was a two pitch guy, throwing his four seam fastball and cutter for all but 32 pitches combined. Those 32 other pitches were changeups, all from 2018, and accounted for just 3.1% of his pitches that year. It is worth noting as well that the four seamer was the most used pitch, being used 51.4% of the time to 48.6% cutter use in 2017, and 48.5% to 48.3% in 2018.

We saw a big change in Minter in 2019, as he started to use the change more regularly and started to prefer the cutter over the fastball. The cutter was used 44.4% of the time, in line with his previous use though slightly down. His fastball use dropped considerably to 39.1% of his pitches, while the change was used in 16.2% of his pitches.

The pitches he has thrown this year are actually in line with what we saw last year, and include a slight increase in his changeup use yet again. The cutter is at 43.3% use, to 38.2% for the fastball, and the change is at 18.5%.

That increased changeup use can be attributed to working with Josh Tomlin, who Minter credits with helping improve the pitch. He has not only improved the quality and the usage rate, but has been more comfortable mixing it in to hitters from either side in 2020. In 2018, just 1 of 32 changeups came to lefties or just 3.1%. In 2019 10 of 95 changeups were to lefties, or 10.5%. This year he has thrown 6 of 29 changeups to lefties, or 20.7%.

Pitch Velocity

This isn’t really much of a factor, but I wanted to point it out anyway for reasons I will get into.

After a fastball velocity of 96.1 MPH in 2017, Minter set a career high of 96.6 MPH in 2018, and has gone down since then each year. Last year it was 96.0 MPH, and this year it is 95.6.

The reason I say that isn’t concerning is watching him on Tuesday night showed the higher velocity is still there, and his average velocity actually saw a small increase following the game. It isn’t out of the question Minter is still getting up to full strength at the start of the season following a shortened spring. That could be a scary thought if he can add a little more velocity.

The cutter however is down quite a bit in velocity, going from 90.0 to 91.6 to 91.5 MPH in his first three years, but is at just 88.3 MPH this year.

Meanwhile the changeup has decreased in velocity this year- actually a positive note as it creates more separation between the fastball and change. It was at 86.2 and 86.1 the last two years, and is down to 85.1 MPH- more than 10 MPH off the fastball velocity.

Pitch Break

Part of what has made the cutter a dominant pitch for Minter this year is the break to it. He has added more vertical drop to it, going from 25.9 inches and 25.2 inches the past two years to 29.8 inches of vertical drop.

The pitch is breaking more vertically than it has in the past while the velocity is slightly down and the spin rate isn’t far off. This leads to hitters seeing it differently and now has produced a great triple slash line against of .188/.182/.313. The vertical break isn’t the only reason, but it is contributing.

Command

Minter is commanding the ball at a career best rate. His 1.9 BB/9 is the second best mark of his career, to 1.2 in 2017- a major improvement from the 3.2 in 2018 and last year’s 7.1. However that only tells part of the story.

Minter has thrown a career best 54.8% of his pitches in the zone, and had a previous career high of 50.6% back in 2017. He is also throwing a career high 66.7% of his first pitches for strikes- way above the 58.4 career mark he has.

Batted Ball Data

Since Minter is throwing more strikes, we are seeing a career high swing percentage against him, 56.7%, up from his 50.6% career mark.

With a higher swing rate and more pitches in the zone, his swing and miss rate is down to a career low 29.2%- which is still well above the MLB average of 24.4%.

This isn’t concerning as much as it shows an evolution. Minter isn’t a guy who has to rely on the strikeout now, as he can also mix in pitching to contact.

The results of the balls in play says a lot. A very high ground ball rate of 58.3%, an insanely low fly ball rate of just 4.2%, a 29.2% line drive rate that is right around his career mark, along with an 8.7% pop up rate.

Where the balls are going tells even more, as just 12.5% are going opposite field- less than half the MLB average, and a sign guys aren’t making great contact as they aren’t putting the ball in the air to the opposite field. A crazy 62.5% straight up the middle rate is where most of Minter’s batted balls are going- an area the Braves would love to see the ball hit.

Final Thoughts

This is the AJ Minter the Braves drafted, and a potential future closer. He has evolved into a strike throwing reliever who can reach back and get a strikeout or force weak contact up the middle. And he does this while keeping hitters off balance with an improved third pitch that he is mixing in more regularly.

It is going to be fun to watch Minter the rest of the year to see him continue pitching this way, and it isn’t out of the question than he makes additional progress this winter to evolve even more for the 2021 season.