Max Fried overcame a slow start in 2021 and once again gave the Atlanta Braves a solid top of the rotation option. Fried’s crowning moment came late in the postseason, where he bounced back from a pair of tough outings by tossing six shutout innings in the clincher in Game 6 of the World Series against the Houston Astros.
The Braves originally acquired Fried in a trade with the San Diego Padres in December 2014. Atlanta picked up Fried, who was recovering from Tommy John Surgery, along with Dustin Peterson, Jace Peterson and Mallex Smith in exchange for outfielder Justin Upton and minor league pitcher Aaron Northcraft. Fried is the only member of that group that is still with Atlanta. He made his major league debut in 2017 and bounced between the bullpen and the rotation in 2018. Fried took hold of a rotation spot in 2019 and finished with a 4.02 ERA and a 3.72 FIP in a career-high 165 2⁄3 innings. Fried stepped up in 2020 after the loss of Mike Soroka to injury and posted a 2.25 ERA and a 3.10 FIP in 56 innings, albeit with a higher xFIP than he posted in 2019, when his xFIP was quite low.
Expectations and Projections
Coming into the 2021 season, the Braves were looking for Fried to give them another top of the rotation performance and become a solid 1-2 punch along with Charlie Morton. There was a bit of a kerfuffle about why Fried’s projections (especially his PECOTA projections) seemed to disregard back-to-back awesome seasons in 2019-2020, but even so, Steamer and ZiPS still saw him as a well-above-average, 3 WAR pitcher, who could achieve closer 3.5 or 4.0 WAR if he were able to pitch closer to 200 innings.
Fried’s season got off to a rough start. He allowed six hits, two runs and struck out eight over five innings on Opening Day against the Phillies. He then allowed eight hits and five runs in just two innings against the Nationals, and then gave up nine hits and seven runs in four innings against the Marlins. To make matters worse, he suffered a strained hamstring while running the bases in the loss to Miami and landed on the injured list while possessing an 11.45 ERA and a 6.35 FIP.
Fried returned on May 5 and looked more like himself, allowing a total of four runs for the month. He settled in from there and was lights out in the second half with a 1.74 ERA and a 2.74 FIP over his final 93 innings. He allowed just one run over his final three starts, highlighted by a complete game shutout in San Diego. He also threw a Maddux (complete game shutout on fewer than 100 pitches) in Baltimore on August 20. If you take out his first seven starts of the year, Fried pitched to the tune of a 2.62 ERA / 3.08 FIP / 3.21 xFIP. All in all, Fried compiled 3.8 fWAR, 4.8 RA9-WAR, and 3.5 WARP, locking in another well-above-average season.
Fried struck out nine while throwing six scoreless innings in his only start of the Division Series against Milwaukee. He allowed eight hits but just two runs in six innings in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Dodgers. He got knocked around in Game 5 of the NLCS, allowing five runs in just 4 2/3 innings and then was tagged for seven hits and six runs in five innings in Game 2 of the World Series, though much of that was ball-in-play shenanigans in a single inning and he was lights-out afterward. However, he came up with a sterling performance in Game 6 helping send the Braves to their first championship since 1995.
Max Fried 2021 Stats
What went right? What went wrong?
Aside from the slow start, not much went wrong for Fried in 2021. From his return from the Injured List on May 5, he had a 2.44 ERA and a 3.09 FIP in over 154 innings. The home run rate predictably jumped a bit but was still his best mark over a full season. His strikeout rate increased slightly over 2020 and his 6.1 percent walk-rate was the best of his career.
On a pitch-level basis, 2021 was defined by Fried further de-emphasizing his four-seam fastball, which isn’t something that gets good “rise,” in favor of incremental increases in using his curveball and slider. The problem here was that Fried had a lot of issues with his slider in 2021, which meant that in combination with a fastball he didn’t elevate, he was often reduced to just pulverizing hitters with his curveball... which thankfully he could still do, pretty much all the time.
The Braves needed Fried to step up after the loss of Soroka over the last two seasons. He has exceeded expectations and has established himself as a big game pitcher for Atlanta.
Road to the Title
There’s a lot to dissect here, but fundamentally, Fried was an asset to the World Series champions. He finished the season and postseason with positive WPA and cWPA. His biggest WPA contribution was that Maddux against the Orioles. His biggest cWPA contribution was the clinching game of the World Series — one that it seemed like he may have to depart early on when he got cleated at first base. Fun times.
Outlook for 2022
Fried is arbitration eligible this offseason and will be in line for another substantial raise. It will be interesting to see if there is any discussion between him and the Braves on a possible extension. Atlanta will be looking for more of the same from Fried next season as the anchor of their starting rotation.
Fried keeps changing year to year, and the battle between his surface stats and peripherals only grows in rancor. While his peripherals suggest another notably above-average year is in store for the lefty in 2022, it’ll be interesting to see how his ERA pings away from whatever he’s doing with his walks and strikeouts — after underperforming a bunch in 2019, he overperformed in 2020 and 2021.