The Atlanta Braves made the somewhat surprising move to bring up left handed pitching prospect Kyle Muller following an injury to Tucker Davidson, putting arguably the top pitching prospect in the system on the biggest stage. While this is likely just a temporary move out of necessity, it is interesting to know that they are willing to use him at this level. If he gets in a game, a good audition could set the stage for a more legitimate call up later in the season.
Muller is an intimidating presence on the mound, and has been since his high school days. At Jesuit College Preparatory School in Dallas, Texas, the 6’7, now 250 pound Muller dominated the Texas prep scene and won Gatorade’s National Player of the Year award for baseball along with a state championship. This success and Muller’s projectability led the Braves to take the young pitcher in the second round of the 2016 draft and receiving an over slot deal of $2.5 million to pry him away from a commitment to play for the Texas Longhorns.
Kyle Muller struck out two in the second inning but also allowed a run on two walks and two hits pic.twitter.com/H7LKsN0oFs— Atlanta Braves Farm System Updates (@BravesMILB) June 2, 2021
Muller’s pro career didn’t get off to the most flying start, as his stuff backed up due to mechanical issues, holding him back from full season ball in 2017 while fellow 2016 draftees Joey Wentz and Ian Anderson starred for the Rome Braves. Muller put up decent numbers for short season Danville with a 4.15 ERA and 49 strikeouts in 47 innings, and with an uptick in stuff he was promoted to Rome the following season. This is where Muller’s journey really began, as he had reclaimed his former status and vaulted through the system and reached Double-A by the end of the season. In total Muller pitched 139 ⅔ innings and had a 3.03 ERA with 129 strikeouts. This started getting Muller major attention and he was elected to go to the Arizona Fall League for the Braves. Muller struck out 15 batters in 10 ⅔ innings for Peoria, but the first signs of his control problems started to kick up as he also walked eight batters.
117 MPH FROZEN ROPE TO LEFT— Gwinnett Stripers (@GoStripers) May 22, 2021
Kyle Muller reminding us that pitchers can indeed hit.
Stripers: 2 Sounds: 1 pic.twitter.com/gJJxSVG1pa
2019 was the true breakout campaign for Muller as his stuff took another major step forward and he started showing top of the rotation potential albeit with a lot of red flags. The first came early in the year as Muller suffered a lower body injury that would cost him a handful of starts. He got back healthy and had a strong season for Double-A Mississippi, pitching 111 2/3 total innings with a 3.13 ERA and 120 strikeouts. The caveat to this was his walk rate, which skyrocketed this season and led to him walking 68 batters over the course of the season. After losing 2020 there was much hope for Muller going into 2021, as he was seen as the Braves next big pitching prospect and so far has somewhat performed to those standards.
Kyle Muller has his slider working again today. A perfect first inning with this strikeout pic.twitter.com/RpVyFHGFQp— Atlanta Braves Farm System Updates (@BravesMILB) June 2, 2021
2021 started off absolutely hideously for Muller. He allowed six earned runs and walked five batters in three innings for his first start of the season, and from there the command didn’t improve much over his next few. After four starts he looked far away from a chance to make the major leagues as he had 15 walks in 15 1/3 innings and had allowed thirteen runs. Then, the switch flipped and he began locating his fastball and breaking balls more effectively and his entire season changed. Muller dominated with eight strikeouts and no walks over five innings in his fifth start of the season, and he continued that work with 12 strikeouts and four walks allowed across 11 innings in his next two starts. He also hit a baseball 117mph, because I forgot to mention he also hit 15 home runs as a senior. It has been a great run of success and bred legitimate optimism for him as it’s the best he’s commanded his offspeed stuff as a professional.
Another strong start from Kyle Muller— Atlanta Braves Farm System Updates (@BravesMILB) June 10, 2021
6 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 6 K
His past three starts
16 IP, 8 H, 1.69 ERA, 4 BB, 20 K, 2.64 FIP pic.twitter.com/Tw5dDiXWdW
That brings us to now, and who Kyle Muller is at the moment. His stuff is clearly major league quality, as he throws an upper 90’s fastball with a steep downhill plane and huge extension for his primary offering. He has done a lot of work on his delivery, and this has led to huge dividends with his velocity albeit with limits to his command. The fastball can consistently force swings and misses, though his command is not nearly fine enough and gets hit when it drifts across the zone. Muller typically sits 94-95 later in starts as he dials back to both pitch deeper and get better command, and at that velocity he has much less room for error as the pitch can’t just blow hitters. His curveball and slider are both used consistently, though the big change for him of late has been the ability to consistently make competitive pitches with the slider to gets swings and misses. Both of those can be above average major league offerings, but when he can’t get them near the zone he struggles mightily with putting hitters away late in counts. His changeup is rarely used, and this along with his poor command makes it hard to see him as a starter long term. He has effort in his delivery and a huge body to control, so despite his elite athleticism he really struggles to find any consistency with his delivery. If you bank on that athleticism there is definitely starter upside even with the poor changeup, but it’s a really narrow profile to get him there. If not, a lefty with an upper 90’s fastball and two MLB quality breaking balls is a desirable late inning arm, assuming the command stays consistent enough that he doesn’t consistently walk himself into trouble and hang offspeed stuff.
Kyle Muller is pitching out of his mind— Atlanta Braves Farm System Updates (@BravesMILB) May 27, 2021
2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 5 K pic.twitter.com/yjzA5gdMNw
I’ll just say it right now, I do not think Kyle Muller will throw a pitch at the major league level. He was mostly brought up for the same reason Jasseel de la Cruz has been brought up in the past, because the Braves burned all their long relief arms and needed an emergency pitcher. It was Muller’s turn in rotation today, and he is on the 40 man roster, so he was the obvious choice when Davidson went down. If Ian Anderson struggles and has to leave the start early you may see Muller, but any situation he does appear is probably not good news for the Braves. I like what I’ve seen from Muller the last three starts, but he’s just not ready and especially not to start at the MLB level. He already struggles to get outs at Triple-A, with his strikeout rate falling from 38.1% to 19.1% the second time through the order.
Kyle Muller— Atlanta Braves Farm System Updates (@BravesMILB) June 12, 2021
38.1% K, 14.3% BB, 2 HR, 3.80 FIP
19.05% K, 11.1% BB, 4 HR, 7.05 FIP
With that, the Braves aren’t going to rush him to the major leagues, and it’s the wrong time to move him to the bullpen because he still ultimately does have the potential to be an MLB starter. If they make a long term move it would be De La Cruz, who is more MLB ready and has a lower probability of starting. I still project Muller as a reliever long term, and he could be a very good one at that, but if there’s even a chance he can start he needs to continue starting. All of that said, I’m happy for Muller and if he does get an opportunity he’d an exciting talent with an explosive fastball and a ton of potential. If the last three starts are real he’s also ready to be a reliever at the MLB level, although I still think there’s too much potential there to make that move now. Also, maybe he gets a pinch hit appearance because he absolutely can put one in the seats if he makes contact. That would be fun. All in all, it will be a short call up, but I’m happy for him and will be tuning in closely if he does get in the game.