There are many reasons the Atlanta Braves 2020 season finished better than many could have hoped.
Freddie Freeman’s MVP campaign.
Marcell Ozuna becoming arguably a Top 10 hitter in baseball.
The excellent efforts from A.J. Minter, Tyler Matzek, and others in the Braves bullpen.
The emergence of Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright, as well as Bryse Wilson in the playoffs.
However you may rank the importance of each of these positive developments, there likely is no wrong answer. One other critical component to the Braves’ success this season was the maturation of Max Fried into a legitimate ace and one of the best arms in baseball. When you consider the season-ending injury to Mike Soroka to begin the year and the shambles the starting rotation was in for most of the regular season, Fried’s production may have been the most important factor of all.
What Went Wrong
To be honest, not much.
Overall, Fried’s numbers were legitimate throughout much of the season, especially when he was healthy. He did have a bit of luck, as he did not allow a home run through his first 10 starts of the season. However, he allowed six over his final five stats (two in final regular season start and four over four starts in playoffs.) Though that could be contributed to two subpar first innings, his 0.32 HR/9 rate may regress closer to one moving forward. His .268 BABIP mark was also lower than his marks in 2018 or 2019, while is BB/9 ratio increased from 2.55 in 2019 to 3.05 in 2020. The end result was a 4.05 xFIP in 2020 compared to a 3.32 xFIP in 2019.
Furthermore, while not necessarily concerning, another trend that 2020 further confirmed is that Max Fried may have limitations when it comes to his overall workload expectations going forward. Now through 79 career appearances and 54 starts in the regular season and playoffs, Fried has completed seven innings in a game only three times and thrown more than 100 pitches only six times in his career.
A few reasons may be contributing to this growing trend. In terms of Fried and the Braves, it seems Atlanta has been very cautious with how long Fried goes in games, perhaps due to his injury history in the minors. In 2020, Fried had a IL trip due to a back strain and left his final start after one inning due to an ankle injury. Another reason could be the growing trend of specialization in baseball. Starters are not going as long in games due to a variety of reasons, so Fried’s amount of innings per appearance could be a byproduct of that.
Regardless of the reason, this is by no means a knock on Fried. It is meant to be a relevant observation about Fried’s usage so far and how he could be utilized into the future. The one thing that is for sure is that the Braves plan for Fried has certainly worked out better than anyone could have expected thus far.
What Went Right
Just about everything.
It certainly starts with how consistently reliable Fried was during the 2020 campaign. In 12 of his 15 total starts between the regular and postseason, Fried completed at least five innings of work while allowing two runs or less. However, beyond being reliable, Fried simply was one of the best pitchers in baseball this season. While he may not have elite strikeout numbers, his performances ranged from highly effective to dominant in an overwhelming majority of his appearances. Among pitchers who completed 50 or more innings in 2020, Fried (2.25 ERA/ 3.10 FIP/ 4.05 xFIP) finished eighth in ERA and tied for second in wins. Furthermore, among pitchers who pitched 50 or more innings and started 10 or more games, Fried was one of only two pitchers (the other was Julio Urias) who did not suffer a loss during the regular season.
Of course, Fried’s overall numbers took a bit of a dip due to injuries and only throwing 11 innings in September. However, when healthy, Fried was a legitimate contender for the Cy Young award in the National league. Through August 31st, he was among the top five MLB starters in wins, ERA, FIP, and fWAR. He allowed one run or less in six of his eight starts to begin the season, and the Braves were 8-0 in his starts (finished 13-2 overall, including playoffs.)
One area of major improvement for Fried was his ability to avoid hard contact. In 2019, Fried allowed an average exit velocity of 89.1 MPH, a barrell percentage of 4.2%, and a hard hit percentage of 39%. In 2020, those numbers declined to 83.4 MPH, 3.3%, and 23.2%. The increased effectiveness of both Fried’s fastball and changeup may have contributed to these results.
Along with his ability to produce weaker contact, Fried remained highly effective at producing ground balls and, as mentioned above, preventing home runs. Beyond his emergence as an ace during the regular season, Fried also showed that he can remain highly effective on the biggest of stages. Though he struggled in his second and fourth starts in the playoffs, Fried matched Trevor Bauer and Walker Buehler pitch for pitch in matchups that would result in Game 1 victories for Braves. Despite plenty of question marks that have surrounded the Braves’ rotation over the past few years, Fried removed all doubt that Atlanta will feature one of the best starting duos in baseball between him and Mike Soroka for the foreseeable future.
What to Look for in 2021
Fortunately, after the past two seasons, Fried has made it clear that he is one of the best southpaws, and pitchers, in the majors. The bigger question is how could that impact his short and long term future in Atlanta. The Braves control Fried through the 2024 season, and his first year of arbitration in this offseason. As previously discussed, Fried is expected to have a substantial pay raise due to his stellar performances over the past two years, as predictions range from $2.4M to $4.6M (and if Max reads Talking Chop, he may be an instant fan of Ivan’s prediction of $5.8M.)
The other option could be exploring a possible extension for Fried that could allow Atlanta to extend his stay with the Braves beyond four years. I examined the possibility of that idea back in June, making a suggestion that extending Fried for around $30M over the rest of his arbitration years with an option for $15M-$17M after that could make sense. That estimate could be a bit light now, but the idea of extending Fried to achieve a bit of cost control does remain logical for Atlanta. Also, with Fried turning 27 in January, he could be open to discussions in order to guarantee one stretch of significant earnings while allowing for another big payday to be a reasonable reality in his early 30’s. Of course, the Braves have more immediate needs to address (Freddie Freeman), and they may simply want to see another season of good health and production from Fried before making a long term commitment.
Regardless of whether an extension materializes or not, the reality is the the Braves and their fans enter 2021 with high hopes that the Braves may have their best duo of starters in over a decade. Thanks to Fried’s consistency and effectiveness in 2020, the Braves now have the confidence that they can matchup against any other MLB team’s starters during a series, rather it be in the regular season or the playoffs. If Fried can maintain his strengths from the past two years and also continue with his ability to produce weaker contact like he did in 2020, he could once again emerge as a true Cy Young candidate in 2021 and beyond.