There’s nothing I love more than a hard-throwing starter who comes into the game and throws mid-90s the entire start. While that is fun and exciting to watch, it’s not a guaranteed recipe for success. Given how a majority of the pitchers in the league throw mid to upper 90s, it’s not always an advantage. However when a hard thrower can add other aspects to his game, like good command of the strikezone, solid tunneling on his pitches, and a more consistent release point, they can be among the best pitchers in the league. While I think it’s a bit early to put that tag on Mike Foltynewicz, there’s no doubt he’s improved a ton over the last year and he is only getting better.
His 28.2 percent strikeout rate is tied for 12th in the league. His ERA, FIP, xFIP line is a respectable 2.85, 3.38 and 3.64 which is far better than his previous years’ numbers. He’s limiting home runs and he’s also limiting hits in general with a .202 batting average, which is eighth best in the league.
He’s made nine less starts than last year but already has a half of a win higher fWAR than last year and in his 19 starts, he’s allowed two runs or less in 13 of them. Really the only negative in his performance this season is he hasn’t been able to pitch deep into games, as he’s only pitched six innings or more on seven occasions.
Back in June, Rian Watt of FanGraphs wrote an article discussing what was making Foltynewicz so much more successful this season. He highlighted the separation in movement on his four-seamer (his main pitch) and his slider(his strikeout pitch), plus better consistency with the movement.
While I completely agree this has certainly aided Foltynewicz, I think there are some more factors in play that have become evident the last couple of months. Obviously the release point has a big effect on movement of the pitches and a more consistent release point will translate into more consistency in movement on the pitches.
The separation has mostly come because he’s taken his 2017 slider that was more vertical moving and turned it into almost exclusively a horizontal moving slider, this has led to a 19.4 percent whiff rate and .210 wOBA against the pitch,
Even if the slider improved like it had, you wouldn’t be seeing the same results if his fastballs didn’t also improve. Firstly, his four-seamer velocity increased 1.1 miles per hour between this year and last while his two-seamer increased 1.7 miles per hour between 2017 and 2018.
Another factor is he cut back on the two-seam usage by about 12 percent and increased the four seamer usage by nine percent given he had only a five percent whiff rate and a .450 slugging percentage against the two-seamer last year. The whiff rate and slugging haven’t improved on the two-seamer much but given that he’s using it less, there’s less negative outcomes as a whole.
The key factor to Foltynewicz’s success with his fastball and slider combo is properly locating all three of the pitches. His four-seamer is located excellently on the edges of the strikezone for the most part and the slider is mainly buried out of the zone with a few along the edges. Additionally the two-seamer is also located really well on the edges a majority of the time. Locating the fastballs so well has led to a 24 percent non-contact strike rate with the two seamer and a 28.8 percent non-contact rate with the four-seamer.
A big part of fooling major league hitters in today’s game is tunneling your pitches. This is something getting more and more focus, and for a good reason. If you properly tunnel your pitches, it gives you an advantage and makes pitch recognition for the batter almost impossible. Foltynewicz tunnels his pitches at an above average level, causing them to tunnel till about the 15 to 20 foot mark.
The solid tunneling coupled with great command has helped boost his other two pitches, the changeup and curveball. While he’s only using the changeup about seven percent of the time and the curveball around eight and a half percent, he’s limited the hitters to below .150 averages on both pitches. Not to mention the ridiculous 38.7 percent called strike rate on the curve and a 13.6 percent whiff rate on the changeup thanks to how well he’s locating the two pitches.
There’s no disputing that Foltnewicz took a huge step this season after after having struggled the previous four seasons at the major league level. At only 26 years old, and nearing almost 500 major league innings under his belt, Foltynewicz has both the youth and experience to develop into a front of the line starter and possibly even an ace. The skills and the stuff are there, he just needs to continue looking for ways to fine tune his pitching to take the next step. Don’t be surprised to see Folynewicz take another step here soon, he’s right on the cusp of it.