Atlanta Braves’ pitching prospect Joey Estes had a monster breakout in 2021. He was the ace of the Augusta GreenJackets’ staff and led Low-A East in three categories to win a pitching triple crown of sorts. Should his success carry over into 2022, Estes showed he can be in the conversation as one of the top pitching prospects in the system.
Midseason report card: Estes came in at No. 14 on the Talking Chop Midseason Top-30 list. That was a 12-spot jump from his preseason ranking. By season’s end, several of us felt that No. 14 was too low.
2021 stats: 3-6, 2.91 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, .184 BAA, 127 strikeouts and 29 walks in 99 innings
What we saw in 2021: What a season for the 2019 16th-round MLB draft pick. Not only did Estes lead Low-A East in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts, he was vastly superior to any of the next closest pitchers in the league.
Estes has a real three-pitch mix — with a curve he seldomly threw in — all of which improved in 2021. His fastball, as with most Braves’ pitching prospects this year, saw an uptick in velocity, topping out at 96-97 mph but sitting regularly around 93. His slider was the wipeout pitch and truly made Low-A hitters look foolish at times. The changeup, which was a question mark coming into the season, flashed plus at times but certainly proved to be a serviceable pitch overall.
This improvement in a third pitch, albeit still in need of some fine-tuning, is what changed the narrative on Estes. The righty had all but five professional appearances in 2019, and there was a lot to take into consideration. He was a mere 17 years of age and at 6’2, 190, most labeled him a potential reliever essentially right out of the gate. Striking out eight and walking seven in 10 Rookie ball innings didn’t help change the conversation.
This season did. His command greatly improved, walking just 2.6 per nine and he struck out hitters at a sensational 32% rate. Though his season ended on the injured list, he showed the ability on multiple occasions that he can go deep into ball games, holding his velocity relatively well and not seeing his command falter. This was clearly evident in a mid-August complete game in which he struck out 14 and walked none.
What the future holds: While the numbers suggested that Estes merited a promotion, he spent the entirety of 2021 in Augusta. Don’t look too deep into this. The Braves were aggressive with pitchers in their system this year, but for the most part, they were advanced college arms. Estes was in his age-19 season (he turned 20 in October), coming off a year away.
There is no reason to expect a regression in 2022. Unfortunately, there is also a logjam of fine pitching prospects, with names like Spencer Strider, Bryce Elder, Jared Shuster and Freddy Tarnok ahead of him that allow the Braves to be patient with his development... although they have rarely shown patience once a pitcher hits High-A under the current regime. His midseason ranking of 14 improved by season’s end, and if he can keep up the improvements at the next level, expect Estes to be a household name by midseason.