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Can Foltynewicz stop Braves’ skid?

The Braves tab their best pitcher to avoid what would be a season-high four losses in a row

MLB: Atlanta Braves at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

So far this season, the Braves have lost three games three separate times, not counting the current skid. In each instance, they won the next game. Tonight’s starter, Mike Foltynewicz, was instrumental in one of those, as he shut down the Red Sox and let the Braves beat up on Chris Sale on Memorial Day weekend. Foltynewicz isn’t facing Sale this time, but Milwaukee starter Freddy Peralta has also been quite good, and the Braves will need to improve on last night’s flaccid performance to pull out a victory.

At this point, the Foltynewicz performance has become somewhat crystallized (though that doesn’t mean it can’t change). He’s in the top 15 among all starters in both fWAR and RA9-WAR, has MLB’s third-lowest ERA, is top 15 in FIP, and even top 30 in xFIP. He hasn’t allowed more than two runs in a start since his first outing in May, which was also the only time all season he allowed more than two earned runs. If there’s been any bugbear for Foltynewicz that’s dominated chatter, it’s been his lack of longevity. After an utterly dominant complete game shutout against the Nationals to kick off June, Foltynewicz has only lasted five innings in each of his subsequent four starts. Even with the short outings, he’s still been money in keeping runs off the board (just three runs in 20 innings, including two scoreless outings). The fact that he has generally departed the game before wending to deep into his third time through an opposing team’s lineup could also be helping to keep his numbers pristine.

His last time out was a great exemplar of this. Foltynewicz fired five scoreless frames against the Cardinals while visibly struggling with the heat on the field. He faced 18 batters (exactly two times through the lineup) and allowed just one hit and three walks while striking out nine, and then departed. In his prior start, he faced only 20 batters; one before that, back to 18.

The Brewers will tab a surprisingly effective youngster for tonight’s contest, the 22-year-old Freddy Peralta. Never regarded as a particularly exciting prospect (top 10ish in the system prior to this season), Peralta has nonetheless taken MLB by means of a small tempest in his first five starts. Among all starters with 20 or more IP this season, he is 12th in ERA, first in FIP, and 16th in xFIP. Despite not throwing hard at all (average fastball below 92 mph), Peralta has an insane 37.7 percent strikeout rate. That’s higher than Max Scherzer, and among all pitchers that have pitched 20 innings or fewer, he’s 11th in that metric, behind 10 flamethrowing relievers such as teammate Josh Hader and Aroldis Chapman. Peralta also walks a lot of guys, as only 20 starters with 20+ IP have a greater walk rate, but when you’re getting a strikeout against over one of the three batters you face, the walks aren’t so dangerous.

Peralta has also been an extreme fly ball pitcher so far, top 15 in fly ball rate, and bottom 15 in grounder rate. That’s only resulted in one homer against him so far, also an oddity given that, again, he doesn’t throw very hard, and throwing hard is a great way to limit damage on contact. To date, Peralta has allowed the eighth-weakest wOBA-against, and even adjusting for what should have been (i.e., xwOBA) puts him at 18th. Basically, he’s going to be tough, is what I’m saying. To date, he has been almost entirely a fastball-curveball pitcher, rarely throwing his changeup. Neither of those pitches really stand out in any way in terms of velocity, movement, etc., and his usage is pretty much generic, sticking mostly fastball and dropping the curve when ahead in the count, especially with two strikes.

Still, that approach has resulted in three dominant outings in five tries, with 30 strikeouts in 18 and 23 innings against the Rockies, Royals, and Pirates. His two other outings, against the Twins and Reds, have been more of a mixed bag. He allowed four runs in four innings while walking six to the Twins, leading to a month-long banishment from the rotation. (He then came back and dominated the Royals and Pirates). Most recently, he allowed three runs in five frames to the Reds. All three runs were the result of a poor first-inning sequence where he failed to retire any of the first six batters — but then he struck out the side and faced the minimum the rest of the way.

These aren’t the same Brewers that Foltynewicz has faced before, but he’s generally pitched fairly well against their uniform nonetheless. He has never allowed more than one earned run in a start against Milwaukee. The Braves will need something commensurate, as well as some good approaches and results against Peralta, to stop their skid. Let’s hope it happens — the division lead is down to one game, and the Braves are no longer even the second-best team in the National League.

Game Info

Atlanta Braves at Milwaukee Brewers

Friday, July 6, 2018

8:10 pm EDT

Miller Park, Milwaukee, WI

TV: Fox Sports South

Radio: 680 AM/93.7 FM, WYAY 106.7, Braves Radio Network

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