A.J. Minter had a weird regular season for Atlanta, but came up big as a part of the Night Shift in the playoffs. In the end, as the Braves won a title, you could say he made good on the Braves’ drafting him relatively high for a reliever many moons ago. A fun trivia question in future years will be, “Which reliever led the 2021 World Series Champion Atlanta Braves in fWAR during the season,” and the answer will not be Tyler Matzek, or Luke Jackson, or even Jesse Chavez. The answer, of course, is A.J. Minter, even though he was demoted to Triple-A in the middle of the season.
AJ Minter was drafted by the Detroit Tigers out of high school in the 38th round of the 2012 draft, but opted to attend Texas A&M instead of signing. In College Station, Minter spent his first two years as a reliever, but the Aggies tried him as a starter in his junior season, which ended with a need for Tommy John Surgery, and a potential relief-only prospect profile. With that being said, the talent was clear... clear enough that some analysts may have had him as a first-round-type prospect before the surgery. The Braves apparently felt tantalized enough to draft Minter in the second round of the 2015 draft, with a competitive balance pick, despite the serious reliever risk.
It’s safe to say that expectations were quite high for Minter coming into the season, and for good reason. Minter got nothing short of brilliant results in 2020 (0.83 ERA, 2.82 FIP, 3.74 xFIP, 2.92 xERA, 0.4 fWAR in 21 2⁄3 innings), with some big playoff moments to go with his strong regular season, and had the prospect pedigree to make it all seem real. The peripheral stats didn’t quite back up his 2020 ERA, but still showed an extremely good reliever (64 FIP-, 84 xFIP-). With all of this being said, Minter had suffered from inconsistency before in his career and relievers in general are not a particularly stable commodity.
2021 season stats
Regular Season: 61 G, 52.1 IP, 9.80 K/9, 3.44 BB/9, 0.34 HR/9, 61.1% LOB%, 45.0% GB%, 4.2% HR/FB, 3.78 ERA, 3.01 xERA, 2.69 FIP, 3.81 xFIP, 1.3 fWAR
Postseason: 8 G, 12.0 IP, 13.50 K/9, 3.00 BB/9, 0.00 HR/9, 69.2% LOB%, 38.5% GB%, 0.0% HR/FB, 3.00 ERA, 1.42 FIP, 2.89 xFIP
Minter had a good season by ERA estimators across the board, with his xERA (88th percentile) and FIP being particularly great. Still, he managed to get himself sent down to the minors in July, despite having middling ERA and xFIP along with a legitimately great FIP... even though his pitching line at that point was 113 ERA- / 73 FIP- / 100 xFIP-, and a .282 xwOBA-against. Basically, Minter was punished for apparently A) the defense behind him, which led to a .324 wOBA-against despite the .282 xwOBA-against and B) the fact that the defensive and ball-in-play shenanigans tended to happen in key spots, as he racked up -0.90 WPA before this demotion. He still had 18 shutdowns to 13 meltdowns before he was sent down, so it wasn’t some kind of disaster, but apparently that’s what happens when you have options. Minter had more fWAR than every Braves reliever but Will Smith when he was demoted, but he did have the second-worst WPA (behind just Jacob Webb). Baseball is cruel sometimes.
Minter stayed in Gwinnett for about four weeks before returning to the majors. After coming back up, Minter’s FIP and xFIP were each roughly 0.5 lower than before he went down, while his ERA was a full run lower, but obviously the sample sizes are too small to say anything tremendously meaningful about these stats. The ball-in-play deities smiled on him, too, as he allowed just a .241 xwOBA after his return, but benefited to the tune of a .197 wOBA-against. He didn’t really see high leverage after his return, with just three shutdowns to one meltdown, but at least the WPA was pretty positive. He led the team in reliever fWAR after his return, which is how he finished first for the season, given Will Smith’s homer problems down the stretch.
What went right? What went wrong?
Immediately before being demoted, Minter had two consecutive outings with sub-optimal results prior to being sent down, both against the Rays. With that being said, it was two appearances, against a very good team, and in a season during which he had largely been good, so it still seemed a bit strange to send him down. As all relievers do, he had a few rough outings sprinkled in throughout the season both before and after the demotion, but those were probably Minter’s two worst consecutive performances of the season. Minter only allowed earned runs in roughly 26 percent of his performances during the regular season, and had another run of suppressing homers (or getting very fortunate on fly balls, again).
If you chalk the demotion, the ball-in-play stuff, the resulting bad WPA, and so on, all up to general baseball injustice, mostly everything else went right, even if the demotion stung. Minter’s pitch mix remained pretty devastating, even if there were some weird pitch placements, as he did a better job elevating his fastball, and leaned heavily on his cutter/slider while mixing in a very effective changeup.
Road to the Title: Night Shift
In the postseason, Minter generally dominated. He was one of the four pitchers that Brian Snitker clearly trusted out of the bullpen above all others, i.e., the Tyler Matzek-monikered “Night Shift”, and justifiably so. In the 2021 postseason, Minter only allowed 8 hits, 4 walks, and 4 runs (three of which came in one appearance in World Series Game 5) over 12 postseason innings, most of which came in high leverage spots.
By nature of the way he was used, nearly every postseason appearance by Minter was a big spot and he dominated almost every outing. The one big blemish was that fateful World Series game 5 appearance in which he gave up three runs and gave Houston the lead and ultimately the game.
Arguably Minter’s biggest performance of the postseason was also weirdly the only other one in which he gave up a run. In Game 1 of the World Series, everything seemed to be going to plan, with the Braves taking an early lead by scoring five runs in the first three innings. The problem, however, was that Charlie Morton broke his leg and had to exit the game (though only after recording three outs on said broken leg, including two strikeouts, one of which was on former MVP Jose Altuve, lest we forget). The Braves suddenly had to cover 6 2⁄3 innings against the best offense in baseball while both maintaining the lead and not destroying the bullpen for the remaining games in the series. Minter got the call and covered 2 2⁄3 innings with three strikeouts, although he did allow a single run. Covering those innings with that quality in that spot was just tremendous for Atlanta. Minter also had a clean inning of work in Game 3 with two strikeouts, along with some big performances earlier in the playoffs, including, most notably, two innings with four strikeouts in NLCS Game 6 when the Braves finally beat the Dodgers to advance in the playoffs.
The net result was that Minter didn’t finish the season with positive WPA or cWPA, but both were positive for him in the postseason. His clean inning in World Series Game 3 was his highest cWPA-wise. As for his highest WPA on the season, it came in a regular season game against the Dodgers, where he entered in the seventh with a two-run lead, two on, and none out in relief of Max Fried, and retired Will Smith, Gavin Lux, and Max Muncy on weak fly balls to escape the jam in a game the Braves ultimately won.
A.J. Minter is eligible for salary arbitration in 2022, pending whatever is agreed upon in the upcoming CBA negotiations. MLB Trade Rumors projects a $2.1 million salary for the left-hander The entire Night Shift is under contract and will presumably return to Atlanta in 2022, barring a surprising trade or non-tender. Minter’s specific role can be safely assumed to be a high-leverage firefighter out of the bullpen and it can potentially be expected that he will be somewhere in the range of above average to very good, which he’s achieved in each of his major league seasons but his problematic 2019.