“He’s really good,”- says John Coppolella on 2015 75th overall pick AJ Minter.
If you’ve had the pleasure to watch AJ Minter, you’ll come away thinking the same. Now as the year rolls to a close and as some 2017 team predictions will begin to roll out, the Braves bullpen will be an oft-discussed point of debate for the podcasts, the bloggers, and fans alike. The headlines will focus on Arodys Vizcaino, Jim Johnson, Mauricio Cabrera, and perhaps even Shae Simmons and the future of Mike Foltynewicz, but AJ Minter is the name that should not be overlooked. In fact, he might just be the best reliever the Braves will put on a mound next season. (Pause, breathe, don’t scream at me yet please.)
It’s rare that a relief pitcher have the type of stuff to make him one of the top 30 or so prospects in a season. Still, after just one season coming off of Tommy John surgery we named AJ Minter our #18 prospect. Why did we do that? AJ Minter has undeniable talent and a live arm, prompting teammates in the organization to say things like
Those are strong words, but when a left-handed pitcher can consistently sit in the upper 90’s (coming off of surgery no less), it starts to make sense. Minter was one of the top draft prospects going into the 2015 draft, after pitching well for the USA Collegiate National team in the summer of 2014 and moving to the starting rotation as a junior while playing for Texas A&M where his electric stuff allowed him to post a 0.43 ERA through his first 4 starts. Those good feelings didn’t last long though and in March of 2015, Minter had to undergo Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm, ending his season and knocking his draft status back a few pegs. The Braves, patient and willing to take the risk, happily scooped him up with the 75th and final pick of day 1 of the 2015 draft, one they had traded prospects to get from the Diamondbacks. With the likelihood that he would miss most or all of 2016 as well, Minter left Texas A&M early and signed with Atlanta for $814K.
I’ve already mentioned the surgery, and for Minter to be sitting 94-96 T98-99 just a year later is nothing short of phenomenal. In fact, reports from his days at Texas A&M before his injury had him 93-95 T97, so he’s even added a tick to his fastball and may even add more the further removed he is from surgery. Making it even tougher to hit is the strong, late arm side run he gets on it. Oh and he also can hit corners with his fastball, making it nearly unhittable when he is at his best. It’s maybe not quite an 80 fastball, but it’s about as close as you can get and coming from the left side makes it all the more valuable. Arguably yet, that fastball may not even be his best pitch.
AJ Minter Ks the first man he faces in the 8th. 94 on the gun, just K'd the 2nd batter. pic.twitter.com/hSqYjM353L— Braves Prospects (@ProspectsBraves) July 16, 2016
In a system of devastating curveballs, AJ Minter sets the tone for all the sliders out there. A unique and nasty beast of a pitch, Minter can sling the slider in there in the mid 80’s, top it out at 89, and leave hitters looking like a baby giraffe trying out ice skates for the first time. The pitch has such a sharp and late break across the plate that sometime I feel like I’m watching a wiffle ball trick pitch video and I honestly can’t figure out how anybody can hit it. If Minter has any weakness, leaving pitches up would be it, but he typically controls the ball well and I’m not particularly concerned with that. He doesn’t induce a ton of ground balls, but he also doesn’t allow many home runs (although to help his ERA he has had his fair share of amazing defensive outfields, which he should also have in Atlanta with some help from newly extended Ender Inciarte and hopefully Markakis’ successor at some point).
There are going to be some things to watch out for with Minter next year-the small tarnishes in an otherwise glimmering resume. Minter still has not pitched a full season with the Braves, having started this one at the beginning of May, and it remains to be seen if he can handle the grind of a full season. Obviously this was done by intent as a way to ease him back post-surgery, but Minter still fatigued a bit down the stretch for Atlanta and saw a bit of a drop in his peripherals in August. He pitched well in the postseason, but to this observer didn’t seem quite as overwhelmingly dominant though it was still clear he is the best reliever in the system. I know I’m nitpicking an obvious weakness given the time he took off following Tommy John, but if the Braves want to win a World Series they need relievers that can dominate in October, not just in April. I believe Minter will do fine, but you can’t count on someone to do something they never have before. This brings me to the final point-we haven’t seen Minter pitch back-to-back days. We will see him do so this season, and it will probably be his biggest test yet. This “question mark” has basically the same connotations as the previous, so there’s no need to delve too deeply but it will need to be noted how he does in those situations.
Now, prepare yourself to start reading some jaw-dropping stats. Minter started the season at Rome, advanced through Carolina, and made an appearance with the Mississippi Braves-all before he allowed his first run of the season. In total he allowed 5 runs for a 1.30 ERA, but 4 of those came in one game. Push that game out, and in 30 games over 3 levels Minter’s stats are:
34 IP, 16 H, 1 R, 9 BB, 47 K, 0 HR, 36.2 % K, 6.9% BB, 0.74 WHIP, .137/.195/.171
For reference, the average major league pitcher last season hit .133/.165/.172
This doesn’t even include the postseason-3 games, 3.1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 4 K
Any other fun facts you guys wanna hear? How about:
From June 27 to August 12, Minter struck out 28 batters in 15 innings. He only faced 55.
From July 12 to July 22 Minter struck out 10 consecutive batters, 7 swinging, on 43 pitches.
His Splits-.144/.228/.178 vs RHB, .161/.182/.194 vs LHB
From June 23 to August 15 - 17 IP, 28 K, 1 BB
Lowest WHIP, minimum 25 IP, in the Braves system
Highest K/9, minimum 7 IP, in the Southern League
2nd Highest K% and K%-BB% in the Southern League, minimum 7 IP
Lowest FIP (0.92) in the Southern League, minimum 5 IP (second place-1.50)
OK, so I think you get it. AJ Minter was simply better than the minor league competition he faced in 2016. He proved himself to the point that he has likely earned himself a spot in the bullpen on Opening Day in 2017, because there is no real justifiable reason to keep him in the minor leagues other than service time (which isn’t important for a reliever don’t @ me). The Braves may hold him off in AAA for “experience”, but barring a disastrous year or another injury, Minter will see time in the major leagues very early on in the 2017 season.
AJ Minter’s ceiling is clearly that of an elite closer. Left handed pitchers touching 99 with a potential double plus slider and control don’t pop up often, and they usually turn out pretty well. With all the caveats of injury potential (especially in relievers with an injury history) and the famed “TINSTAAPP”, I peg Minter’s floor as an average set up man. Maybe that’s just me throwing reason to the wind and blindly assuming he can pitch just as well at the next level, but again players like this don’t come around often and they usually make an all star game or two. Minter probably won’t fill that role for the Braves next season, but with uncertainty around Mauricio Cabrera, Shae Simmons, and the general combustibility of pitching, he certainly will be given an opportunity to do so in the near future. 2017 will be a transitional year for the entire team, and Minter will soon be part of a great young core that will push the Braves out of the bottom of the league.