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2021 Braves player review: Touki Toussant

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It was another muddled season for the prospect right-hander

Milwaukee Brewers v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

A high-profile prospect added via trade early in the rebuild, Touki Toussaint has yet to establish himself at the major league level, and didn’t do much with the chances he got in 2021.

How Acquired

Touki Toussaint was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first round of the 2014 draft out of Coral Springs Christian Academy (Florida). The Braves acquired Toussaint and pitcher Bronson Arroyo from the Diamondbacks for utilityman Phil Gosselin on June 20, 2015. The trade was a dump of the injured Arroyo’s remaining salary to the Braves in the lesser of two notorious trades the two organizations made early in the Braves rebuild.

Arroyo was traded the following month in the monstrous three-team trade between the Braves, Dodgers and Marlins that included a dozen players – including Braves pitcher Alex Wood and then top-prospect infielder Jose Peraza – and a Competitive Balance Round A pick coming to Atlanta – for a deal that “netted” the Braves Hector Olivera. Olivera, who had been a high-profile signing by the Dodgers after defecting from Cuba, only played 30 games for Atlanta before domestic violence issues resulted in a dump of his salary to Padres for aging outfielder Matt Kemp.

Toussaint, after making Major League debut as a 22-year-old in 2018, has shuttled back and forth between Atlanta and its minor league system (and alternate site in 2020).

Expectations

As a prospect, Toussaint was never a top-of-the-list name, but still placed within various Top 100 compilations. In 2019, Fangraphs had him positioned as the fourth-highest-ranked pitcher in the Atlanta organization and 57th overall. His curveball was his most notable pitch, with an excellent 65 scouting grade in 2019. Although his fastball was slightly above average, the challenge throughout his development has been command, with a below-average 40 rating in 2019 with limited upside.

As a starter in the minors - and splitting time between the rotation and bullpen for Atlanta - Toussaint has posted strong strikeout rates. His issues are more of the control and command variety, as he hasn’t had a full season with a single-digit walk rate since 2015.

While the Braves have continued to try to develop him as a starter, only 11 of his 38 major league appearances for Atlanta came as a starter between 2018 and 2020. During that time, the Braves have cycled through a number of starting pitching prospects, many of whom are no longer in the organization (Bryce Wilson, Kolby Allard, Luiz Gohara, Matt Wisler, for instance). While Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Ian Anderson established themselves as starters, Toussaint and the similarly control-lacking Sean Newcomb have continued to hold on to 40-man roster spots despite having their prospect status wane.

Heading into 2021 Spring Training, Toussaint was positioned to vie for a spot in Atlanta’s rotation, or at least make the roster as a reliever. However, after pitching well enough to likely earn a spot in the bullpen through most of Spring Training, Toussaint was placed on the 60-day IL on March 27, 2021 with a right shoulder strain. The injury delayed the start of his season until June, when he began a rehabilitation assignment with the Braves’ affiliate in Rome. Even before the injury, it’s not really clear whether he was expected to be a big part of the roster — he entered the season as below replacement by fWAR across 95 career innings, with some real bad stats across the board. Further, his best short stint was in 2018, with substantial struggles afterwards.

2021 Season Results

After beginning his rehab in Rome, Toussaint made a pit-stop at Double-A Mississippi before making a handful of appearances at Triple-A Gwinnett. In total, he made six starts across the three minor league levels. His final two starts for Gwinnett were strong, allowing only two earned runs across 12 innings while striking out 18 and walking only four batters.

Toussaint made his season debut for Atlanta on July 20 against the Padres with a stellar start in which he pitched 6 23 innings, allowing only a single earned run, his best start of his career, results-wise. He quickly topped that with his next start against the Phillies in Philadelphia, as he struck out 10 without walking a batter but took the loss despite only allowing one run.

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies
Toussaint struck out 10 and walked none in his second start of the 2021 season in Philadelphia on June 25, 2021
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Staying in the rotation until late August, Toussaint mixed a clunker of a start with average-results ones (that had mostly horrid peripherals) before things caught up with him during his final three starts in early September. In those three outings, he allowed five earned runs while walking seven and striking out eight in ten total innings. His start against the Rockies on September 14 was his last appearance of the season for Atlanta, as he was placed on the bereavement list on September 22 due to the passing of his father, and then optioned down upon his return.

In total, Toussaint had his third consecutive negative-fWAR campaign in 2021, putting up an -0.2 mark. His 105 ERA- was livable, but every peripheral and ERA estimator suggested something more dire, although his xFIP- was a okay-ish 108. Had he not been obliterated by the home run ball, his line would’ve looked a lot better, but a 23.4 percent HR/FB rate makes most things look punishing.

What went right? / What went wrong?

The shoulder injury he suffered through at the end of Spring Training was unfortunate for Toussaint. When he returned, the 10 starts he made across a two-month period showcased his tantalizing upside but also his array of struggles with command, pitch shape, and other things.

All-in-all, the ERA and xFIP were fine, though he got there with relatively few strikeouts (22.2 percent, a career low for a major league season for him). He did set a career-best walk rate at just a hair over 10 percent, but that’s still too high a walk rate to stomach in most cases, even in this day and age. Moreover, Toussaint was absolutely obliterated when hitters made contact (which was fairly often) — he had some of the worst contact management stats in the majors.

One of the most notable changes in Toussaint’s pitch mix for 2021 was the near-abandonment of his four-seam fastball (7.7 percent usage, compared to 23-25 percent in 2018-2019 and 36 percent in 2020) with a dramatic increase in sinker usage (43.9 percent, after year-over-year declines the past two seasons). For the season, the velocity of both pitches was near 93 mph, with his fastball at a career low 93.2 but his sinker at a career high 92.9 mph. The other two pitches – his notorious curve and his splitter saw similar usage to his historical numbers with Atlanta but with slight upticks in velocity.

While Toussaint made improvement staying in the strike zone, he didn’t miss many bats, and didn’t get many chases with the new, sinker-first version of his arsenal. The curveball and splitter were quite good, but that didn’t matter when his sinker was teed off on to the tune of a .424 xwOBA-against. There’s probably a version of him out there that just uses those pitches without trying to force some kind of fastball into the fray, but we haven’t really seen it yet.

Whatever the reason, Toussaint’s horrible last three starts really tarnished what he had done previously. Before that point, he had a 84/116/100 ERA-/FIP-/xFIP- line, which isn’t great in terms of xFIP, but livable overall. He was blown out twice by the Rockies and once by the Nationals after that, and ended up with 0.4 bWAR but -0.2 fWAR on the season.

Road to the Title

Toussaint was not rostered during the playoffs. He finished the season with negative WPA and cWPA. Still, those first two starts were a beauty, giving him a bunch of WPA and a bit of cWPA that he unfortunately eroded. For a brief moment though, Braves fans were given a glimpse, even if they were left wondering what might have been by the middle of September.

2022 Outlook

Thus far in his career, the affable Toussaint has been a slightly below-replacement pitcher across 145 innings. As oft-opined, 2022 may be the season that the Braves finally end their attempt to utilize Toussaint as a starting pitcher and give him an opportunity to earn a role in the bullpen.

A bullpen/swingman role is where Steamer projects Toussaint in 2022, with 0.4 fWAR across 54 games (all but two in relief).

Since he won’t turn 26 until June 2022, Toussaint’s youth and team control through the 2026 season (barring a change in baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement) will likely provide him another opportunity to prove his ability to stick on the 26-man roster. An effective transition to a bullpen role in 2022 could be important for the franchise, given that Luke Jackson will be a free agent after the 2022 season and Will Smith has only an option for 2023. The door appears open for Toussaint in 2022, given that Chris Martin and Jesse Chavez are free agents, and pre-lockout signing Kirby Yates will likely miss most of the season as he recovers from elbow surgery.

However, if Toussaint struggles during 2022 Spring Training or regular season, the team could look to move on. One day, the control/command issues and the inability to find a workable fastball may be enough to wave goodbye.