The number one spot in Atlanta’s rotation has been a revolving door of sort over the last few years. Julio Teheran claimed the spot for a number of years but never evolved into the ace the Braves had envisioned. Now, a new crop of young players look ready to step up and state their case for the role of staff ace.
Mike Foltynewicz entered 2019 as the Braves’ consensus ace. However, an elbow injury caused him to miss what would have been his first Opening Day start. Julio Teheran was granted the honor instead for the sixth consecutive year. Foltynewicz would miss the first few weeks of 2019 and make his season debut on 4/27, allowing six hits and four runs through six-plus innings
Things would not get much better for Folty and he was demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett on June 23rd after posting a 6.37 ERA through 59.1 IP. He allowed 16 HR in those 59.1 IP after allowing just 17 HR in 183 IP in all of 2018. Upon his return to the Braves in August, he looked much more like the Foltynewicz of 2018, posting a 2.56 ERA over his final 57.2 IP. Though he fell from the grace with fans, Foltynewicz was back to dominating opposing lineups with a high 90’s fastball and a devastating slider.
In 2019, rookie Mike Soroka stepped up and became Atlanta’s go-to arm during the season. He would earn an all-star nod and finish second in NL ROY voting after posting the lowest HR/9 in the NL. He also finished with the fifth-best ERA in baseball and was behind only Hyun-Jin Ryu and Jacob Degrom in the NL. For whatever reason, Soroka was much better on the road, posting a 1.55 ERA in 98.2 IP. For this reason, Atlanta chose to utilize Soroka on the road during the postseason. He pitched Game 3 of the NLDS in St. Louis and allowed just one earned run on two hits in seven innings to earn his first postseason win. Soroka lived up to the ace title on the biggest stage and could carry that momentum into 2020.
Two NL pitchers won 17 games in 2019. One of them was Stephen Strasburg, who was the World Series MVP, while the other was Max Fried. Fried was a beneficiary of great run support, receiving 6.87 runs from the Braves’ offense per game. Although his xFIP of 3.32 suggests he was somewhat better than his 4.02 ERA, Fried elevated his game to another level in the second half by posting a 10.21 K/9.
Max Fried’s curveball is one of the best in baseball. In 2019, he posted an average spin rate of 2844, good for 21st overall and second among left-handed starters. However, it was a slider that Fried showcased in 2019 that could put him over the top as the Braves’ number one arm in 2020. He didn’t feature a slider in 2018 but in 2019 he posted an average spin rate of 2562. For comparison, we all know how good Folty’s slider was in 2018. His pitch had an average spin rate of 2518 – slightly dwarfed by Fried’s in 2019. If Fried improves his slider more, he could have two above-average out pitches to go along with low-to-mid 90’s gas to keep hitters guessing.
Plenty of Options for the Ace Role
The Braves’ organization is full of young controllable pitching with high upside. In 2020, the young guns will take center stage in what should be a much-improved rotation. One of the names listed above could find themselves anchoring Atlanta’s rotation come October.
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