Five Pitches That Could Decide the Braves’ Fate in 2018

Five Pitches That Could Decide the Braves’ Fate in 2018

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?

4 Comments

Pretty much spot on posting. All five pitches will determine the level of success that each (along with The Braves) have in 2018 on the field.

While it would be great if Max Fried developed into a frontline MLB starter…given his past injury history (I have serious doubts that he’ll ever be able to consistently throw 160-180 innings a season)…I’ve always felt that Fried would be better suited to serve in an Andrew Miller-like role in the bullpen. Given the number of potential high upside starting pitchers we have coming up The System the next few years….why not start transitioning Fried AFTER Soroka, Allard and Wright get promoted to Atlanta (there will simply be no room for Fried in the rotation by then)?

Sean Newcomb will simply have to prove in 2018 that he can get past consistently needing 100 pitches to make it through the 5th inning each start! That wears on a bullpen (in addition to frustrating fans who see that he has ‘the stuff’ to potentially get outs, but nickles and dimes as if he was Jamie Moyer, lol). If Newcomb continues to struggle in 2018 with his command…I see The Braves looking to trade him to a team whose circumstances will allow them to be more ‘patient’ with Newcomb (I feel that Newcomb will eventually settle down and become a ‘decent’ MLB starter who can have a 10 year career in MLB…however, given the PLETHORA of options coming up who may have better control/provide more upside….I just dont see Braves Management willing to just continue trotting Newcomb out there come August and beyond…IF Newcomb continues to labor on the mound/struggle with his control).

Teheran and Folty are two pitchers who I feel could very well put up decent results in 2018. Both are 26/27 years old with a number of seasons under their belts. Both have avoided serious arm issues so far. If The Braves are going to compete for a playoff spot in 2018, BOTH have to be workhorses on the mound. With that said, the harsh reality is that by 2020 NEITHER will be good enough to be in our Starting 5 (again, the PLETHORA of high upside, good control, young, cost controlled starting pitching prospects working their way up The System the next few years is UNPRECEDENTED in MLB history for one team). Because Teheran has more years under his belt with a proven track record, IF Teheran comes out in 2018 and ‘puts it together’ (shows that 2017 was an unfortunate ‘blip in the mirror’), he could very well be traded to a team needing a quality starting pitcher for a playoff run (yet isnt a rental, given that Teheran is under control through 2020 with a $12 mil team option…more than reasonable, especially when one sees what starting pitchers are going to get in The 2018 Free Market Offseason).

I agree with your assessment that Folty has better stuff than to simply be pushed to a closer’s role. Quality starting pitching is essential to any team seeking to build a playoff contending team….and pitchers with Folty’s stuff should be afforded EVERY opportunity to realize their potential. Given Folty’s salary, The Braves should hold onto Folty for at least the next 2 seasons (unless he just implodes in 2018, which I feel is unlikely) to see if he can develop into an ace (imagine a lefty-righty top of the rotation duo in Folty and Gohara….both with nasty stuff that has swing and miss potential…WITH CONTROL, lol). If Folty puts it together in 2018, he may be someone The Braves look to sign to a long term control. However if he’s looking to ‘cash in’ come Free Agency (I would not fault him for that), then The Braves could very well look to trade Folty (either in The 2018 Offseason..OR by The 2019 July Trade Deadline, when the likes of Tousiant, Weigel OR someone among the Wentz, Wilson, Anderson, Davidson, Sanchez group IF one or more of them RISES UP like Gohara did in 2017 during the next year and a half). I have no problem with The Braves paying a homegrown starting pitcher BIG MONEY when they reach Free Agency. The issue I’ll have with potentially paying Folty big money..is his mental stability. He simply gets too emotional when things dont go his way..which leads to prolonged slumps/bad starts. Again, The Braves have too many pitching prospects whose mental makeup (to go along with their stuff AND youth/cost controlled factors) make them logical ‘fall back plans’ should they need to move on from Folty in the next year or two.

Gohara is the one I’m LEAST LIKELY to worry about. I just have a good vibe when watching him on the mound (I know, 5 starts arent a lot) at the end of 2017. He’ll have all of 2018 to show that he’s ‘the real deal’. I love his stuff AND his willingness to ‘GO AFTER HITTERS’! He doesnt take forever to throw the next pitch (which to me shows confidence/willingness to go and get the hitter out/trust his stuff). If Folty/Teheran both eventually get traded…then Gohara will have the opportunity (perhaps by the beginning of The 2019 Season) to show that he can indeed be THE ANCHOR of The Braves Staff for years to come!

Imagine a 2019 Braves Starting Rotation of The Following/age/pre-arbitration years left to start the year:

1. Luis Gohara…..22….2
2. Mike Soroka….21….3
3. Kolby Allard….21…..3
4. Kyle Wright…..23…..3
5. Sean Newcomb….25..2

If Newcomb struggles in 2018, then I would either keep Folty OR go with Fried, Sims OR perhaps Tousiant (depending on how his 2018 progresses in The Minors). Regardless, The Braves will have PLENTY of options.

Let’s not FORGET what 2020 Spring Training will bring…when The 2018 High Class A Florida starting pitchers of Wentz, Wilson, Anderson, Davidson and Sanchez should be ready to provide some competition for our rotation, lol. Sick, lol! All of MLB will be HELLA ENVIOUS of The Braves…..and will come to us BEGGING for our ‘leftovers’! LET THEM BEG! Serves them right for SUCKING ASS at drafting while Coppy was KILLING IT in The 2015-2017 Drafts! I just hope that AA realizes what A GOLD MINE he has and either gets a PREMIUM PRICE for the prospects that may not be ‘good enough’ to crack our Starting 5 (HOWEVER, will be MORE THAN GOOD ENOUGH to make The Starting 5 of over HALF of MLB, lol). Just because some of our pitching prospects may not be able to start for The Braves by 2019-2020…DOES NOT mean that we should just ‘give them away’ for pennies on the dollar!

If AA is as good as advertised…..he will know what to do. I do not that NOW is NOT the time to start trading! While I have a decent idea of who I think will rise up/make our staff….I’ve been watching MLB long enough to know that a lot of variables can come into play to make predictions meaningless/wrong. That’s why UNTIL our long term Starting 5 is ‘settled’…..we should WAIT before trading away from our seemingly ‘surplus’. I could CARE LESS about some of those prospects flaming out (meaning that we risk not getting anything in return for them). What I do CARE ABOUT…is finding THE RIGHT Starting 5 who can lead us to LONG TERM playoff success! We have more than enough to build that Starting 5 from (in addition to possible bullpen STUDS who dont pan out as Starters).

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