2021 Atlanta Braves: Configuring the Starting Rotation

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The 2020 regular season for the Atlanta Braves saw quite a bit of volatility for the starting rotation. The 2021 Atlanta Braves will look to fix these issues and are already on the right track to do so.

2021 Atlanta Braves: What Went Wrong in 2020

As far as things that went wrong for Atlanta Braves starting pitching in 2020, one could probably write an entire article on that subject alone. But the past is the past, and we are looking forward to the upcoming season, so we will only take a look at the big picture rather than go in-depth on the 2020 rotation.

The rotation as a whole was one of the worst in the MLB in 2020. The Braves used 14 different starters across the 60-game season, second only to the Red Sox 16 starters. For reference, the average starters used last season among MLB was 10.067

Part of the volatility seen in the starting rotation was due to the losses of Mike Foltynewicz and Mike Soroka.

Mike Foltynewicz had a breakout year in 2018 but saw some regression in 2019. The Braves and his own hope to find his 2018 form fell flat and Folty’s one start in 2020 against the Tampa Bay Rays saw him give up six runs in only 3 ⅓ innings. This one start was enough for the Braves to DFA him. He would not return to Atlanta in 2020.

Mike Soroka had an excellent rookie year in 2019, placing second in NL Rookie of the Year voting. 2020 started with Soroka becoming the youngest Opening Day starter in the Braves modern-era history. However, in his third start of 2020 Soroka suffered a torn Achilles tendon which would end his season prematurely.

Over the 60-game span that saw 14 different starters, among MLB the Braves ranked 28th in ERA (5.51), 23rd in FIP (4.98), and 26th in xFIP (4.87). In terms of Wins Above Replacement, the Braves ranked 24th in fWAR with 2.0, with seven out of fourteen starters posting a negative fWAR.

What Went Right in 2020

There is much more to point at when looking at what went wrong with the starting rotation in 2020, but the bright spots outshone the dark in the form of Max Fried and Ian Anderson.

Max Fried had a solid year in 2019 behind Soroka in the rotation, enough to establish himself in the Braves plans for 2020. But with the season-ending injury of Soroka, Fried stepped up and became the ace of the rotation. In 2020 Fried went 7-0 over 11 starts while sporting a 2.25 ERA over 56 innings. Fried was one of just eight starters in 2020 to pitch less than 60 innings and accumulate more than 1.4 fWAR.

Part of Fried’s huge success was his ability to limit the long ball. He didn’t give up a home run until his final start of the regular season, finishing with a league fifth-best HR/FB% of 4.9% and tied for third in HR/9 of 0.32. Fried would go on to finish fifth in NL CY Young voting.

The next bright spot came in the form of top pitching prospect Ian Anderson. Anderson started 2020 as the Braves number three prospect and the number ten overall RHP prospect on Baseball America.

Anderson debuted on August 26 and went head-to-head with Yankee ace Gerrit Cole. Cole began his day by giving up a leadoff home run to Ronald Acuña Jr., while Anderson went 5 ⅓ before giving up the only hit in his six innings that day, a solo home run to 2020 MLB home run leader Luke Voit.

Anderson made six regular-season starts, posting an ERA of 1.95, a FIP of 2.54, and an xFIP of 3.45. With an fWAR of 1.1, he was the only pitcher to post an fWAR greater than 1.0 in less than 45 innings pitched. Anderson would go on to finish seventh in NL Rookie of the Year voting.

Anderson’s 2020 performance would allow him to leapfrog Drew Waters for the number two spot in the Braves prospect rankings and make him the second-ranked RHP prospect on Baseball America’s 2021 preseason rankings. Anderson will try to continue his 2020 success and compete for the 2021 NL Rookie of the Year award.

The New Additions

On November 16, 2020, the 2021 Atlanta Braves signed Drew Smyly to a one-year, $11M deal. This deal comes after a bounce-back year in San Francisco where Smyly made five starts and posted a 3.42 ERA, a 2.01 FIP, and a 2.56 xFIP. He dealt with some injury in 2020, but overall he provided enough value to take a chance on Smyly for the upcoming 2021 Atlanta Braves season. For my in-depth analysis of the signing, you can find that here.

With the acquisitions of Smyly and Morton, plus Soroka returning from injury, the Braves lineup seems to have fewer question marks than it did going into the 2020 season. 

As of this moment, the five guys who make up the rotation are, in no particular order: Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Charlie Morton, Ian Anderson, and Drew Smyly. Once Soroka recovers fully, we’ll most likely see him and Fried compete for the number one spot in the rotation. Next, it’ll be the veteran versus the rookie with Morton and Anderson competing for the third spot in the rotation. Drew Smyly rounds out the rotation, but no job is safe in this rotation.

Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson are looking to earn themselves a spot in the rotation for the 2021 Atlanta Braves. While they aren’t shoe-ins to start like the other five, they should receive opportunities to pitch at the big league level this year. If the Braves choose not to rush Soroka along to start the season, or if any of the other four faces injury issues, Wright and Wilson should be the first choices first starting pitching depth.

Kyle Wright was considered a top-tier prospect out of Vanderbilt when he was drafted number five overall in 2017, but 63 ⅔ innings over three seasons have not proved kind to Wright, whose career numbers are a 6.22 ERA, 6.26 FIP, and 5.47 xFIP. This year could prove to be Wright’s last chance in Atlanta if he does not show improvement.

Like his counterpart Wright, Bryse Wilson has also had limited MLB innings with subpar production. Since 2018 he has pitched 42 ⅔ innings for a 4.02 ERA, 4.85 FIP, and a 5.28 xFIP. These numbers are slightly better than Wrights, but not enough to pencil Wilson in for a starting role to start 2021. What really has everyone talking about Wilson, however, was the stellar 2020 NLCS Game Four performance against the Dodgers. After only throwing 15 ⅔ innings in 2020 over two starts and four relief appearances, Wilson would face a soon-to-be 2020 World Series Champion Dodgers lineup. Wilson only gave up one run over six innings, striking out five.

Overall, the 2021 Atlanta Braves look to set up to get more production out of the starting rotation in 2021 than they did in 2020. Still, 2020 was derailed by injury and poor performance. There is no guarantee that Soroka will return to his 2019 form after recovering from injury. There is no guarantee that Fried and Anderson will pitch as dominantly as he did in 2020. There is no guarantee Morton will not regress as he steps into his age 37 season. There is no guarantee Smyly will pitch as he did in San Francisco and avoid injury. In this game, there are no guarantees, but the 2021 Atlanta Braves are set up to handle the volatility of a starting rotation much better than they were in 2020.

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Garrett Allen is a recent college graduate from Valdosta State University and is now pursuing a Masters of Science in Strategic Sports Analytics at the California University of Pennsylvania. Born and raised in Georgia, he is an avid Braves fan and has a particular interest in prospect development.