We knew there would be some unexpected faces pitching in prominent roles for the 2020 Braves. Some of that was the nature of the season itself, with COVID-19 ravaging the schedule and creating a slew of doubleheaders to the point where pitching staffs across the league simply had to get deeper. But the Braves in particular had major challenges in the rotation with injuries, most notably with Mike Soroka and Cole Hamels failing to even break 20 combined innings on the season. The Braves needed bodies on the mound to eat some innings and at least give the offense a fighting chance
Huascar Ynoa did that and then some.
He only pitched 21 ⅔ IP in the regular season, but every inning this season was so valuable for a staff that was decimated. He flashed enough in those outings to earn his way onto the postseason roster, and probably will have a spot on the 2021 Braves, even if the exact parameters of that spot are still unclear.
The biggest reason to think Ynoa will be playing with the big league club in 2021 was his versatility. He probably gave Brian Snitker more flexibility than any other pitcher on the roster, an invaluable resource during this especially weird COVID-19 season.
Ynoa made five starts for the Braves, including his first career start on Aug. 9 in the first game of a doubleheader at Citizens Bank Park. The results were a very mixed bag, ranging from a brutal start on Sep. 4 against the Washington Nationals where he surrendered six runs in 2 ⅓ IP, to a brilliant four innings of shutout baseball at Camden Yards against the Orioles on Sep. 15. Ynoa ranged from 39-55 pitches in these five starts, proving to be a starter capable of getting through the lineup one time.
Then there’s the relief work. Nine innings of relief work in the regular season, and only two runs allowed. Once again, these outings varied in length. His shortest was a standard one inning appearance at Fenway Park on Sep. 1. And twice (Aug. 17 and Sep. 10) he came into a game the Braves were trailing against the Washington Nationals, held the fort with three brilliant innings, and set the table for the offense to come back and win the game.
Short starts, longer starts, standard relief appearances and long relief bursts. Ynoa did a little bit of everything, and that alone should make him a valuable part of Snitker’s 2021 puzzle as he guides the pitching staff through what should be a full 162 game grind.
Ynoa picked up a little bit of postseason experience, and he may have been the unsung hero for the Braves in the NLCS. He entered game three of the series with the Braves trailing 15-0 in the third inning, and ate four innings for the bullpen.
Of course the series ended up getting away from the Braves, but Ynoa’s mop-up duty work in game three preserved the bullpen and gave the Braves a fighting chance for the rest of the series. That led directly to Bryse Wilson’s brilliance in game four, and Ynoa himself can take away four innings of positive October work into next season.
Projecting where Ynoa is going to fit into the 2021 pitching staff is something of a fool’s errand right now without knowing which expiring free agents Alex Anthopolous and his staff will choose to bring back. But let’s take a stab at it anyway.
Max Fried, Ian Anderson and MIke Soroka should have the top three spots in the rotation locked down. Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson would be the early favorites to claim the final two spots, but the Braves could still add another starting pitcher through free agency and shrink the available spots down to one. Could Ynoa get into this mix and maybe have a chance to win a spot in spring training? It’s possible, but not likely. In terms of starting pitching, Ynoa seems like a candidate to be a spot starter on doubleheader days or if the injured list gets especially crowded at some point during the season.
In terms of the bullpen, Ynoa still seems best suited as a guy to provide a burst going through a lineup one time. Some of that might come as a life raft for the bullpen at points where the main high leverage relievers on the roster need a break, and some of that might come in the form of mop-up duty like game three of the NLCS. It’s also worth noting that if the “runner on second in extra innings” rule does not continue into 2021, the Braves are almost certainly going to have a few games that go into the deep recesses of extra innings over the course of the season. Ynoa feels like a perfect candidate to be a guy who can in during the 13th or 14th inning of a game and throw a different look at the opposing lineup for two or three innings.
Or maybe that ability to provide a different look for two or three innings makes him a perfect candidate to be an opener. If the Braves get to a point where they feel comfortable with four but not five starters—say for instance if one of Wilson or Wright clearly surpasses the other—Ynoa could be an opener every fifth day.
There are a ton of options for what Ynoa’s 2021 could look like. As long as he continues to provide value and flexibility to the pitching staff, it’s really just a matter of “how” and not “if” he will be deployed come next April.