Huascar Ynoa was one of the few bright spots for the Braves in April and May, but an unfortunate moment of frustration during a start in Milwaukee derailed his season. And despite returning in time for the playoff push and eventual postseason roster, Ynoa failed to make much of an impact following his early season fireworks.
Ynoa has been with the Braves’ organization since mid-2017. He came over in a deal with the Minnesota Twins in exchange for Jaime Garcia at the Trade Deadline. Considered very raw at the time, Ynoa quickly rose through the minor league levels and debuted with the Braves in 2019.
Expectations and Projections
Ynoa came into the 2021 campaign as a wild card for the Braves. While he had yet to find much success at the big league level, his big fastball and wipeout slider were enough to envision some kind of role for the 23-year-old righty. He’d been hammered in the majors in 2019 and 2020, but that constituted fewer than 30 innings. His slider showed a lot of effectiveness in 2020, and he didn’t shy away from using it.
The projection systems saw him as a fringy contributor, mostly working in a relief capacity, and racking up under half a win. In some ways, that was kind of novel considering that Ynoa came into the season with a career 160 ERA-/116 FIP-/118 xFIP-, but he quickly blew past all of that with his enhanced 2021 performance.
2021 Season results
It ended up being a tale of two seasons for Ynoa. As the Braves floundered and fell victim to the injury bug during the opening weeks of the season, Ynoa was one of the few bright spots in multiple ways. He made eight starts during the six weeks of the season and turned in a 3.02 ERA, 3.77 FIP and 3.16 xFIP, guided by a strong 28 percent strikeout rate while limiting walks and homers. It seemed a breakout season was upon us. And not only was he shining on the mound, but he contributed with home runs in back-to-back starts, including a grand slam in Washington.
Unfortunately, it all went downhill from the middle of May. Ynoa punched a wall in Milwaukee on May 16 following a frustrating performance (only his second bad start of the year, and one that had a fine 3.06 xFIP but saw him be victimized by the biggest wOBA-xwOBA gap he’d had to date, despite a poor .400+ xwOBA-against) and broke his hand. He missed three months and did not return to the Braves until August 17. While there were moments of encouragement during the final six weeks of the season, Ynoa’s results weren’t as pleasing as his first eight starts, as he tallied a less-effective with a 5.05 ERA across 46 innings. Still, it wasn’t entirely his fault, as his FIP was 4.08 and his xFIP was 3.64 across those outings. Moreover, the place where Ynoa got stung all season was the third time through the order — his two-pitch mix yielded a very strong 3.44 FIP / 2.92 xFIP through the first 18 batters, but a horrid 6.86 FIP / 6.31 xFIP after that. After he returned, those numbers ballooned to 9.35 / 7.25, which helps to explain why his second half looked as bad as it did.
Overall, Ynoa compiled 1.4 fWAR in 91 innings on the season, with a 94 ERA-/93 FIP-/80 xFIP- line that shows a lot of promise for the future. Despite the differential results, he compiled almost as much fWAR after his return (0.6 in nine starts) as he did before he hurt his hand (0.8 in eight starts).
What went right? / What went wrong?
Thanks to a changed arm slot and overall pitch refinement, including a much better sense of where to throw his fastball, Ynoa raised everything about his profile in the span of about eight major league starts. But for a start where the Cubs shelled him, pretty much everything went right... until that fateful start in Milwaukee, and then the very poor results when Ynoa returned and was hung out to dry the third time through the order.
Pitch-wise, Ynoa’s slider was devastating, holding opposing batters to a .240 xwOBA while garnering swings nearly 40 percent of the time it was swung at. Ynoa’s changeup also did very well, but he rarely threw it, and there was no command of it — it just kind of went. The fastball, though, was mostly awful. It has good shape, pairs well with the slider, and is thrown really hard (averaging 96.5 mph)... but the command of it was terrible and hitters probably got away with just hoping it was the fastball and not the slider, given that they had a 50-50 chance of being right.
Another thing that went not-so-right for Ynoa was that despite grabbing a spot on both the NLDS and NLCS rosters, he didn’t really do anything for the Braves in the playoffs.
Road to the Title
Ynoa made just one playoff appearance, a one-inning stint in Game 4 of the NLDS. It went really terribly. The Braves had just tied the game in the bottom of the fourth on Eddie Rosario’s two-out, two-run single. Ynoa came on in the fifth, and after a leadoff single and a strikeout, gave up a two-run homer to Rowdy Tellez. A walk, a flyout, and a strikeout ended the inning, and the Braves immediately tied the game in the bottom of the inning, but still, it was a disappointing showing for a guy who chipped in a lot in the regular season.
Nonetheless, Ynoa was penciled in to start Game 4 of the NLCS, but shoulder inflammation during pregame warm ups ended his season.
That meant he ended his season with negative cWPA in the postseason, and perhaps unexpectedly, negative cWPA in the regular season as well, despite positive WPA for the season (go figure, a result of his third-time-through-the-order woes after he returned from injury). His single best cWPA outing wasn’t even his most dominating of the season — just a pedestrian-for-him 5 1⁄3 scoreless frames against the Marlins in an eventual 2-0 win.
As for his best game overall? There are a lot to choose from, but one that stands out was his first start of the year, going toe-to-toe with Stephen Strasburg in a seven-inning game. What a way to kick off an unfortunately-uninterrupted breakout:
Outlook for 2022
Assuming he is able to put his shoulder issues behind him, Ynoa figures to be in the mix as the Braves’ fifth starter or as a longer-stint bullpen arm, depending on how the offseason shakes out. He may also be a trade candidate as other teams are likely enamored with his fastball-slider combination, provided the Braves want to sell kinda-high on a guy that needs to be deployed somewhat carefully to be effective.
It’s still early, but Steamer currently projects Ynoa for 2 WAR in just 124 innings of work (23 starts), which is quite a deserved rocketing up the value charts for a guy who was a fringy roster addition coming into 2021.