Atlanta Braves emergent ace Mike Foltynewicz finds himself a man apart from other starters. Where most of the time, starting pitchers need something off the pace of their other pitches, some kind of off-speed or slow breaker to trick the fastball-hunting hitter, Foltynewicz in 2018 was pure power.
In backing off his fastball use a bit, throwing more sliders and improving his two-seam/sinker, he went from potential-ridden disappointment to star for a Braves team taking its own leap. It’s a unique approach, as starting pitchers go, and you wonder if it’s tenable as his 2019 dawns.
For a bit of reference, let’s look at what we’re talking about. Foltynewicz’s four-seam fastball is simply filthy:
At 100 miles an hour you’re already at the disadvantage, and with a solidly high spin rate, the human eye is already tricking the hitter. As dead straight as it is, the perceived rise to that pitch makes it hard to touch. Then there’s the sinker, or two-seam, whatever, that runs from lefties like they’ve got the plague:
This is actually a pretty neat pitch. That one was high in the zone, paired perfectly with his four-seam to create a tunnel of hell for the hitter, but when he locates it lower in the zone it’s got a bit of downward bite that helps force ground balls when he needs them:
Then there’s his off-speed pitch, or as off-speed as you can get while still throwing 90ish. His slider isn’t the sweeping doom that Sale or Kluber bring to the mound, but the bit of vertical bite he gets along with its hard cut away from righties he gets to it is vital when pairing with the two-seam and four-seam:
In essence, with these three pitches Foltynewicz is able to throw a pitch that looks like a strike for 50 feet that can end up in roughly a 3 foot wide window. And that’s not even considering how he can control the top and bottom of the zone with good spin, high velocity and solid bite to both his secondary pitches. It’s an amazing mix.
It’s also likely doomed to end sooner than later. Velocity is the first love of any pitcher, and the thing that departs them most quickly. He turns 28 next October, meaning Foltynewicz is right where he should be in terms of beginning to hit his physical prime. For most athletes, this is a good thing. For pitchers, the prime of their fastball is somewhere at the beginning of their career. This chart by FanGraphs’ Jeff Zimmerman demonstrates how velocity so quickly departs:
It’s a troubling glance at the future of even the greatest of fireballers. It’s not hard and fast, some guys are genetic freaks, and you can help waylay that curve a bit with weighted ball and strength training as well as working on flexibility, but it happens to everyone.
Foltynewicz was the third hardest throwing starter in baseball last year at 96.4 mph on his fastball, so it’s not like he’s doomed in the short term. He’s the Opening Day starter and will be one of the Braves’ best pitchers in the short term. But he could do something to make that a long-term prospect.
He’s shown hints of a curveball, throwing it 10.7 percent of the time last year, but the rarely used changeup could be his most valuable weapon to develop in the future. Living on pure power as he is, and with such a control of the horizontal axis of the strike zone, either the curve or the change could be what gives him that other dimension.
The change— if thrown well— would mimic that fastball he pumps more than half the time in one style or another, but since it’s so hard to gear up on 96+ hitters would already be halfway finished by the time the ball leaves his hands. It drew a swinging strike 13.7 percent of the time in 2018, a nice jump from his 10.3 overall rate and second only to his typical 2018 put-away pitch, the slider at 17.9 percent. It was only 157 pitches for the changeup, but it’s something to look at.
He got comfortable and found success being a three-ish pitch pitcher, all power all the time in 2018. But baseball is an arms race, and Foltynewicz has to be like every other pitcher and find a new wrinkle, a way to deceive as much as overpower. Whether it’s more reliance on the slider, another pitch, or eschewing the four-seam in favor of one with more bite altogether, he’s got options. The stuff is filthy, and turned to results last year. In 2019 he can take big steps to become that avowed ace that he’s hinted at.
Merritt Rohlfing writes about baseball at Let’s Go Tribe and Beyond the Box Score, and loves it. Hear him on Let’s Talk Tribe, too, and find him on Twitter @MerrillLunch or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.