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Spelling success for Mike Foltynewicz

A more coherent plan of attack might bring out the best in a young Braves starter.

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

In the cold, Hunger Games-esque world inhabited by young Braves pitchers, most of the high-potential arms remain years away. The only real candidate to star for the big-league club soon — assuming you don’t count Julio Teheran and his career-best 2016 as a star already — is Mike Foltynewicz, a former Astros prospect acquired in the Evan Gattis deal.

Foltynewicz’s major league experience thus far hasn’t been particularly distinguished outside of his velocity, which stands as elite among starters. But if the Braves have an upper-rotation arm in the big leagues this year (who isn’t inexplicably acquired via trade), it will likely be the flamethrower with the long, curved word on the back of his uniform.

More notably, there are reasons to think his status could (could!) emanate from performance rather than scarcity. Foltynewicz — it bears repeating — brings serious, serious velocity to the table. The trick has been figuring out how best to use it.

We cannot ding Foltynewicz for passivity. He possesses admirable confidence and steadfastness in putting the ball into the zone, challenging hitters to take their best shot. Like other gifted hurlers of heat who lack pinpoint command, he has realized the potential benefits of being ahead in the count. He pipes it into the zone at one of the highest clips in the majors.

The hierarchy of his arsenal is still rather muddy, though.

via Brooks Baseball

His four-seamer has always been the most prominent offering, unsurprising given its velocity; however, it’s not clear that it should be. It doesn’t possess the strong, rise-like vertical movement seen in Danny Duffy or Dylan Bundy’s bat-missing four-seamers, for instance, and it didn’t produce particularly impressive outcomes in 2016.

The sinker (or two-seamer, whatever you want to call it), on the other hand, compares pretty well to some quality offerings around the league. It moved similarly to the excellent versions fired by Steven Matz and Aaron Sanchez, and got similar ground-ball rates to boot.

More importantly, the sinker closely mirrors his changeup — which would have been a revelation in 2016 had he thrown it more than 8 percent of the time. It ranked fifth in whiffs per swing among changeups thrown at least 100 times by starters.

We’re talking some real Bugs Bunny stuff here. Foltynewicz throws both fastballs at 95 mph, and a changeup at less than 86 mph, on average. That, as they say, will play.

If this has sounded like a critique, well, I guess it has been. But it comes from a place of optimism. Foltynewicz initially drew interest by pounding the strike zone and inducing swings while maintaining a better-than-average zone contact rate — a combination of indicators I find promising.

He’s doing it with five pitches, which is impressive in a way, but they could probably use some prioritization. While the slider — the primary secondary offering — is solid, it isn’t bendy enough to be effective as an option when the hitter is ahead. In 2016, he turned to the sinker when behind in the count, cutting his losses by using big velocity that could also yield good results (aka grounders) if the hitter made contact.

If he can mix in the sinker more in less predictable situations, it would give him some more ground balls, and might just present an opportunity to get the swinging strikes that he’d sacrifice. That’s because his changeup — the sinker’s logical offspeed pairing — might be dynamite. The most important thing is probably that he find out for sure in a larger sample.

According to sequencing data from Baseball Prospectus, Foltynewicz went sinker-change or change-sinker only 49 total times in 2016, despite the solid velocity differential and potentially mystifying movement similarities.

It’s not hard to see how it could work.

Whether Foltynewicz feels comfortable spinning off five pitches — or whether he’ll be able to keep the feel for all of them consistently enough — is an entirely different question. If not, he might be forced to make choices between emphasizing the four-seamer/slider/curveball combo or shifting into sinker/changeup mode.

Ideally, he finds a way to work with all of them. Even failing that, forming intelligent packages of offerings might turn him into an above-average starter, or more.

. . .

Zach Crizer is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @zcrizer.