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Max Fried found the zone

Fried flipped his script and took everyone on a thrilling ride.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Max Fried has always been somewhat of a mystery to me. Not in the way that essentially all prospects, and essentially pitching prospects, are mysteries, but in a manner far more specific. Lots of people really like Max Fried (as a baseball player, not as a person, I’m sure he’s an awesome person but that’s not something most folks are qualified to comment on...). Not that many people liked Mauricio Cabrera. Yet, what if I told you that Mauricio Cabrera’s career major league walk rate was... 11.7%... and Max Fried’s career major league walk rate was... 11.8%. No, don’t call me a liar, it’s true. You can look it up for yourself. I have this theory that Sean Newcomb’s performance tends to be underrated because his lack of command the resulting bases on balls make him somewhat agonizing to watch pitch, despite average results. Yet, for someone with pretty much the same major league walk rate as Newcomb, with a bevy of outings coming in relief (which is supposed to rein in walk rate, to some extent), Fried doesn’t seem to evoke the same visceral response.

For that reason — namely, command and an inability to limit free passes — I’ve been somewhat wary of the potential for Fried’s success. I was incredibly miffed when, a few days ago, Max Fried entered a tie game, walked Bryce Harper, and then walked Rhys Hoskins to force in the go-ahead run, but I wasn’t shocked. But the thing about that is... well, you know what happened last night. It’s the next morning, and, well, color me shocked.

Looking back on it, I’m not sure whether it was even the best outing of Fried’s young career: his domination of the Cardinals last year (six and two-thirds, four hits, three walks, eleven strikeouts, zero fly balls) still looms large. You can take your pick between the two outings, I think — maybe you like 17 straight batters retired with one hit, zero walks, and five strikeouts better. It’s fine if you do. The stats are split: 30 vs. 33 FIP-, 75 vs. 77 Game Score (v2), 29 vs. 45 xFIP-, .244 vs. .140 xwOBA-allowed. There’s not really a wrong answer here.

The main question then: how did this happen? This wasn’t a fluke fueled by at-’em balls and good defense: so far this year, only two starts (Carlos Rodon, Blake Snell) have managed a lower xwOBA in a game; only Rodon and Luis Castillo have managed a start with more than 10 balls in play with weaker quality of contact than what Fried elicited last night. You don’t need to dig too far for the answer, as I put it in the title: Max Fried found the zone.

The rate of pitches in the zone has evolved in recent history, in a phenomenon that one may wish to describe as Manfred’s Bane. In 2002, over 54 percent of pitches were within the strike zone’s confines. This figure then eroded to 52ish percent over the next half-decade, dropped to just over 50 percent in 2008, and then dipped under the halfway mark the following year (48.7 percent). It then fell further still, to around 45 percent for each year in the 2011-2017 window, before ratcheting itself downward one more step last year, where it rested at 43.0 percent. Max Fried’s zone rate has itself been on the lower side of this average. Of the 488 pitchers with 60 or more innings since the start of 2017, Fried’s 41.9 percent mark ranked 112th, putting him in the bottom fourth. Note the use of the past tense. With one start, pushed that mark up to 42.9 percent, enough to jump from the bottom fourth to the 33rd percentile. Graphically, the difference is perhaps more dramatic.

As a starter, Max Fried has never quite held the zone like he did last night. Even as a reliever, he’s done it all of once. That other blue dot that’s well above league average was the epic Charlie Culberson two-run walkoff homer game against the Mets, in which Fried faced deGrom. That outing was really odd for a number of reasons, and a table will summarize things better than me yammering.

Compare the first and third rows. Sure, Max Fried has had a start (one) where he found the zone before. But he has not had a start where he found the zone. That May 28, 2018 start was legitimately insane: he threw nearly half of his pitches in the zone, yet still issued four walks across 22 batters. Mets hitters literally made contact zero times against his pitches outside the zone, but he still issuedissued a bunch of free passes. I think when I italicize “found the zone,” what I really mean is this: Max Fried not only threw strikes, but he did two things incredibly well — (1) he got it over the plate when he needed to; (2) he didn’t throw get-me-over stuff.

That second point perhaps requires a bit more elaboration. In the first, Fried fell behind Kris Bryant 3-1. He got an all-important whiff on a challenge fastball more or less down the middle, and then elicited a groundout on another fastball in on Bryant’s hands (but still in the zone). After missing with both curveballs to arrive at a full count on David Bote in the second, his 3-2 fastball was on its lower edge, leading to another groundout. In the fourth, he started Bryant with a 3-0 count, but after a gimme taken fastball, he got a foul on another inside fastball before another lowered fastball yielded yet another grounder. The next batter, Anthony Rizzo, got one of the few balls in the air off Fried, which came on a letter-high fastball. Fried threw three straight balls after 0-2 on Rizzo, but recovered as both the out pitch and the one before it (a foul on a low-and-away corner fastball) were on the zone’s edges but too close to take. And, of course, it helps when you can go toe-to-toe with the league’s most violent swingers, too: with Javy Baez leading off the fifth, Fried challenged him with 97 mph heat (yes, 97) right down the pipe on 2-2 (foul), up-and-away portion of the zone at 96 (yes, 96), missed too far away with another 97, and then hoodwinked Baez by taking a little off and getting him to swing through 94 right down the pipe.

Fried didn’t just find the zone, he found its good parts. Only one of the balls in play he got was on a clear o-swing (a few were borderline but still potential/likely strikes). Only two to four (depending on how stringent you want to be) of the balls in play he got were on pitches “down the middle,” and one of those was on a hanging curveball that ended his perfect game/no-hit bid. He lived on the corners and the edges, and it was awesome. 92.9 percent z-contact seems kind of scary without context, but when it comes in the tougher parts of the zone for hitters to handle, you get the kind of xwOBA-against and contact management that Fried amassed last night.

But, there’s still one more thing to touch on, and it’s the best stat of the night for Fried. When Fried threw a lot of pitches in the zone against the Mets, he still ended up walking too many. When he was carving up the Cardinals, his walk rate wasn’t any different from his usual self, and still too high (league-average walk rates are around eight to nine percent, not double digits). Yet he came away from his first start of 2019 issuing zero free passes. That’s not just a thing that happened in April, it’s legitimately wild. As a major leaguer, Fried has made 10 starts and 16 relief appearances. Last night was the only one of his starts in which he didn’t walk anyone. He’s now 7-for-26 in zero-walk outings, with one of those seven being last night, one of them a two-inning relief outing, and the other five one-inning stints. Okay, but that’s the majors, where Fried is a relative neophyte. What about the minors, where he has 95 career outings, 93 of which were starts? Well... only 13 of those 90-plus outings featured zero walks. And, of those 13, ten were rehab/stamina-building outings of two innings or fewer. Leaving those aside, you have a Max Fried who managed to do last night, against a major league team (and a good offensive one at that), something that he had only done three times against minor league teams. (One of those zero-walk outings was last year at Gwinnett; the other two were in A-ball, with one predating his Tommy John Surgery and lengthy absence from pitching.) Fried didn’t just find the zone, he found it against the highest level of competition, even when it had proved elusive against inferior foes.

It’s worth noting that the last time Fried electrified this fanbase, he followed that up with an absolute disaster in Milwaukee, and then a multiweek absence with injury. He returned to make one more (pretty good!) start against the Dodgers, and then was banished to the bullpen, where he proved generally effective (walk meltdowns against the Phillies notwithstanding) until last night’s sterling showing. What will Fried do for an encore this time around? Will he keep finding the zone? Or will he tantalize but ultimately just engender frustration as he’s unable to channel the same command and stuff he did last night? I have no idea, and while I wasn’t too excited about his outing last night before it started, now I can’t wait to find out. I’m not sure I’ve ever been as impressed with an outing by a Braves starter as much as I was by Fried’s in the last four years or so. If he can keep it up, he may not change the conversation about himself much, as many have already been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt despite the high walk rate, but he’ll definitely change my tune about his future prospects. As always, we’ll see what happens.

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