Pitchers and catchers – along with a slew of other players – arrived in spring training last week. It’s that special part of the year when fans can think, “ya know, if we get the breaks…anything can happen, right?” While the Atlanta Braves are not a favorite to dethrone the Nationals in 2018, they certainly could make life hard on not only the Nats but the Wild Card contenders. When you have so much elite youth in house, there’s no doubt that anything can happen.
If the Braves are to surprise the baseball world and get to the playoffs, it will rest on their young arms. The toughest thing about young pitching is the wait. There is a slew of cliches that we can throw out here – “learning to pitch, not just throw,” “learning to win,” “giving your team a chance to win without your best stuff.” These are all just ways of saying that young arms need to mature into established performers. Until that happens, the growing pains are far too frequent and certainly painful. That said, if a couple of starters and some bullpen arms take the very important step forward the Braves are hoping they will, some magic could take place.
By my count, there are at least five pitches that could make-or-break the Braves’ season. No, that wasn’t a typo. Let’s get real detailed here and focus on just the handful of pitches that, if they develop into consistent weapons for their owners, could decide Atlanta’s fate.
Sean Newcomb’s changeup
The fastball has amazing velocity and movement while the curveball is nasty and often unhittable. To be a starter in the major leagues, you still need a third pitch. Newcomb abandoned his slider down the stretch and that leaves his changeup. Used almost entirely against right-hand hitters, it will decide just how good Newcomb can be in 2018 if he is to remain a starter.
Hitters hit .391 off the off-speed pitch. It really didn’t matter what the count was, the pitch was a problem. Newcomb had so little confidence in the pitch that he almost never went to it if there were three balls in the count. That is going to have to change.
There is a common theme in this article – youngsters trying to learn how and when to throw a changeup. Newcomb’s problem is less release point, but the inability to throw the pitch for strikes. Often, the ball would flutter low and away, prompting hitters to lay off of it. When it did catch the strike zone, hitters had their way with the pitch.
Newcomb’s biggest problem is control. Everyone – including him – knows that. His other big problem has been his changeup. It’s a good pitch, but he has an inconsistent feel for it. When he’s on, he looks like the kind of guy who prompted one Braves blogger to name him the best pitching prospect in the system entering 2017. But he wasn’t able to be that guy in the majors with the offspeed offering. Hopefully, this spring, his hard work will deliver a more consistent weapon.
Max Fried’s curveball
The scouting report on Fried was the fastball has good velocity and the changeup ain’t half-bad, but the curveball is the premium option. But in limited major league action, the bender wasn’t curving just right. Major league hitters were recognizing it, and especially early in the count, either let the pitch pass by or hammered it all over the ballpark.
The good news here is that when Fried navigated into a two-strike count, the curveball flashed its potential with 13 of his 22 strikeouts. It was his most-used pitch with two strikes and it’s a fair argument to say the problem was never the curveball, but the inability to get to two-strike counts. Perhaps, if Fried’s fastball and changeup aren’t getting destroyed – which they too often were in 2017 – his curveball can be as nasty as the scouting reports have said.
Fried’s curveball doesn’t average the kind of spin rate Newcomb gets, but if Fried can utilize it completely, it will go a long way to pushing him into the starting rotation to stay.
Luiz Gohara’s changeup
Back to the changeup. 89% of Gohara’s pitches in the majors last year were either the four-seam fastball or the slider. Both are excellent and potential 70-grade pitches, but if Gohara is ever to be the ace many of us believe he can be, the development of his changeup will be the determining factor.
Gohara doesn’t need his changeup against left-hand hitters – or, at least, not yet. His fastball/slider combo is plenty enough for them, but to screw with right-hand batters’ timing, the changeup has to be a weapon Gohara is not only confident in, but able to utilize when he needs it. That wasn’t the case in his brief run last September with the Braves.
The lefty throws the changeup extremely hard considering it’s an offspeed pitch. At an average speed of about 89 mph, Gohara’s changeup would have ranked in the top five among major league starters if he had the innings. It’s not that you can’t be effective with a hard changeup. Stephen Strasburg is a good example of that. With an 89 mph average changeup during his career, the pitch has carried a value of 1.70 wCH/C. No other pitch has routinely been that good for Strasburg.
For Gohara, however, he’ll need to locate the pitch and the graph to the right shows how the pitch was all over the place in his five September starts. The graph shows the vertical location of his three pitches. To be fair, Gohara’s low sample size with the pitch effects the data, but this only supports the scouting report that the changeup is simply inconsistent. If the lefty takes the big step forward many believe he’s capable of in 2018, he’ll have to be able to spot the changeup much more frequently.
Mike Foltynewicz’s Fastballs
They’re quick. Everybody knows that. With an average velocity of nearly 96 mph, Foltynewicz’s fastballs are thrown extremely hard. So, why are they often hit? That, my friends, is why Foltynewicz has yet to grow into a dependable starter.
Foltynewicz throws a pair of heaters. A four-seamer he loves to throw on the first pitch of the at-bat and a sinker he throws when the batter is ahead. Literally, this is a scouting report that every hitter he faces has access to. Between 42% and 46% of the time, Foltynewicz is throwing that four-seamer as a get-me-over first pitch and should he miss or fall behind at some point in the count, he’ll throw a sinker between 42% and 44% of the time.
Being predictable isn’t always a bad thing if you can hit your locations, but Folty actually misses the strikezone 39% of the time with the get-me-over heater. It’s a real shame that Foltynewicz’s fastballs have been so inconsistent with the strike zone because his breaking pitches developed well last year. Both his slider and curve were getting outs. Unfortunately for Folty, he doesn’t get to utilize those pitches enough in two-strike counts because he can’t get to enough of them.
There is a lot of debate as to whether Foltynewicz should be a starter or a reliever. As a reliever, he might be able to reach back and come firing with his heaters, which will only look more impressive when the hitter gets just one at-bat against Folty in a game. However, others believe the stuff is too real to pigeon-hole Folty as a reliever. 2018 could be the pivotal season in deciding what Folty will be for the remainder of his career and it’ll be the good ol’ number one that Folty needs to master to stick in the rotation.
Julio Teheran’s changeup
It is time for Teheran to truly develop an offspeed pitch to keep hitters off his fastball. 65% of the time in 2017, Teheran was throwing a heater. To be fair, Teheran does throw two of them and despite having less-than-impressive velocity, both pitches play up because of Teheran’s control. However, the overusage leads to a lot of repetition. You know the whole idea. Hitters can time a jet if they know it’s coming. In Teheran’s case, they know to expect a fastball and a lot of them.
The changeup is meant, along with the curveball, to give lefthand hitters something to think about. The problem is that Teheran has never really developed it. It’s just been kind of there. After the season he had in 2017 when his flyball nature led to homers by the bushel, it’s time to change things up. The changeup has been useful here and there, especially in 2016, when Teheran limited left-hand hitters to a respectable .325 wOBA. That season, he was willing to use the pitch no matter the count. Last year, he only went to the changeup to try to score a cheap strike when behind in the count. Left-handed hitters took note. He can’t be that predictable anymore.
Having a better changeup would also give him a new weapon to unleash on right-handed hitters. Teheran is a three-pitch pitcher when he gains the platoon advantage. Lots of four-seamers mixed in with sinkers when he gets behind in the count and sliders when he gets ahead. Having the ability to unleash a changeup could be big here. He doesn’t have to throw it a lot – just enough to make right-hand hitters have to respect it. Right now, he has nothing new to show right-hand hitters after the first time through the order.
So, there are five pitches that I believe will decide the Braves’ fate in 2018. Which pitches would you add to this list?