The Braves have brought up another big prospect.
Instead, the Braves have recalled Max Fried from Double-A Mississippi while sending Jason Hursh back to Gwinnett for the 18th time this season (or so). To say this move was shocking is an understatement. Fried has had a rough season in Mississippi with a 5.92 ERA and a 2-11 record, which is pretty ugly even if you hate win-loss records. A preseason #11th best prospect according to the Walk-Off Walk rankings, he dropped to 21st in the recent Midseason update.
Of course, there’s always more to this story than just the simple numbers. Fried hasn’t pitched much differently than he did last year when he reaffirmed his status as a prime prospect coming off Tommy John surgery. Don’t believe me? Well, here’s some numbers.
(Edit…a previous version of this article had inaccuate information for the 2016 FIP and xFIP)
Fried has also struggled with blisters, which cost him a few weeks on the DL in early July as he tried to recover from them. Once he returned, he left his first start with more blister issues and spent another week on the DL. After returning again, his next two starts were short-lived as well – though that may have been by design.
Could the Braves be considering jumping into one of the latest bullpen trends in baseball – converting minor league starters into multiple-inning, high-leverage relievers? The average outs-per-game for relief appearances is on the rise. After remaining steady at 3.0 outs per relief appearance for the last few years, the NL average has jumped to 3.2 this season. This is particularly noteworthy in the NL considering the presence of the pitcher’s spot in the lineup. No team has embraced this more than the Reds. In 2015, their relievers averaged 3.2 outs per game. The next year, it was 3.6 and this season, they are averaging 3.8.
Back in 2015, no team averaged more than 3.2 outs-per-relief appearances in the NL. Four NL teams are at 3.3 or better this season. This may not seem like a big number, but it represents a growing trend that managers aren’t as beholden to the idea that one guy pitches the seventh, one guy pitches the eighth, and one guy pitches the ninth.
The Braves are behind the curve on this, though to be fair, their weak bullpen has often forced replacing the current pitcher even if they would rather them throw more. But even that might be changing. Last week, the Braves asked Jose Ramirez, in a tight game, to throw two innings in relief. It was the first time since he became a primary setup reliever for the Braves in mid-May that he had recorded more than three outs in a game. A few days ago, Rex Brothers entered to record the final out of the seventh and then pitched the eighth inning. The game was tied when he entered and he eventually got the win after a Tyler Flowers pinch-hit two-run homer. Brothers has regularly been used in close games in the late innings.
Maybe the arrival of Fried is to give the Braves an option that Luke Jackson, the current long guy, doesn’t really give the Braves – a high-leverage reliever who can throw a few innings twice a week.
We saw how the Indians used Andrew Miller last fall. He’s currently fifth in fWAR among relievers despite having recorded just two saves. Chris Devenski has stabilized an Astros bullpen and thrown 1.4 fWAR worth of quality middle relief. Our old friend Mike Minor has done the same in Kansas City. The Reds use Raisel Iglesias, their closer, often to get more than three outs – which is almost unheard of in today’s game.
This is just a guess, but Fried could be Atlanta’s experiment in taking a former starter and converting him into a guy trusted to throw quality innings (that’s plural) late in a close game.
Is Fried up for such a task? Well, his stuff says he is. Fried utilizes both a four-seam and two-seam fastball that has been known to reach 97 mph. That velocity should only become more sustainable in shorter bursts. His curveball is a thing of beauty and he has a couple of versions of it (the slow looper and the hard late breaker). The looper is a show-me pitch while the hard breaker produces whiffs. His changeup is hit-or-miss but was considered average enough to keep him projected as a starter. He’d probably use it less or abandon it altogether if converted to relief.
Fried is death to lefties, by the way. While his control has wavered this season, lefties are hitting just .208 in 90 PA with 7 doubles against Fried. Last season, lefties actually hit better against Fried than righties – but is a .717 OPS over a .690 OPS something to talk about?
Whether or not Fried is used in such a way remains to be seen, but I have to believe the Braves didn’t surprisingly call him up just to get his feet wet. They want him to play an important part on their team over the next two months. That might be achieved by using Fried as a typical setup/specialist reliever. That would be a sensible choice, but my hope is that they look outside-the-box a bit more than that. Fortunately, John Coppolella is well-known for such outside-the-box thinking.