Braves 2021 Player Review: Max Fried

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Max Fried was in an interesting spot coming into the year. He’d seemed to enjoy his breakout season in 2020, but what to make of a breakout performance over a 60-game mini-season? He’d been undeniably great in 2020, but he threw just 56 innings over 11 starts (compared with 165.2 over 30 starts and 33 overall appearances in 2019). I wouldn’t exactly call that a small sample size, but it certainly wasn’t close to a full season’s worth. I thought it was fair to wonder how he would handle a full 30-start season (he actually finished with 28, but I digress).

Things did not go well early. In his first three starts of the season, he totaled 11 innings, an 11.45 ERA and a 2.55 WHIP. His three starts had gotten progressively worse, as well, starting with a decent Opening Day outing at Philadelphia (5 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 8 K) but then proceeding downhill from there. He got pinch-hit for in the top of the third of his second start in Washington after giving up five runs on eight hits to that point. Then he allowed seven earned runs on nine hits five days later in a home loss to Miami. He went on the injured list the next day with a strained hamstring (suffered while running the bases in the previous day’s start). The questions about Max going into 2021 remained, and were perhaps growing louder. The Braves lost the next day to fall to 4-8 and at the time, they seemed to be entirely propped up by Ronald Acuna and the occasional game-breaking pinch-hit homer from Pablo Sandoval…so the questions about the team were growing louder as well, even though it was very early (by the way, delving back into recaps and the like from this period is good for a laugh now).

The questions about the team remained well into August, as has been well-documented, but the questions about Max Fried would not have a shelf life nearly as long. I’d say they lasted until he came off the IL on May 5. He had allowed five or more runs twice in April. He allowed four or greater just twice the rest of the season. From May 5 to the end of the year, he accrued a 2.44 ERA and a 0.98 WHIP over 25 starts.

As the Braves turned the corner for the playoff push starting in August, Max seemed to put on more steam as well. From Aug. 3 to his last start on Sept. 29, Max tallied a 1.46 ERA and a 0.77 WHIP. He allowed just nine walks in 74 innings over 11 starts, striking out 64. Both of his shutouts came during this period, first a four-hit effort on 90 pitches Aug. 20 at Baltimore and then, more impressively, a three-hit outing over 98 pitches at San Diego. The latter facilitated one of the most important wins of the regular season, after the Phillies had inched within a game with three games on the road against the hard-hitting Padres looming for the Braves.

Fried entered the postseason having doubled down on his 2020 success and doing so this year over a full season. He’d had an up-and-down 2020 postseason, though, and it finished on a down note. He and the Braves had some unfinished business in the playoffs, and Fried’s first appearance came with his team in early trouble, down 1-0 at Milwaukee and needing a win to avoid falling 2-0 down in a best-of-five. Fried responded with the best postseason start of his career to that point (honestly, it’s actually better than the World Series-clinching start on paper…though context knocks the World Series one over the top IMO): 6 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 9 K in a 3-0 win. As you may recall, Max was cruising to such a degree that folks were horrified when Snitker lifted him for a pinch-hitter in the seventh. He followed that up with a gutsy six-inning performance against the Dodgers, allowing eight hits but only two runs and giving his team a chance to win it late. He left four Dodger baserunners in scoring position and allowed just one hit in that situation over his six innings.

But then Max suffered two bad postseason starts in a row. The first is probably the worst game he’s ever pitched in the postseason (Game 1 2020 NLDS vs. Miami is in the conversation). He allowed five runs on eight hits and two walks over 4.2 innings in a game where nothing seemed to be going right and his frustration was palpable. I don’t recall ever seeing him with the look he had on his face in the dugout after finally being lifted. It wasn’t especially encouraging.

The Braves advanced to the World Series two days later, though, and he was given another chance, this time on the game’s biggest stage. Another frustrating outing followed in Game 2 of the Fall Classic: 5+ IP, 7 H, 6 R. Things spiraled on him in a four-run second and that proved to pretty much be the ballgame. However, the cloud had a bit of a silver lining as he found a groove in the third, fourth and fifth. He probably shouldn’t have gone out for the sixth and wound up being saddled with an additional run (Snitker was trying to see if he could eat another inning with a three-run deficit, no doubt) but I thought there was some hope that he’d found something he could use should he get another start.

Optimism was not high in some corners going into his Game 6 start, though. The Braves had blown a four-run lead in Game 5, Fried was coming off two bad starts and that sense of dread that Braves fans know all too well seemed to be…if not bearing down, then certainly waiting right around the corner. The first two hitters Fried faced were allowed aboard, the latter on an error of Fried’s own making on a play where he nearly became the second Braves starting pitcher to break his ankle in the series. And at that exact moment, improbably, everything clicked. Fried set down the next three hitters in order to get out of the inning unscathed and suddenly he was Peak Max Fried again. Six innings, four hits, no runs allowed in the biggest start of his life. Some of the most enjoyable video of the entire postgame celebration for me was of Max Fried. He’d suffered two bad postseason starts in a row and had an up-and-down postseason career with an 0-2 record in closeout games, but he’d exorcised his postseason demons and in doing so, he played a major part in the Braves exorcising theirs.

So looking forward, can we expect Max Fried to continue to be one of the dominant pitchers in the National League? I think so. This marks two straight years of outstanding performance from Max, the latter of which was spread over a full 162-game campaign. Had he not pitched his team to a World Series title in Game 6, the playoff performance could’ve started to become something of a narrative with him, I suppose. But first, it would’ve been overrated anyway (he’s had just as many good playoff starts as bad playoff starts)…and second, he just blew that to smithereens before it could really take hold. He enters the 2022 season as the clear ace of the Braves’ staff.

On the contract side of things, Fried is arbitration-eligible again. He and the team agreed to a $3.5 million contract prior to this season to avoid arbitration. That will obviously go up (MLB Trade Rumors projects him to earn $7.1 million next season). The Braves have three more years of team control, with Fried obviously eligible for arbitration in each of those. I would say it’s maybe a touch early to think about a contract extension, especially with everything going on this offseason. And he is a pitcher, so you obviously never know what can happen. That having been said, if he has another year like the last two in 2022, the asking price is going to continue going up.

28 thoughts on “Braves 2021 Player Review: Max Fried”

  1. I wonder how many people, when the Braves were acquiring every pitching prospect under the sun during their tank job, picked Fried as the one who would rise above? That’s the idea, though — there’s no real way to figure out if an individual pitcher is going to be the guy, so you need to acquire them in bulk and hope one pans out. Fried’s past two seasons have been worth all the time they spent tooling around with Blair, Newcomb, Toussaint, and Gohara, but it’s easy to imagine an alternate universe where one of those guys broke through and Fried stumbled.

    On the subject of managers from the last thread, I find that my opinion on managers has shifted quite a bit as I got older. When I was in my teens and early twenties I believed that you could probably count the number of genuinely good managers on one hand, and if a team didn’t have one, they should be looking to make a change and improve in the dugout, even if things were going well on the field. How hard could it be to find a guy who did everything your current manager did but was also smarter about the batting order? (Or bullpen management, or bench utilization, or what have you.)

    These days, though, I’ve mellowed on that quite a bit. As long as a) the players respect and play hard for him, b) he doesn’t publicly feud with the front office or media, and c) he’s not abusing or harassing anyone, I’m inclined to shake the manager’s hand and congratulate him on a job well done. I don’t really have the energy to get upset about what amounts to minutia anymore.

  2. When Fried is on, he is elite. It’s just a flip of a coin if he is on. EOF was discussing on 755 is Real after that bad Dodger start that Fried’s mechanics were off.

    I like a rotation where Fried is your #3 guy. He is a solid two, but an elite 3. If we get a repeat from Morton and Anderson takes the next step, this rotation carries us to the playoffs again next year.

  3. Thanks so much, Nick, your review brought me right back to the playoffs. Fried had an exceptional year coming off the IL. He’ll continue to have a great career.

  4. @1 I tend to agree. I think a bad manager can cost a team games but a good manager can’t necessarily win a tram games. If the team plays hard I think that is the big key with evaluating a manager. The Braves play hard for Snit and always have. When he figured out the right formula on managing/overmanaging the results seemed to be much better. That and a new outfield…lol

  5. Managers are much like fielding in the MLB. It only really matters at the extremes.

    A butcher in the field hurts you, Andruw Jones helps you. Anything in between, you’re parsing over breadcrumbs.

    An elite manager strategically that cannot manage personalities or inspire his team to play hard might win 1-2 games MAYBE for his team.

    An average manager strategically, or even below average, who can inspire his team to play hard and keep the clubhouse loose is probably worth 5 games, maybe more.

  6. I think that a bad manager can hurt you a LOT more than a good manager can help you. But when there’s a toxic clubhouse, the manager is often as much a symptom as a problem. At the end of the day, the front office cuts all the checks and hires all the help. They like to fire managers and coaches because it’s a whole lot more fun than firing themselves.

  7. @2

    I guess I would bump that up a spot. He would certainly be an elite third starter, but that’s selling him short IMO. I think he’s an elite No. 2 and a serviceable No. 1 if you need it, though perhaps not a “true ace” in the way that most people mean when they say those words. (He’s not Jacob deGrom or peak Max Scherzer, basically.) I don’t think he’s quite as inconsistent as you’re saying he is. In an ideal world, we would have a true ace to put at the head of the rotation and let Max hang out at No. 2. (I see Morton as a spot below Fried in the pecking order, for the record.) He’s honestly been one of the best five or 10 pitchers in the National League over the last couple of years, though, so that doesn’t say that he’s riding the line between a 2 and a 3 to me.

  8. @9

    I was sitting in the stadium and the Astro fans around us looked like they were melting like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

  9. @9

    It’s weird that I now have a Joe Buck call that I will fondly remember through the years. That man has chronicled a lot of painful memories for me. Just off the top of my head: the 1996 World Series, the 1998 NLCS, the 2004 and 2013 NFC championship games…and the mother of them all, the 2017 Super Bowl. He did call the 2017 NFC championship game and 1996 NLCS…both of which were fun for a week or two, I guess.

  10. Also, yeah, Varsity’s an ace. Sure he isn’t Scherzer, but neither was Tom Glavine. Varsity’s a true stopper, and one of the 15-20 best twirlers in the league. He’s a number one starter, full stop.

  11. @12 ditto. I always believed in Max. He was always a top prospect but flew under the radar as a Brave (as far as expectations go) because he was rehabbing when we got him. He was brought along slowly and especially in relief, I presume, to let him continue to rebuild arm strength. I think his breakout was inevitable.

    I still have high hopes that we will have another long term “big three” when Soroka comes back. Who knows what might happen going forward with our “big three” and an unusually large number of really good prospect pitchers.

  12. Georgia fans: Was JT Daniels going to start before getting Covid? I guess there’s one quote out there from Kirby that seemed to suggest that there was a quarterback competition still, but it seems like most Georgia fans think that Stetson Bennett was going to start either way.

  13. It’s still a mystery… and fwiw, that’s a stock quote from Kirby, going back to JT’s return from the lat injury.

    It’s a guarded, close-to-the-vest decision, as most are in UGA/Kirby World. He’s never going to announce anything, if he can get away with it, so that the opponent might have a tougher time preparing for the game. It’s something he’s been doing all year.

    (BTW, when it comes to making useful info available to the press, UGA is a bit like Alabama, which is a bit like the old Soviet Union… The press/beat writers are rarely given a look at practices, little concrete info or misleading statements have become normal in press conferences, and the state of Georgia’s “open records laws” were changed to match Alabama’s, etc.)

    Given the matchup, my belief remains that Stetson would start & JT would be the relief pitcher in the Michigan game. (With JT not getting reps now, that would seem to change things.) Not sure that would be the case if UGA advances vs. Bama.

  14. Gohara was likely the most talented of the bunch but just couldn’t control his addictions. Pretty sad.

  15. @17

    Yeah, Mullen/Urban do the same thing. I think it’s becoming more and more common to be cagey about injuries as a strategy.

    Who do you think should start?

  16. Mine would be Gohara as well. In 2017, when we were desperate for hope, especially with the starting pitching-led rebuild being notably absent of good, young starting pitching, Gohara definitely got me excited. He hurled 6 innings, giving up one run with 6 K’s and no walks against Washington in September 2017. Then two starts later, he threw 7 innings, giving up one run with 9 strike outs and 2 BB’s. He pitched at least 6 innings in 4 of his 5 starts as a September call-up. Optimism was high. He looked he was our CC Sabathia, but with better velo and more overpowering stuff.

    Max Fried always being compared to Cole Hamels always gave me pause. Basically that told me he was a tall, lanky pitcher without an overpowering fastball but a nice loopy curveball. For every Cole Hamels, there’s a Sean Gilmartin. It’s like when people compare righties without a high-90’s fastball but have good command to Greg Maddux. There’s one Greg Maddux.

    I thought Matt Wisler could be a solid 4th starter. It was just such a weird time back then. In the offseason of 2014, obviously we just did so much collecting. And by 2017, we conceded defeat that no one was ready, and then even by the end of 2017, optimism was not high. 3 years into the rebuild, Wisler, Blair, Fried, Gohara, Whalen, Sims, Touki, etc. had literally done nothing. Of that group, Fried was obviously the most promising one of the bunch. Folty and Newcomb were eating innings, but we definitely didn’t think we had 3-4 aces out of that entire bunch.

    It’s really a miracle that 90 wins won us the division in 2018 because the rebuild had largely not taken hold by then. Folty turned a corner and Newcomb improved, but we were, at that point, 4 years after The Great Collection of Pitching and had little to show for it. The clarity of results has really only come together for us in the last 18 months or so, 7 years after it all begin.

    Now it’s almost impossible to label this as anything other than a success. Anderson, Fried, Ynoa, Soroka (if healthy) is a better nucleus going into a season than any year previous, especially when you add in the homegrown bullpen pieces. And the backfill is more encouraging too: Davidson and Muller are as good as any wild cards we’ve had since this all started. Wright and Touki as wild wild cards are nice too.

  17. @18 Was it really addiction that brought him down? I knew he had an alcohol problem that supposedly he overcame. I thought his demise was due to his shoulder turning into hamburger.

    He looked really good in ’17.

  18. #19
    I’m not a coach & I’m not in the practices, so I’ll leave it to the guys who are.

    But from 1,000 miles away, I’d start Stetson vs. Michigan & JT vs. Bama.

    When he’s right/healthy, JT has a much better arm & better pocket presence, but he’s a statue; Stetson’s legs have the ability to turn bad into good, despite his relative shortcomings.

    I can’t imagine seeing Cincinnati again (although the Coby Bryant-vs.-Jameson Williams matchup looks intriguing).

  19. 21 — That was my impression too. Not saying he didn’t any have addictions, I don’t know about his personal life, but he definitely never came back after he hurt his shoulder.

  20. @23/24 – JT Daniels was ranked as a 5 Star and the number 1 overall recruit in the nation in 2017/2018. Stetson Bennett was a two star and a walk on out of high school at the same time. As an Alabama fan, I would 10x rather face Bennett.

  21. Merry Christmas Eve from Singapore. God bless and keep you this holy season and in the year to come.

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