Over six years ago, on June 8, 2012 to be definitive, the Atlanta Braves retired the #29 jersey of one John Smoltz, thus drawing the official conclusion to the most dominant pitching run of any trio of teammates in Major League Baseball history (the team had previously retired Tom Glavine’s #47 in August 2010 and Greg Maddux’s #31 in July of 2009). And though the expression has been exhausted over time, the transition of Smoltz from the mound to the broadcast booth truly did mark “the end of an era.” The Atlanta Braves pitching collective would never quite be the same.
Countless times since “the end,” baseball enthusiasts, experts and casual fans alike, have consistently uttered the phrase “the next Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz” when attempting to highlight the next “Big Three” up-and-coming young arms as baseball’s next potential pitching renaissance. Think Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder of Oakland Athletics fame as the most successful iteration of the reference. Examples have since existed, but none have been tied directly to the Braves organization. There’s always been “a guy or two,” waiting in the wings, but overall, the pitching acumen simply hasn’t existed on the Major League roster or even in the farm system, where the development of several talented position players has been more the flavor.
Fast forward to 2018, and as we get further immersed into Major League Baseball’s summer months (just days before the MLB All-Star Game), the once-proud Atlanta organization is re-familiarizing itself with a position that was once considered commonplace during the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz run of the 1990’s. That position you ask? First place in the National League East, with a 50-39 record and three other squads staring up at the Braves surprising three-month start (technically, they’re deadlocked with the Phillies at the moment, who’ve used an 7-3 run to climb back into contention along side them). We all expect the Nationals to make a run, but for the most part of 2018, it’s been the Braves division to lose.
While their offense, led by All-Stars Freddie Freeman, Nick Markakis (finally!) and Ozzie Albies, has been phenomenal so far, it’s the pitching, and more specifically, the starting rotation, that’s distinguished itself as one of the more pleasant surprises in baseball over through the first three and a half months. The starters aren’t exactly blowing up any of the all-time records, but with some impressive stat lines and marginal consistency in comparison to recent seasons, it’s practically reached a fever pitch in Atlanta with the team in staring toward serious playoff consideration once again.
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Many of the casual baseball fans that reside outside the state of Georgia perimeter are likely to draw a complete blank on the name Mike Foltynewicz. It doesn’t even roll off the tongue with pronunciation or recognition like say, a Chris Sale, a Clayton Kershaw, or even a Justin Verlander. I’ll even admit, as a
bit of a HUGE baseball geek, I’ve only become truly familiar with the work of Folty because I managed to scoop him up nice and early in a couple of my fantasy baseball leagues. He’s helped anchor my staffs, and I’m forever grateful (well, until everything resets next season, of course).
At 26, Foltynewicz has actually been around for a little while. He was drafted (19th overall in 2010) and came up in the Houston Astros organization, where he allocated his time between the minor leagues, a short stint in the Astros bullpen and unfortunately, the disabled list, with various injuries. Aside from picking up Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2012 (14-4, 3.14 ERA), the beginning of his career had been a struggle. As a starter at Class AAA Oklahoma City and in the Astros pen (16 appearances in 2014), Foltynewicz posted respective ERA’s of 5.08 and 5.30. The highest of his organizational rankings peaked at “fourth-best prospect” in the Houston system.
It’s not until Foltynewicz was traded to Atlanta as part of the Evan Gattis deal in January of 2015, did he begin to show the signs of promise that his draft selection warranted. First, and with a few bright spots sprinkled in, he toiled between the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves and making some sporadic appearances for the big league club. Late in the season, he was blasted by an pneumonia and blood clots that derailed the ’15 season and part of ’16 as well (with the added burden of a bone spur in his elbow). With the Braves rotation in disarray, Folty was eventually activated, got an opportunity and posted a more respectable 9-5 record with a 4.31 ERA over 22 starts. In 2017, this time slotted in as a full-time starter (making 28 starts and piling up 154 innings pitched), he took a small step back, posting a 10-13 record with a 4.79 ERA as part of a Braves team that finished just 72-90 and was not very good.
But in 2018, Michael Gary Foltynewicz has busted out in a big way, having recently cemented his already-successful season by his being named to his first National League All-Star Team as a reserve. Even with a quick pit stop on the 10-day DL in mid-June, his numbers have been outstanding over his 18 starts. Consider as well, that his numbers were even better before his two most recent outings in which he had some poor luck on the way to giving up 5 “earned” runs in each game (the most he’s given up all season). And not to make excuses for the guy, but the first game saw an extremely good Brewers ball club have one exceptional inning in which they scored all of their runs for the entire game. In the second game, he saw Devon Travis (yes, that Devon Travis) hit an opposite field grand slam on his 98th pitch of the game. Here’s the thing though… on the previous play, shortstop Dansby Swanson misplayed a ground ball that would have ended the inning. Instead of being an ruled an error, the play was scored as a base hit (wrongly, in my opinion). So instead of Foltynewicz’s line showing only 1 earned run and being out of the inning unscathed, he was “tagged” for 5 earned runs instead. Complete injustice.
Here are Folty’s numbers at a glance (post-bad luck):
|Mike Foltynewicz in 2018|
Even with his last two inadequate starts, he’s been consistently exceptional. And while possessing only a 7-5 record 18 starts doesn’t carry much sex appeal, it doesn’t exactly hurt his overall case either, since Wins are often brutally overrated as a true pitching “statistic.” Bullpens matter, guys. As well, and despite the fact that the Braves have an above-average lineup in terms of run production, Folty has gotten a bit of a raw deal on run support from his team (3.94, which is 10th worst in the league among qualified starters).
He’s averaging career-highs practically across the board. His ability to strikeout hitters has increased significantly, averaging a career-best 10.62 strikeouts per 9 innings (his previous best was 7.8). He’s fanned 120 batters in only 101.2 innings and although he has never averaged more than a strikeout per inning in his four seasons, he’s well on his way to accomplishing that in ’18.
So what’s changed in 2018? Minor research indicates that the more frequent use of his changeup has been a key adjustment, and one that compliments a devastating 98-mph heater, well, optimally…
Is also helps a tremendous deal to have this filthy slider stuffed in your back pocket, especially against those advantageous lefties. Hey Freddy Galvis, there’s a seat in the dugout with your name on it!
If there’s a direct comparison to be drawn between any one of Atlanta’s “big three” of the past generation and Foltynewicz, it has to be John Smoltz. Maddux was a master of the strike zone with pinpoint precision, Glavine was the crafty lefty who also epitomized control. But Smoltz had that overpowering, hard-biting STUFF. The kind that Folty is now replicating. It’s practically a like-for-like comparison.
The Rest of the Rotation
Mike Foltynewicz isn’t solely responsible for spearheading this new wave of Atlanta Braves pitching potential. The rest of the starting rotation has shared in the ample production and collective 2018 success that’s driven the team up the ladder in the National League East.
A breakdown of the other Braves pitchers who have started at least 5 games this season and their respective numbers:
|Atlanta Braves Starters in 2018 (by ERA)|
|Anibal Sanchez (34)||4-2, 2.72 ERA|
|Sean Newcomb (25)||8-4, 3.44 ERA|
|Mike Soroka (20)||2-1, 3.51 ERA|
|Julio Teheran (27)||6-6, 4.26 ERA|
|Brandon McCarthy (35)||6-3, 4.92 ERA|
The name you’re most likely to recognize is Julio Teheran, who is now a six-year veteran and two-time All-Star. In comparison to his career standards, 2018 has been a slightly down year for him, as he’s struggled with giving up the home run ball (his 18 is tied for 3rd worst in the National League), causing his overall ERA to rise to 4.26. However, on the plus side, he’s actually excelled in keeping his hits allowed under control (his .203 BAA is 5th in the NL) and his 8.34 K/9 rate is the best of his career. But perhaps the best stat currently on Teheran’s resume? He’s pitching in his sixth full season with Atlanta and he’s still only 27 years old! There’s an abundance of time, this season and beyond, for this guy to round back into his All-Star form of 2016 and 2014.
Sean Newcomb, a relative newcomer and certainly more fresh to the big league scene than his counterparts, has been extremely consistent and given his rapid rise, might even be considered the biggest surprise thus far, with the lift and workload he’s provided to this starting rotation. Like Foltynewicz, Newcomb was drafted by another team (15th overall in the 2014 Draft by the Angels) and then acquired by the Braves as a piece involving a bigger name player (in this case, Andrelton Simmons going to Los Angeles). Newcomb started with a bang in college, as his first win was a no-hitter against Yale. His freshman season was average overall (2-4, 4.17 ERA) and was ending prematurely by injury. But he improved from there. His sophomore season, he posted a 5-4 record with a 3.75 ERA and an impressive 92 strikeouts in only 72 innings. However, it was his junior season that elevated his prospect status, as he dominated the American East conference with a 8-2 record, 1.25 ERA and 106 K’s in 93.1 innings (and was named American East Pitcher of the Year).
His 2018 Major League numbers don’t appear to be mind-boggling, but given he’s coming off of two consecutive tough outings (on the road and at the hands of two of the better offenses in the entire league in the Brewers and Yankees, no less), his overall digits give more of an “artificial” appearance of trending downward. His ERA before those two starts (6.1 innings combined) was a tidy 2.71, then jumped to 3.44 after allowing 5 earned runs in each game. Given his previous two months of consistent work, there’s definitely optimism that he’ll bounce back from the rough spots. Naturally, as the solo resident lefty on the staff, Newcomb is likely to garner the Tom Glavine comparison to Folty’s Smoltz.
Anibal Sanchez and Brandon McCarthy are those two designated “nomadic” veterans that essentially every team and pitching staff has under contract. Sanchez in particular has seemingly found a second wind with the Braves (2.72 ERA, 1.04 WHIP) after flaming out in Detroit (his ERA over the five seasons with the Tigers escalated beyond any kind of imaginable damage control: 2.57, 3.43, 4.99, 5.87, 6.41). Whether he can be trusted for the stretch run, will remain to be seen. For now, the Braves will continue to start him every five days. McCarthy on the other hand, has been an innings eater all season (until he landed on the DL a couple of weeks ago). His numbers have been below-average, largely in part to a couple of starts in early May, where he gave up 8 and 6 earned runs respectively to the Giants and Marlins. He’s been working that inflated number down ever since. Like Sanchez, McCarthy isn’t exactly part of this new Braves pitching “renaissance,” but he’s plugging a hole, at least for now. If nothing else, he’s one of the most entertaining Twitter follows that baseball has to offer. Do yourself a favor and click the Follow button.
Though he was recently placed on the 60-day DL, the name Mike Soroka is one to pay attention to. He only managed five starts with the Braves before getting injured, and although he proved slightly hittable, his ERA of 3.51 was solid over that time. Taken in the 1st round (28th overall) of the 2015 Draft (he’s still only 20 years old), the team has reasonable expectations that he can make an impact to the starting rotation very soon and will likely get more big league innings when he returns.
The future down on the farm also looks incredibly bright, as the Braves have arguably the best system in all of baseball (perhaps rivaling the Padres). At the beginning of the season, the Top 100 (as ranked by MLB.com) featured several Atlanta pitchers. Notably: Kyle Wright (#30), Soroka (#31), Luiz Gohara (#49), Ian Anderson (#51), Kolby Allard (#58) and Max Fried (#83). That’s a load of talented arms and names to consider.
• • • • •
Are the Atlanta Braves firmly entrenched in the next Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz era? Of course not. Realistically, there will NEVER be an equivalent to the collective careers of those three no-doubt Hall of Famers. But the Braves are finally starting to see some collective ambition when it comes to their shape of their ideal starting unit of the future. Mike Foltynewicz in particular, is currently doing his best impression as staff ace, while the others are supporting the cause very nicely. Teheran is still 27 and has been the default ace before, Newcomb is a 6’5, 255-pound, consistent lefty with above average stuff. Soroka has gotten his feet wet. And maybe best of all, the farm system is completely stacked with promising arms. They’re not quite there yet, but the Braves pitching revolution is in full swing. For now, first place in the National League East will simply have to do.