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 baseball’s dog days of 2018 and 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 of first place in the National League East. At 64-51, they sit tied with the Philadelphia Phillies for the division lead. True to form, the Nationals are expected to make a final push, but at this moment, it’s the Braves and Phillies trading punches for the division crown.
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. While the starters aren’t exactly blowing up any of the all-time pitching records, they do sport some very formidable stat lines and marginal consistency in comparison to recent seasons. It seems to be reaching 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. (FOL-TEN-AY-VICH). 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 cemented his already-successful season by his being named to his first National League All-Star Team as a reserve. His numbers were significantly better during the months of April through June, and before the month of July struck, where a small string of unfavorable (and wildly unlucky) starts ballooned his ERA from 2.02 at the beginning of the month, all the way up to 3.04 by the end of it. But overall, and even with a quick pit stop on the 10-day DL in mid-June, his numbers have been excellent over his 22 starts and he looks the part of an ace for years to come.
Here are Folty’s numbers at a glance (as of August 10):
|Mike Foltynewicz in 2018|
Even with his four inadequate starts in July, he’s been the consistent workhorse the team has needed. And while possessing only a rather unfortunate 9-7 record in those 22 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.
He’s averaging career-highs practically across the board. His ability to strikeout hitters has increased significantly, averaging a career-best 10.52 strikeouts per 9 innings (his previous best was 7.8). He’s fanned 145 batters in only 124 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 4 games this season and their respective numbers:
|Atlanta Braves Starters in 2018 (by ERA)|
|Anibal Sanchez (34)||6-3, 2.83 ERA|
|Max Fried (24)||1-4, 3.14 ERA|
|Sean Newcomb (25)||10-5, 3.40 ERA|
|Mike Soroka (20)||2-1, 3.51 ERA|
|Julio Teheran (27)||8-7, 4.33 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 down year for him, as he’s struggled mightily with giving up the home run ball (his 22 are tied for the second worst mark in the National League), causing his overall ERA to balloon to 4.33 (he even got lit up by the Marlins and Orioles). On the plus side, he’s actually excelled in keeping his hits allowed under control (his .207 BAA is 5th in the NL, right ahead of Foltynewicz and behind Newcomb) and his 8.31 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 rebound 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 his overall digits are above average in comparison to a big chunk of the league. Newcomb’s most impressive feat of the current season thus far, came on July 29 against the very high-powered Dodgers offense, where he fell within a SINGLE STRIKE of dealing a no-hitter! Naturally, as the solo resident lefty on the staff, Newcomb is likely to garner the Tom Glavine comparison to Folty’s Smoltz. Regardless, he appears to be a keeper at only 25-years old.
Anibal Sanchez and Brandon McCarthy are those 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 (6-3, 2.83 ERA) 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 and potentially into the postseason, will remain to be seen. McCarthy is the other veteran innings-eater, whose numbers are pretty pedestrian (6-3, 4.92 ERA). He merely occupied a rotation spot to start the season and hasn’t even pitched since the end of June. Like Sanchez, McCarthy isn’t exactly considered a part of this new Braves pitching “renaissance,” but more so a rotational stop gap, 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 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 early on, 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 team also acquired Kevin Gausman from the Baltimore Orioles at the deadline. Though Gausman never quite reached his potential in Baltimore (he was drafted 4th overall in 2012), he’s still only 27 years old and should quality for that “change of scenery” narrative. His stuff is plenty good, but the Orioles team he’s been a part of the past several seasons has been a train wreck, to put it mildly. In his second Braves start, he went 8 innings, allowing only a single earned run and fanning 8 batters. A promising sign and one that indicates he’ll be a part of the rotation going forward.
A final interesting and equally impressive fact about the Braves rotation that illustrates how well put together they’ve been, is that Teheran (95), Foltynewicz (97) and Newcomb (104) respectively rank #1, #2 and #4 in the National League in Hits allowed. So while their ERA’s aren’t all astonishing and their team run support is on the lower side, they’ve been extremely successful at yielding hits.
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. However, 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 and Gausman are still only 27 and figure to be integral pieces for the future, while Newcomb is a 6’5, 255-pound, consistent lefty with above average stuff. Soroka has now gotten his feet wet. And maybe best of all, the farm system is stacked with promising arms. They’re not quite there yet, but the Braves pitching revolution appears to be taking shape. For now, first place in the National League East will simply “have to do.”