It’s no secret the Atlanta Braves have hitched their wagon to the back of young pitching. GM John Coppolella has mentioned several times that currency of major league baseball is pitching and if you were paying attention to what was the most expensive asset to acquire at the trade deadline, it’s hard to argue with John’s point. And one of the young pitchers the Braves are highest on is RH Mike Foltynewicz.
Folty has basically been here since the beginning of the rebuild, coming over to Atlanta before the beginning of the 2015 season. Mike was acquired from the Houston Astros along with 3B Rio Ruiz and SP Andrew Thurman, for C Evan Gattis and SP James Hoyt. The Braves immediately fell in love with the big right-hander because of his big-time fastball that was able to hold its velocity in upper 90’s through seven or eight innings of work. Mike went through the typical growing pains any young pitcher experiences but starting around the second half of the 2016 season, really started figuring it out and the Braves enter the 2017 season thinking they had potentially found a frontline starter.
After watching him dominate more than a few times this year, I’ve heard and read very reasonable, very smart baseball men claim Mike has everything you need to be a one or two in major league rotation, and the potential to be true ace. At the same time, I’ve read and heard equally smart, equally reasonable baseball people call Folty a potential back-end starter whose most likely long-term position is still a reliever.
How can one guy cause such a great divide in evaluation? What is Mike Foltynewicz? I decided I wanted to dive in for myself and see what we can see.
To start with, the “stuff” is real. Mike’s four-seam fastball has maxed out at 99 mph and sits at an average 95.54 mph which is the 5th highest in the national league. Mike also throws what Brooks Baseball describes as a sinker, but very well could be a two-seamer. The movement of those two pitches is very similar so what it actually is isn’t as important as what it does. And what it does is very impressive. Folty throws his “sinker” at an average of 95.49 mph and maxes it out at 99.78 mph. That’s simply an incredible amount of velocity for a pitch that moves as much as it does.
He rounds out his repertoire with a slider he throws around 86 mph and maxes around 90, a curveball that sits around 79 mph and the infrequent change-up that usually comes in around 85 mph. On stuff, Folty is one best pitchers in baseball as very few starters can hit these numbers once, much less continue to hit them in 7th and 8th innings of games. It’s easy to understand the Braves affection for him. It’s a special arm.
But pitchers don’t make their living on stuff or radar gun readings but on the results that follow and that’s where we start seeing a different story for Folty.
Despite the incredible velocity Mike has been blessed with, he’s never posted anything other than league average strike-out rates. League average usually sits around 20% and for his career, Folty is at 20.2%. He is having more success in 2017, but it isn’t because he’s striking more guys out. His 2017 strikeout rate is 20.5%. His incredible stuff has just never equated to big strike-out numbers.
Because Mike doesn’t strike out many guys, he success or failure depends largely on what happens once the ball is put in play. Against right-handers this year, Folty has managed the quality of the contact against him really well. RH are slashing just .234/.313/.385 against him with a .304 OBA. And it’s not hard to figure out why. When RHs put the ball play against him, they’re hitting the ball on the ground 45% of the time and in the air just 33% of the time. That’s a quality ratio and no doubt contributes to why RH have had such little success against him.
The trouble comes, as it always has for Mike, when a left-handed batter steps in the box. LH this year are slashing .296/.367/.498 with a .367 OBA. And again, if you go to the batted ball data you see why. Against LH, Mike allows fly balls at a 43% clip and only gets groundballs 32% of the time. His Fly Ball/Groundball ratio basically flips when his facing a LH vs a RH. It shows up in his home run numbers to. Against RHs, Mike allows a 1.16 HR/9 innings. Against LHs, its 1.71 HR/9. Simple put, Mike Foltynewicz is a really good pitcher against right-handers and a replacement level pitcher against left-handers.
And because of the quality of contact LH make against Folty, and consequently how many LH he sees, Mike’s career BABIP sits at .317. League average is .300. This is a big problem for a guy who carries league average strikeout rates. The 4.08 ERA he’s put up this year is respectable but it comes with a 4.66 FIP and a 79% left-on-base rate showing that ERA is probably due for some regression.
The other big problem for Mike is how he fares after multiple times through the opposing order. The first time through the order for his career, Mike gives up a .303 OBA, which is very good. The second time through the order, he gives up a .358 OBA, which is not so good. The third time through, it’s a .366 OBA. If you look at just his 2017 numbers it’s no different. Folty is elite for the first nine batters and then starts falling off the cliff. This is why there a more than a few people who view Mike as a reliever. And with his stuff, probably an elite one.
For me, and I know this won’t be popular, I’m in the reliever camp. The value of dominant reliever has never been higher in baseball and I think Folty serves the Braves best as multi-inning, dominant reliever. I remember what Andrew Miller did last year in the playoffs as a guy who came in to get 3, 6, or even 9 outs and how valuable that was and that’s what I see for Mike.
The Braves are going to give him every opportunity to start, as they should and there’s absolutely no doubting the arm talent. But in order for him succeed there long term, there are big hurdles to clear. He has to figure out LHB and he has to learn how to pitch to the last 18 batters with the same effectiveness as the first 9.
I think he’s a reliever but we need to stop thinking of that as such a negative. The game has changed. Look at the trade deadline. Look at the playoffs. Relievers change the balance of power now. And being a great multi-inning reliever can be just as valuable if not more so than being an average starter. There’s no such thing as “just a reliever” anymore.