One of the Atlanta Braves’ most troublesome opponents these days isn’t the team from Washington or Philadelphia or New York, but irony.
The Braves, who spent more than a decade using their first-round picks on pitchers and went through a significant rebuild with pitching prospects as primary targets, have a need in their starting rotation. In fact, for the third year in a row, a contending Braves team with pitching prospects coming out its proverbial ears entered the season looking for “that guy,” the frontline starter, the guy who would definitely get the ball in Game 1 of a playoff series.
Now, that sounds like something straight from Alanis Morissette herself.
A more specific deficit made itself apparent over the weekend, though, and it was perfectly encapsulated in a tweet by Twitter user @b_outliers.
Wow here’s a stat:
Number of pitches 96 mph or higher thrown to Braves’ hitters this year: 106
Number of pitches 96 mph or higher thrown by Braves’ pitchers this year: 9— Stephen (@b_outliers) July 28, 2020
Now, this disparity is certainly exacerbated by the fact that two of the starters the Braves have faced – and coincidentally, pitchers that handed the Braves losses – are two of the harder-throwing pitchers in baseball in Jacob deGrom and Tyler Glasnow. Both of those guys have fastballs that sit on an average of 97 miles per hour, as does Mets’ closer Edwin Diaz, and all of them pumped higher than that to strike out a combined 4,793 Braves over the first four games, or something like that.
But what also stretches out that gap is that the Braves don’t currently employ many guys with that type of velocity at the major league level. With the recent DFA of Mike Foltynewicz, Tuesday starter Kyle Wright – largely unproven at the MLB level – has the highest average fastball velocity among Braves’ starters at 95 mph. Of the guys with at least a full season of work in the majors, Max Fried leads the way at 94 mph.
Even in the bullpen, where opponents regularly send out a string of fireballers, the Braves are led in that regard by Chris Martin‘s 96 mph heat. None of the Braves experienced closer options – Will Smith, Mark Melancon or Shane Greene – throw faster than about 93 on average.
Of course, velocity isn’t everything. As Tom Glavine accurately expressed over the weekend, a well-placed 92-mph fastball can be just as effective as its faster counterpart over the long haul. Mike Soroka bore this out on Opening Day, fanning just three batters but tossing six innings of shutout ball while actually lasting longer in the game than deGrom did.
But as deGrom and Glasnow pitched a combined nine innings with just five baserunners, one run and 17 strikeouts against a usually formidable Braves lineup, it was hard not to see the advantages of throwing really, really hard.
The silver lining is that the Braves have some guys coming up through the pipeline that can provide that. Wright’s average fastball doesn’t quite reach what deGrom and Glasnow can throw out there, but he pumped up to 96 on Tuesday. In the minors, Tucker Davidson, Patrick Weigel and Kyle Muller have similar capabilities. In the MLB bullpen, the Braves have lefty AJ Minter who has shown the ability to reach into the upper 90s at times, and Chad Sobotka‘s 96-mph fastball came back to Atlanta when Folty made his exit.
With all those options seemingly nearing the major-league roster or already arriving, maybe we’ll look back in a couple years and find it ridiculous that we ever questioned the pitching in Atlanta. Maybe the right wave just hasn’t come up from Gwinnett yet.
Really, though, it was always a little crazy to expect that the prospects could answer that particular bell once the team turned the corner in 2018. There’s a reason Kevin Gausman was available so cheap at the trade deadline that year, and there’s a reason that Dallas Kuechel was still a free agent in June of last year.
And while there was a time when Cole Hamels was one of the top arms in all of baseball, for 2020, he was always someone that you’d just hope could slot in somewhere behind Soroka and probably Fried. Sure, his arm being completely unhealthy and rendering Hamels incapable of even starting the season in July is a worst-case scenario, but he’s also had an ERA under 3.50 just once since he was traded from the Phillies in 2015.
If the Braves are going to capitalize on this time period when they still have Freddie Freeman at a reasonable $22 million and Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies for $1 million or less each, they can’t fill every rotation hole with rookies and whatever veteran they could get on a bargain. The Braves will have to find a way to get the cash or prospect package together to land a true top-end arm. Not the Cole Hamels type, but the Gerrit Cole type.
For now, though, the two-time defending NL East champions have exactly two reliable starting pitchers. For now, the Braves are looking to finally get back to the NLCS without that signature overpowering postseason arm that the best teams always seem to have. And for now, we’re left to wonder if the team is run by a “Mr. Play It Safe” who’s afraid to fly.