Think back to a time before the 2019 season played out. Of the pitchers in the Atlanta Braves organization, which would you assume would have the biggest impact in the coming season? If, at the time, you would have said A.J. Minter, you would not have been alone. I’d be right there with you. Unfortunately for just about everyone, that’s not how things turned out, not at all.
What were the expectations?
While A.J. Minter’s 2018 was not as elite as some of the ridiculous reliever-seasons we’ve been privy to over the last few seasons, it was about as impressive as possible without crossing into that Josh Hader-esque territory. Among all relievers in 2018, Minter finished 26th in fWAR and 30th in WPA. He had a 79 ERA-, 67 FIP-, and an 89 xFIP- that you hoped he could continue to outperform thanks to his high-velocity pitches, which tend to suppress opposing contact quality. This decade, the only Atlanta relievers to exceed Minter’s 1.4 fWAR from 2018 were Craig Kimbrel (four times) and Billy Wagner.
Reliever projections are basically dust in the wind, but Minter was unanimously considered a “good” reliever coming into the season. There was some injury risk to be sure, given his extensive injury history, but he had actually avoided the shelf for all of 2018, so the hope was that he would be effective, even if he ended up missing some time with one malady or another.
Basically no hope associated with Minter in 2019 came true, however.
What went right in 2019?
Basically nothing. For every step forward, or even laterally, there were multiple steps backwards. That’s not to say that Minter had zero good outings in 2019; he actually had quite a few. The good ones were just dwarfed by everything else, none of which was particularly ennobling.
Minter’s best 2019 outing was a memorable-ish one: on April 20, the Braves completed a massive comeback to stun Cleveland in the ninth. After turning a 7-3 deficit into an 8-7 lead, they handed the ball to Minter, and he made sure that only Atlanta’s bats could deliver ninth-inning heroics by striking out Cleveland’s side.
Those ineffectual half-swings by Tyler Naquin and Roberto Perez? That neatly-placed (and well-framed) cutter-slider-thing on the corner for a backwards K? That’s what the Braves, their fans, and probably A.J. Minter himself were expecting from the 2019 season. Those sorts of things were very few and far between, and rarely (if ever) strung together consecutively. So it goes. Better luck next year, I guess.
What went wrong in 2019?
Basically everything. Minter struggled with inflammation in his throwing shoulder throughout Spring Training, and didn’t make the Opening Day roster. He rejoined the team a few days later and was terrible for a month, bleeding WPA, fWAR, run prevention, you name it. Minter allowed just three homers all year in 2018; he allowed three in that one-month stretch. His pitching triple-slash in that month is not safe for baseball fans: 221 ERA-, 117 FIP-, 115 xFIP-. Minter was sent to Triple-A to work out the kinks.
He stayed down for a month, then came back up for two. Things weren’t much better the second time around. The 89 FIP- was nice, and an artifact of the fact that he strung together 19 appearances without allowing a homer. The mirror-image 124 ERA- and 129 xFIP- were far scarier. Moreover, the implosions were just too common. Upon his return from Gwinnett, Minter worked five WPA-positive outings, and then settled into a routine where he’d torch the team’s win probability every four or five outings or so. (He had also blown up a ton before the demotion, but that was more obvious with horrid stats across the board.) June 30 was a good example of the Minter dilemma — the Braves trusted him to relieve fellow southpaw Sean Newcomb, who had started the eighth with a two run-lead and had put runners on the corners with two outs. Minter had two lefties coming up, Michael Conforto and Jeff McNeil. He got ahead of Conforto with a 1-2 count, and then threw three straight balls. McNeil then dunked a go-ahead two run single against Minter on the first, and while he was left in inexplicably to face Alonso, a two-run double resulted and put the game away for good. And that was an implosion when he wasn’t even pitching that poorly — let’s not even revisit the horrific game against the Rockies in April where Minter had them down to their last strike, but walked Ian Desmond (Ian Desmond!) and Drew Butera (Drew Butera!) with two outs before giving up a go-ahead two-run double to Charlie Blackmon. Urgh.
After an outing where he walked two of the four batters he faced, and on the even of the Braves’ midseason bullpen acquisitions, Minter was sent down to the minors once again. He returned in September and only pitched in two further contests, not walking anyone but giving up his third homer of the season to Corey Dickerson, a run that ended up being the deciding factor in the Braves’ 6-5 loss to the Phillies. Two days later, he hit the shelf for good, ending up on the 60-day Injured List with the same shoulder inflammation that he was sidelined with in Spring Training. Not exactly a happy way for things to come full circle.
In the end, Minter’s seasonal line is gnarly: 29 1⁄3 innings of -0.1 fWAR, 159 ERA-, 105 FIP-, 120 xFIP-, -1.91 WPA ball. After finishing in the top 30 in WPA last year, he finished in the bottom eight this year, despite not having anywhere near enough innings to “qualify” on the reliever leaderboards. The last time a reliever posted a worse WPA for the Braves than A.J. Minter was 2008, when it was Blaine Boyer... who threw 72 profoundly unlucky (139 ERA-, 98 FIP-, 89 xFIP-) innings that season.
Minter’s struggles are simultaneously hard and easy to pinpoint, as far as inputs go. His fastball lost a tick of velocity, and his cutter-slider thing lost nearly half of its break. Those things matter, and potentially have a complex interplay with him missing the zone far more. It’s possible that 2018 Minter, who actually pitched in the zone at an above-average rate, could have survived worse command due to somewhat better stuff; 2019 Minter’s combination of sloppy command and diminished offerings proved disastrous. Even if all those things weren’t an issue, though, the 15.6 percent walk rate, a top-20 (worst) rate in baseball among any reliever with 20-plus innings, would have still posed a substantial problem. As it was, the 2019 season is one that’s just best forgotten for Minter; there’s little positive to salvage there.
What to expect in 2020?
Was it the shoulder inflammation that tanked Minter’s season? Or was it just relievers being relievers? The Braves haven’t moved on or anything, and he’ll probably be right there fighting for a bullpen spot. If 2019 was a blip, Minter could be the team’s best reliever next year. If 2019 was the new normal, don’t expect to see him much in an Atlanta uniform in the coming years. Knowing which one is going to happen is the real trick, of course, and that’s not possible. Projection systems will probably look upon Minter as an okay relief option next year, but with so much volatility in his outcomes, not to mention the questionable health of his shoulder, it’s probably just best to take a wait-and-see approach. Maybe don’t expect anything for once, and just react to whatever happens instead — that would have been the safer bet for Minter in 2019, too!