The Atlanta Braves have taken an interesting track in their rebuild. While most rebuilding teams have attempted to build primarily with young position players, the Braves have gone the opposite route: pitching, pitching, and more pitching. While other teams seek to add as many impact hitters as possible, the Braves are betting that their investment in young pitching will lead to a staff that is cheap, talented, and healthy.
The Braves’ top prospects list is littered with pitchers across all levels of their minor league system. But the plethora of minor league arms has not prevented the team from running out the treadiest of retreads. Yes, Julio Teheran is still around, even if it’s a less-effective version thus far in 2017. Yes, trade acquisition Jaime Garcia has looked a little bit more like his dominate 2015 self than the 2016 punching bag variety.
But the most important big league starter for the Braves long-term future is not Teheran or Garcia, but 25-year-old right-hander Mike Foltynewicz. Foltynewicz, whom the Braves acquired from the Astros prior to the 2015 season as part of a package for Evan Gattis, will not be a free agent until after the 2021 season. Foltynewicz’s continuing development will play a huge role in determining if the Braves can graduate from also-ran status sometime before the next Presidential Inauguration.
Foltynewicz fit a familiar archetype when the Braves acquired him: big fastball, decent curveball, fringy change, and questionable command. The words “future reliever” were one nearly everyone’s lips.
Of course, since the Braves were terrible when they acquired Foltynewicz, they had every reason to give him a chance to start. And while Foltynewicz hasn’t exactly flourished, he’s been pretty solid. An 86-inning trial run in 2015 was pretty rough: a 5.71 ERA and 5.05 FIP with a 12 percent K-BB percentage. However, things starting coming together a bit in 2016 (4.31 ERA, 4.24 FIP, 14.5 percent K-BB percentage), and he’s continued along at roughly the same pace in 2017 (3.90 ERA, 4.35 FIP, 13.6 percent K-BB percentage).
On the one hand, what’s the big deal, right? Foltynewicz has gone from disaster to right around league-average. That’s nice and all, but Foltynewicz as a league-average starter isn’t going to suddenly vault the Braves into playoff contention.
But the fact that he’s seemingly answered the questions about his ability to simply remain in a starting rotation is nothing to sneeze at. At the very least, the Braves have a pitcher who will give them decent innings for the next few years at a below-market rate. When you are (were) running out forty-four year old Bartolo Colon every day, you start to realize how important league-average innings are.
So now that Foltynewicz has at least for the time being solidified himself as a rotation mainstay, the next question is whether he can take another step towards becoming a top-of-the-rotation arm.
Foltynewicz has made interesting changes during his brief MLB career, some of which signify progress, and some of which may be a cause for concern. As a prospect, Foltynewicz’s calling card was his explosive fastball. The pitch routinely touched the upper 90’s, and that pitch along with a paucity of secondary offerings was a big reason why scouts viewed him as a potential relief ace.
But in an era where starting pitchers are throwing harder than ever, Foltynewicz is slowing down. His four-seam fastball velocity is down nearly a mile per hour in 2017 compared to 2016 (96.4 MPH to 95.5 MPH per Brooks Baseball). It may not seem like a big difference, but Foltynewicz’s swinging strike rate with the four seamer is also down, from 9.4 percent in 2016 to 7.9 percent in 2017.
Now, there’s no way of knowing whether the velocity decrease is intentional or simply a matter of a young flamethrower not being quite so young and flamethrower-y. Either way, Foltynewicz has adjusted; his four-seam usage rate has gone down each year since his debut and now sits at just 35.6 percent.
That usage rate is something of a misnomer, as Foltynewicz also throws a sinker, which also averages over 95 miles per hour, 22.4 percent of the time. But the point remains that, in this era of high velocity starters, Foltynewicz’s velocity is more “good” than “elite”.
Foltynewicz has compensated for the changes in his repertoire with changes in the usage rates of his pitches. He’s gone from throwing zero sliders during his big league cameo in 2014 to throwing the pitch nearly a quarter of the time in 2017. The pitch has a respectable 12.0 percent swinging strike rate, but it may have cost Foltynewicz some curveball effectiveness. His curve has a swinging strike rate under ten percent after being over 12 percent in 2016. Foltynewicz’s changeup, once his biggest question mark, has a 22.4 percent swinging strike rate this season, and if he can maintain the effectiveness while using it more often (he currently throws it 8.9 percent of the time) it could serve as another put-away pitch, especially against lefties.
The 30,000-foot view of Foltynewicz’s profile shows a decent starting pitcher without an elite skill. For someone with supposedly electric stuff, Foltynewicz’s 8.7 percent swinging strike rate seems out of place. His fastball velocity is no longer elite. His overall swinging strike rate hovers around league average. His control is good but not great. His groundball rate (43 percent) is nothing to write home about. He has a handful of pitches to choose from, but none of them stand out as an elite put-away pitch.
Still, the potential remains for Foltynewicz to develop into something more than he is now. The raw stuff was not an issue for him as he rose through the minors, and perhaps he can refine one of his offerings into a truly devastating pitch. While he’s not yet Cliff Lee reincarnate, his K-BB percentage improvements seem to indicate he’s made strides with his command. The Braves are no doubt happy they’ve found a rotation piece in Foltynewicz, but his potential to develop into a potential ace remains the most intriguing question about the Braves starting rotation.
All stats current as of June 6, 2017.
Jeremy Klein is a writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @papabearjere.