This is part 2 of 6 in our “Where Do We Go From Here” series. For those that need to catch up, you can find Part 1 here.
Into the blue again
This is not a tale of endings, but of beginnings. No season in which the Braves came within ten outs of a pennant — in which the ravages of a global pandemic threatened to cancel the season altogether — can truly be considered a failure. And no Braves pitching staff on which every member was under the age of 30 and whose top performers were under the age of 27 can fail to inspire hope for the future.
Letting the days go by
However, yes: it was the playoffs, and the Braves lost. After securing their third straight division title, fourth in eight years, and 18th in 29 seasons, the Braves advanced to face their longstanding foe: themselves. And, just like Cecil at the top of Mt. Ordeals in Final Fantasy IV — yep, that’s what I’m going with, but please feel free to replace this image in your own mind with the Spider-Man pointing at himself meme — they struggled to overcome the darkness within.
Call it a collective failure. Max Fried pitched brilliantly in Game Six but the first-inning runs he allowed were enough for the margin of victory; Ian Anderson pitched brilliantly all season but struggled to command his pitches in the Division Series and was lucky only to have given up two runs in seven total innings, as he also yielded seven walks in those frames; Kyle Wright gave up a single, two doubles, two homers, and two walks in the space of nine batters, recording only two outs, in what will be for him either a moment on the Road to Damascus, or a waystation on the highway out of Atlanta.
Really, though, the pitching was fine. The Braves won the games in which they scored more than four runs, and lost the games in which they scored fewer than four runs, and they cost themselves enormously on the basepaths. Ronald Acuna was clearly less than 100%, and he hit .167. On balance, I think the offense is more culpable for the loss than the pitching, as much as we’d like to blame Kyle Wright and Will Smith for everything.
Well… how did we get here?
Altogether the Braves received brilliant work from Fried, Tyler Matzek, A.J. Minter, and, most surprisingly of all, Bryse Wilson. Minter was credited with a “Start” for his effort in Game Five, but really, he was a genuine pioneer: to my knowledge, it was the first time the Braves had ever employed something close to a true “opener” strategy, pitching a late-inning reliever at the start of the game to turn over the lineup once.
(As it happened, it was less of an “Opener” game and more of a true “Bullpen” game, as Minter was so dominant that he went three innings. The classic “Opener” game is one in which the opener would pitch an inning then yield to a “Bulk” guy who would follow him by pitching long relief effectively as though he were the starter; Minter effectively started the game by pitching long relief.)
Perhaps Minter will never “start” another game, but I hope the Braves are willing to stick with openers and bullpen games, as I think that’s the best way to work in a young pitcher with stamina issues who needs to build confidence, like Kyle Wright. (Or Huascar Ynoa, or Tucker Davidson, or Patrick Weigel, or, Game Four notwithstanding, Bryse Wilson.)
The 2020 Braves were a classic Toronto-era Alex Anthopoulos team: tons of offense, not enough starting pitching. The seven-game NLCS with no off days was a hell of a grind, but imagine if it had happened after a five-month regular season instead of a two-month regular season: our guys looked exhausted despite playing 100 fewer games than normal.
The most obvious optimistic conclusions to draw are probably right: Max Fried is one of the best starters in baseball, effective immediately. A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek are two monster power lefties. Mike Soroka and Ian Anderson and Bryse Wilson were 22 this year, and they’ll be 23 next year. That’s a lot. It’s almost enough.
How do we work this?
You don’t strictly need a five-man rotation in modern baseball. In recent years, there have been four-man rotations and six-man rotations as well as whatever the heck they have in Tampa. And, obviously, a five-man rotation is often just a polite fiction for four guys you like plus a revolving door. But this year the Braves had nowhere near four guys they liked. They had Max Fried. And, eventually, Ian Anderson.
Basically, the pitching staff was a bunch of stiffs who were lucky Marcell Ozuna was on their team. Specifically:
The Braves made sixty starts during the regular season: 17 by Fried and Anderson, and 43 by everyone else. For those of you with heart conditions, or who are with young and impressionable children, we ask that you turn around in your seats.
Now, if you’re like me, you might think, “Pee-yew! That’s as bad as 2008, when Jo-Jo Reyes stank up the joint!” Here’s the thing: no, it wasn’t.
Jo-Jo Reyes and his gaspail gang were way less crappy.
|Hudson/ Jurrjens/ Campillo||3.61||3.85||1.27||0.74||6.1/2.72|
(“Everyone else” actually included five very good Smoltz starts; Smoltz’s 2008 injury was very comparable to Soroka’s 2020 injury, as both really kneecapped the team and overnight turned a seeming adequacy to a terrifying weakness.)
Here comes the twister
The Braves have two Number One starters, Max Fried and Mike Soroka.
Mike Soroka turned twenty-three years old the day after he tore his Achilles and ended his season.
The previous year would have been his senior year of college if he hadn’t declared for the draft out of high school; instead he was an All-Star, finished second in the Rookie of the Year vote to Pete Alonso and his 53 home runs, and finished sixth in the Cy Young vote, the youngest pitcher to receive a vote.
(The second-youngest, fourth-place Jack Flaherty, was born two years earlier.)
His season-ending injury was one of the first real setbacks of his professional career, notwithstanding the shoulder soreness that shortened his 2018 season. A first-round draftee in 2015, he was Baseball America’s #48 prospect going into 2017, their #27 prospect going into 2018 (when he had an impressive cup of coffee, cut short by shoulder soreness), and #25 prospect going into 2019, when he was an All-Star.
Why’s he so good? Same arm action, four different pitches, as Michael Augustine wrote for Fangraphs: four-seamer, two-seamer, circle change, and slurve. Watch out, or you’ll get the vapors:
Soroka’s command is excellent, and pretty much no different in the majors compared to what it was in the minors when he was shooting up the prospect lists:
|A (2 yrs)||2.95||25||146.2||1.11||8.0||0.2||7.9/2.0|
|AA (1 yr)||2.75||26||153.2||1.09||7.8||0.6||7.3/2.0|
|MLB (3 yrs)||2.86||37||214||1.16||8.2||0.6||7.2/2.3|
Literally the same guy. I’m expecting him to come back next year and continue to be the same guy.
Varsity Fried took a slightly longer path, dogged by a few more trips to the doctor’s office; he was the seventh overall pick of the 2012 draft, and he’ll turn 27 in January. He pitched well in Single-A at the age of 19, if a little wildly — his high draft pick and his early results made him Baseball America’s #53 prospect going into the following season, though the Padres decided not to jump him to a higher level.
But then disaster struck. The Padres shut him down in February with forearm soreness; he missed much of the year before finally getting Tommy John surgery, which cost him all of 2015 as well. Four months after he went under the knife, and a year before he would make his next pitch, he Braves nabbed him in the Justin Upton trade.
He went back to Single-A in 2016, and again got a good number of strikeouts. He scuffled in Double-A the next year, but the Braves scouts clearly liked what they saw, as they quickly promoted through Triple-A and then to the majors, for a quick cup of coffee. They ran him through the wringer again in 2018, with a quick start at Double-A, followed by a longer period in Gwinnett and another 33 innings in Atlanta. He lost his official rookie eligibility, but the team believed he was ready.
Last year, of course, he stayed in the relation the whole year, and proved he belonged. And he did something remarkable: he dramatically cut his walk rate. Here’s how dramatic:
Basically, the scouts were right all along: it took a little while for the results to catch up with the stuff, but catch up they did. Based on what he did in the regular season as well as the postseason, it’s pretty fair to conclude that Max is one of the top 20 starting pitchers in baseball, and that includes his Albertan teammate.
In another part of the world
So this is where I’m supposed to tell you how good Ian Anderson is going to be.
Anderson blazed through the minors like the second coming of Soroka — indeed, his prospect ratings were very similar too, as he was the #24 prospect in Baseball America coming into 2019, one slot ahead of Soroka. Then he blazed his way through his first six starts after his 2020 callup, a sparkling 1.95 ERA in 32 1/3 innings, with an incredible 29.7% K-rate offsetting a perhaps slightly too-high 10.1% walk rate.
He was good in the playoffs, too, until he ran into the Dodger buzzsaw. But his one weakness came sharper into focus: control. So the question is: will he be like Fried, a fellow high draft pick with sterling scouting reports who improved his command over time? I’m strongly inclined to bet yes. But what’s true for every single pitcher is true for Ian Anderson: his ceiling will be dictated by his fastball command.
And then there’s poor Kyle Wright.
Can you believe Kyle Wright is just 25? He feels like the Ancient Mariner’s albatross at this point, as though he’s been with us forever. But he’s literally only made 14 starts in a Braves uniform, including two in the playoffs, and it looks like we’re basically just figuring out whether he’s a #3 starter or a #5 starter.
I don’t know which one of those he is, but here’s one version of his baseball career:
Marquis was another first-round draft pick (35th overall, instead of Kyle Wright’s 5th), and he had the stuff, but he struggled to put it all together. Still, he had a 15-year major league career, was named to the All-Star team, and twirled nearly 2000 innings, but his 8.8 fWAR (4.3 rWAR) mark him for what he was: a below-average innings eater.
Here’s another version of his baseball career:
Drafted in the third round out of UT Austin, Reynolds was a 26-year old rookie in 1994, but he pitched well under the radar for the next decade, mostly in Houston, finishing 9th in the Cy Young vote in 1996 and being named to his only All-Star team in 2000. He did a great job of limiting walks even though the Steroid Era Astrodome led to some unfortunate-looking ERAs.
But I guarantee you wouldn’t have guessed that Reynolds finished with 32.6 fWAR in 1791 2/3 innings. A little more in line with our collective memory is his 18.1 rWAR; he’s a case lesson in the difficulty of assessing player careers by WAR. But whether he was completely average or a borderline star, he had a heck of a career.
Here’s one more version:
Ervin was signed out of the Dominican Republic as a teenager, and he posted some gaudy strikeout numbers in the minors: 146 in 147 innings as a 19-year-old in Single-A in 2002, followed by 153 in 154 1/3 innings the next year across High-A and Double-A. Going into 2003 he was the #51 prospect in baseball; the following year, he was the 29th-best prospect, right around where Anderson and Soroka were.
In 2005, when he was 22 years old, he was in the majors for good. His rookie year, he more or less held his own: K/BB just over 2.0, ERA+ of 91, FIP of 4.43 in 133 2/3 innings. At the height of the Steroid Era, you’d take that at the back of the rotation. (It was a lot better than what the Braves got from Jo-Jo Reyes or Touki Toussaint.)
The following year, his K/BB didn’t much change, but his ERA+ improved to 106 and he twirled a full 204 innings, good for 2.8 WAR. That was a close fascimile of the pitcher he’d be over the course of his career: not a star, but a solid pitcher who occasionally had a truly awful performance. Which is just what he did the next year, as he went 7-14 with a 5.76 ERA, delivering -0.4 WAR.
And then, he followed that with the best year of his career, an All-Star campaign in which he earned 5.1 WAR and finished 6th in the Cy Young vote. His only other All-Star nod — and only other Cy Young votes — came exactly a decade later, when the 34-year-old journeyman was in Minnesota. In between he had a few good seasons, a few awful seasons, and a few in between, for a career total of 26.6 rWAR and 27.9 fWAR.
Kyle Wright was taken fifth overall, and he was the #64 prospect going into the 2020 season, a slip from being 39th-best in 2019, but an indication that scouts continue to see a lot of promise in him. Most crappy rookie pitchers don’t turn into Tom Glavine, and I’m quite certain Kyle Wright won’t, either. But he could have a few good years, and he could have a whole lot more average ones, and he could craft a career that surprise us all.
Next year, though, we’ll be lucky if he’s a #4 starter. He’ll have to fight for that in spring training.
Under the rocks and stones
Is there anybody else? Sure, I guess. There’s Bryse Wilson, Huascar Ynoa (?), Touki Toussaint (??), Tucker Davidson (???), fifty feet of crap, and then there’s Patrick Weigel.
I think Bryse earned himself the inside track for a starting job next year purely on the basis of his bulldog performance against the Dodgers, but his problem is the same as it’s always been: great K/BB marks in the minors have not translated in the majors.
Until he can sharpen his control he’ll always look more like a middle reliever than a starter. Questions, needless to say, still remain.
Huascar Ynoa seems like a very serviceable three- to four-inning bulk guy in a Tampa Bay-style system. I don’t see him as a classic starter who gets 15-25 outs: I see him as a guy who faces the whole lineup once or twice, not a third time. I don’t know why the heck the Braves won’t just let him be a perfectly adequate three-inning pitcher, but until their philosophy changes, I don’t see a great role for him outside the long relief/swingman role he played this year with only mixed success.
Tucker Davidson got bombed in his only start, but he’s very clearly next in line. He was grievously hurt by the lack of a minor league season, just as Drew Waters was. He’ll have to make up for lost time next year, but a fast rise and midyear promotion isn’t out of the question, just like Ian Anderson this year, or Soroka in 2018. I wouldn’t count on it, though. TINSTA, etc.
I’m afraid Touki isn’t going to make it as a starter as a Brave unless he gets really consistent and lucky at the same exact time. He had a chance this year and had one brilliant start and a number of other horrible ones, and at this point his best chance to contribute will be in the major league bullpen. It wouldn’t be that surprising to see him as a trade throw-in, as he’s clearly available, though it would be a deep shame to trade him with so little value. However, if the Braves have lost faith in him, or don’t see a place for him, they would have little choice.
If Weigel had a brief window, I think that window has closed. There’s always a chance for a guy to find a place as a shutdown reliever, since bullpen attrition is up there with death and taxes, and Luke Jackson’s spot will probably be open sooner or later. But it probably won’t go to him.
In my first draft of this piece, I omitted Newk and Foltzie because literally forgot about ’em. Draw your own conclusions.
After the money’s gone
Should the Braves get a free agent pitcher? Yes, they should probably get Trevor Bauer. Bauer is an infuriating jerk who had a 4.48 ERA a year ago, who turns 30 in January, and who has really only had two exceptional years (2018 and 2020) along with five okay to good years (2014-207, 2019), so there’s certainly a chance that Bauer’s turns into Jordan Zimmermann, another guy who got old REALLY fast after he turned 30.
He’s the guy everyone’s going to go after. But there’s a reason for that: he’s the best pitcher on the board and really the only guy you’d want to think about handing a long-ish multiyear contract to. He’s been known since his prep days for being frustratingly stubborn about trusting his own intellectual and analytic process over just about any advice that anyone else gives, but he’s also extraordinarily thoughtful, methodical, and competitive when it comes to improving himself.
Watch this video and you’ll see what I mean. (I know he’s arrogant, but I wish Kyle Wright could experience ten seconds’s worth of the confidence in which Trevor Bauer smugly swaddles himself.)
There’s a case to be made for seeing if you could get Jose Quintana or James Paxton for something like three years, $60 million. (Paxton’s kind of like Kevin Brown in Los Angeles: he won’t give you 35 starts a year, but he’ll probably give you 20-25 very good ones. You’d need to prorate accordingly.)
But pretty much all of the guys on the non-Bauer list are closer to our old seatwarmer strategy, signing guys like Hernandez and Colon and R.A. Dickey and Brandon McCarthy and Dallas Keuchel to short deals so they won’t block our amazing pipeline of prospects. But our amazing pipeline of prospects has mostly either graduated or busted or been traded for relief pitchers. So if we’re going to spend money, we might as well spend at the top of the market.
If we’re not going to spend at the top of the market, we can futz around with one of the other guys, but like I always say: it ain’t my money. Let ’em spend it.
Same as it ever was
The 2020 Braves were a very good team. With Soroka and Fried, they have one of the better one-two punches at the top of their pitching rotation anywhere in baseball. And with Albies and Acuña, they have two of the best young players in all of baseball. We’re going to have a fun half-decade or more with these guys.
The Hammers took the division title, just like they’ve done in 18 of the last 29 seasons. And they ran out of gas just before the finish line, just like they have done in 17 of the last 18 playoff appearances. The Dodgers are headed back to the World Series because they had the best team in the league and then they traded for the second-best player in baseball and then they gave him one-third of a billion dollars.
So that’s my expert medical diagnosis.
Get it done,