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What does Max Fried have in store for 2021?

Tracing the left-hander’s sneaky evolution across his major league seasons

National League Championship Series Game 1: Atlanta Braves v. Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Max Fried has come a long way. In his first full minor-league season, he walked 11.2 percent of the batters he faced. It was nearly the same in his return from Tommy John Surgery as he made his first starts as a Brave — 11.1 percent. Still, he limited the longball, kept the ball on the ground, and posted reasonable strikeout rates. Even in 2017 and 2018, seasons during which he yo-yoed between the minors and majors, the walk rates were not in check — the lowest at any level in those two seasons was a 9.8 percent in two Double-A starts in 2018, followed by his nine-inning stint in the majors at 9.9 percent in 2017.

The impact of this was some uncertainty about his prognosis. Fried had a 55 FV from Eric Longenhagen ahead of the 2017 season, but Kiley McDaniel dropped it to a 50 despite him making the bigs that season, noting some potential for reliever risk if the command couldn’t hold up in longer stints. At that time, McDaniel ranked Fried not only behind Kyle Wright, Luiz Gohara, Mike Soroka, and Ian Anderson, but also a spot behind Touki Toussaint.

On the non-scouting side, things were not that much more positive. High walk rates tend to be a problem, and there was little reason to assume Fried would fix them upon his ascension to the majors. Projection systems saw Fried as a backend swingman type ahead of 2018, and in 2019, Steamer saw him as a valuable fill-in option, while ZiPS stayed skeptical. Personally, I remember having a hard time differentiating between Fried and Toussaint — two players with pretty good minor league numbers and okay stints in the majors, despite obvious command/control-related flaws.

Of course, we all know what happened in 2019 — Fried’s rookie eligibility expired after an additional five starts and nine relief outings in 2018, and he broke out, full stop, in 2019. While inexplicably not being used in the playoff rotation that year, he followed up his 3 fWAR season by being the only 2020 Braves opening rotation member to survive the full-yet-shortened season en route to another division title. When you average Steamer and ZiPS, Fried currently projects as the fifth-most valuable member of the prospective 2021 Braves team, and second-most valuable pitcher, behind new addition Charlie Morton. In short: those 50 FV and “okay swingman” projections are all in the past, eating actual-Fried’s dust.

One of the points of this series of Spring Training preview articles is to give some sense of what each player represents to the 2021 Braves, and discuss how they might perform during the upcoming season. When I first started thinking about doing this for Fried, it seemed fairly straightforward: a story of a high-variance prospect making good and fulfilling his promise. However, when I actually looked at his career arc, I realized this wasn’t the case at all. Further, I realized there wasn’t really much of a “career arc” to speak of. In brief: Max Fried has actually been a different pitcher in each of his four major league campaigns. To that end, I don’t know how to describe what he might do in 2021 — only that it seems reasonably likely that he’ll continue evolving and surprise us once again. To see what I mean, let me walk you through his career, season-by-season, with the help of this handy-dandy summary table.

Note: Percentiles displayed here are assessed against pitchers with as many or more IP as Fried in that year for ERA/FIP/xFIP, and as many or more batters faced as Fried for xwOBA. This purposefully deflates his performance.

The point of this table is simply to indicate that, well, Fried has not been very similar, even in terms of results or ERA estimators, over his four seasons. His 2017 and 2018 look freakishly similar in terms of FIP and xFIP, but had vastly different runs-allowed results, with contact-management results flipped in the opposite direction from ERA.

2017: A somewhat rough landing

Max Fried made his major league debut in a two-inning relief appearance on August 8, 2017. In that outing he walked two and struck out one, which didn’t do much to allay command/control-related fears about his repertoire. After a few other relief outings (combined K/BB ratio of 6/4 at that point), he was sent down, only to come back up when rosters expanded for four starts and one relief appearance, in which he pitched much, much better (18/6 K/BB ratio).

Taken as a whole, though, Fried’s 2017 identified clear areas for improvement. His four-seamer had low spin and natural sink, which played horribly with his a-bit-above-the-belt location with it. His curveball and changeup had definite, impressive bat-missing acumen, but he limited their potential by mostly spotting them within or close to the zone. But, really, it was all about the overuse of the fastball — about 60 percent of his pitches were a relatively weak offering that he tended to throw in the meaty part of the zone. Fried actually did okay from both an ERA and xFIP perspective during these first nine appearances, but the combination of his fastball woes and his other pitches catching too much of the plate really sunk his FIP (two of three homers came on fastballs, the other on a curveball at Coors) and xwOBA.

This completely pointless video is Fried’s most generic pitch of 2017 — you can see the four-seamer catches a lot of the plate and sinks. Fortunately, the batter watched it for a strike.

2018: Making hay as a reliever

While he didn’t get a consistent opportunity, Fried really started coming into his own in 2018. Viewed through some lenses, his 2019 breakout wasn’t that surprising given what he had shown the year prior, but the Braves didn’t give him a particularly large sample during their miracle 2018 run in which to convince nonbelievers that he was blossoming. Fried went between Gwinnett and Atlanta five times in 2018, along with a couple of stints on the shelf (blister, groin). His first outing of the year was a small nightmare (two batters faced, walk, walkoff homer), but by late May he was given a spot start where he acquitted himself well (6 K, 4 BB, 2 R, 1 ER in five innings). He’d have to wait for a whole month for another shot, where he dazzled — 11 strikeouts in 6 23 shutout innings against the Cardinals. Unfortunately, his next turn was marred by a blister that forced him out after three frames, and when he returned to starting after that, he had to leave after two innings due to a groin strain.

From the compilation of pitch-level information above, you can see some differences, and some not-differences. Fried threw slightly fewer fastballs, but only slightly. The location, though, was much improved, as he kept it out of the heart of the zone. His breakdown of fastballs in what I think of as the “power cross” (the plus sign through the strike zone) fell from 33.9 percent to 28.5, not a particularly huge difference, but one that lessened the frequency of fastballs that were getting hit hard with only a marginal chance of missing a bat. The fastball itself gained half a tick of velocity and some extra spin, and stayed up a bit better as a result. While this wasn’t a particularly dramatic or utile change given that Fried still wasn’t locating it up in the zone consistently, it did push the whiff rate up to nearly 25 percent — well above league average and actually Fried’s highest four-seamer whiff rate across his four seasons. When he did throw the heater fairly high, it was more than capable of getting whiffs — he just didn’t do it that often.

Correspondingly, for all the improvements, the gain was not too dramatic, as Fried’s four-seamer went from something that generally got hit hard to something that got hit at the league-average rate of slower-fastball hitting. Still, it showed there was a path to success for him even with a fairly fastball-heavy approach.

Of course, that success banked heavily on his curveball, which continued to evolve. Location-wise, Fried really worked out how to wear out a few places in particular — spotting it to jam or tie up lefties and get righties to reach for it. Here are some examples:

Overall, this worked beautifully. Hitters missed nearly 50 percent of the curves they swung at, and the xwOBA on PAs that ended with Fried’s curve was a mind-boggling .106 — for the whole 2018 season, there were only two player-pitch combinations that ended 30 or more PAs that resulted in a lower xwOBA than Fried’s curve. In addition to better location and command, the shape of the curveball was also fairly taut — in 2017, Fried’s curve varied in how much it dropped, pitch-to-pitch, far more than it did in 2018. Being able to execute a devastating pitch consistently was always the promise for Fried, and he really made good on it in his limited action.

The changeup, meanwhile, was horrid, losing some of its 2017 dip and inexplicably drifting towards the top of the zone, where it was murdered. Whatever the reason behind its lack of effectiveness, 2018 was kind of its death knell, as Fried mostly phased it out after the season. In the end, 2018 was a pretty big success for Fried, nearly across the board. He got a bit lucky with his strand rate, but his FIP- (91) and xFIP- (80) were quite strong. The combination of the not-too-great fastball and the pulverized changeup led to a quite high overall xwOBA-against, which was really the only blemish on his statistical record for the year. Well, that and the walks — while Fried was dealing to the tune of striking out 31 percent of batters he faced and running a grounder rate of over 50 percent, limiting his exposure to the longball, he walked an insane 14 percent of opposing batters, a top 20 rate among the nearly 500 pitchers with 30 or more innings in 2018.

2019: The breakout

What Fried did in 2019 was, in many respects, nothing short of amazing. He actually improved on his FIP and xFIP while working primarily as a starter, managed contact better in the process, substantially trimmed the walks while not actually throwing many more pitches in the zone, and oh yeah — he developed a completely new pitch to his arsenal, which dominated batters and helped him achieve all of the above.

In addition to the sheer insanity of Fried materializing an above-average pitch out of seemingly nowhere was that the slider wasn’t simply skating by because it was an unknown quantity. (The surprise factor did probably help to some extent early in the season, but even in July and afterward it was still dominating hitters.) As you can see from the pitch arsenal plot, it has above-average movement along both planes, with impressive horizontal movement. Furthermore, it’s thrown fairly hard for a slider, which makes the fact that it gets two-plane movement phenomenal (because harder pitches have less time to move before they reach the plate). The slider did so many things for Fried — but mainly, it gave him a third option in his arsenal such that hitters had a harder time guessing right. Beyond that, it wasn’t limited to a weapon only against lefties: while Fried’s north-south pitching style made him generally not a very platoon-harmed southpaw, his slider was actually more effective against righties, letting him force right-handed hitters to play the guessing game with him even if he eliminated the fastball.

Here it is, in fairly typical fashion, fooling the reigning NL MVP:

And this is the way it was often used against right-handers — forcing them to swing at something that ran in on them for an unexpected strike:

The slider was critical, because Fried’s other offerings took a bit of a step back. Remember how, in 2018, Fried clawed back some fastball effectiveness through a combination of spotting it on the edge and not letting it sink as much? Well, despite gaining another tick of velocity on the heater and adding a bit more spin, Fried didn’t get any more “rise” on the pitch, and moreover, wasn’t able to get it to the corners. All the gains in avoiding the “power cross” with the fastball were given up relative to 2018, while the whiff rate fell into average-y territory. You’d still get stuff like this, but it was rarer.

The extra velocity and existence of the slider helped keep hitters off balance and prevent Fried from getting straight-blasted on the pitch given that he tended to groove it more often than in 2018, but the fastball didn’t have much to do with his breakout, at least not as a primary piece.

The curveball, too, regressed a bit, if only due to basic regression to the mean. It was still elite, but the xwOBA-against jumped from around .100 to around .200, while the whiff rate fell from closer to 50 percent to closer to 40 percent. Whether by design or by happenstance, the location also got messy — some of this was likely Fried dropping in surprise curves for strikes now that he had the slider, but some of it was just not quite getting it where he wanted it to go.

Fried’s breakout came under potentially-unusual circumstances. Far from taking the next step with whiffs, he actually had hitters make notably more contact against him. He didn’t throw in the zone with any notable increase in frequency, but hitters swung at his in-zone offerings way more and connected way more in the process. They did the same for out-of-zone offerings. Fried was near the top of the leaderboards for year to year increases in opposing batter swing at contact rates, and correspondingly towards the bottom of year to year changes in whiff rates. And yet — 3.0 fWAR in under 170 innings.

How did he do it? Two things. First, the slider opened up some possibilities on the first pitch. In 2018, Fried’s heat map for his first pitch looked like this:

Fried essentially had two choices, which the heat map conflates: spin a curve down the pipe for a strike, or try to catch a corner/get a swing at something belt high and on the edge of the plate. Fried mostly opted for the latter, around two-thirds of the time. In 2019, though, first pitches looked like more or less what you’d expect from anyone:

The breakdown was now 60/25/10, still fastball heavy, but clearly different in theory. Both the fastball and curve were pumped right down the middle, while the slider tried to jam righties on the inner edge. Interestingly, the net result was not any kind of change in outcomes on first pitches, as batters had identical first-pitch-ended-the-PA xwOBAs off Fried in both 2018 and 2019, in the league-average .320 range. Rather, the effect was more to get Fried more strikes now that he apparently felt able to throw his two main offerings down the pipe with the hope (belief?) that hitters would no longer guess correctly as often, and given the standard split between outcomes after starting 0-1 versus starting 1-0, it seemed to have paid dividends. (As a fun side note, Fried’s outcomes and even his xFIP were dreadful in 2019 after starting 1-0. This may have been influenced by the fact that a PA in which Fried did not get a first-pitch strike is one where he was generally “off,” but it’s hard to tell.)

The second secret to Fried’s success amidst declining whiff rates and similar zone rates is not very interesting, but still worth a brief mention: saying sayonara to the changeup. To be very clear: the main reason why Fried’s xwOBA-against was below-average in 2018 was because of the changeup. Without belaboring the point too much, in 2018, Fried threw the changeup only 12 percent of the time, but it ended a PA 21 percent of the time — the same frequency as his curveball. And it got hit hard. None of his 2018 changeups ended a PA, and they were put in play with a .495 xwOBA. Fast-forward to 2019, and his rates of PAs ending in fastballs and curves didn’t really change, but the slider and its .238 xwOBA-against replaced the changeup. That more than made up for an xwOBA giveback in his curveball, and was enough to budge him from overall below-average contact management (slightly below-average contact allowed on the fastball, elite curveball, awful changeup) to above-average contact management (a slightly better but still below-average fastball in terms of contact, a somewhat worse but still basically elite curveball, and a strong slider), just like that.

“Just like that” makes it seem so easy. We often discuss pitchers as, well, known knowns — they are what they are, and it’s about figuring out a way to make their velocity and pitch mix work. Yet, here came Max Fried in 2019, pulling out a new pitch that changed the game for him, “just like that.”

And they used him... as a reliever... in the playoffs.

2020: The (possible) tinker

2020 was a sprint, and on top of that, Fried was the only member of the Braves’ original rotation plan that actually survived the season. As a result, there wasn’t a lot of time to assess or discuss whether he was in the midst of a step backwards from his 2019 breakout, and even if there was, it would have felt at least mildly mean-spirited given the desolation around him. With that said, it’s been a bigger topic for the offseason, especially as projections have started rolling it out. Fried finished 2019 at 3.6 fWAR/200 and followed that up with a silly 5.4/200 stint in 2020. So, why were projections targeting between 2.9 and 3.7 instead? Baseball Prospectus even wrote a companion piece to their PECOTA projections about Fried in particular.

The 2020 dilemma for Fried is, well, one that comes up again and again in player analysis, and some might say it isn’t a dilemma at all. In short, Fried posted an elite ERA, a career-best FIP, and was elite across the board at every contact management thing you can think of. I mean, bruh:

M-A-X-F-R-I-E-D spells “Statcast darling,” apparently

And yet, see those not-red bubbles? The ones about strikeouts, and walks, and whiff rates? In 2019, those bubbles were red, or at least red-ish. Fundamentally, we know that those not-red bubbles tend to predict future run prevention better than the spate of red bubbles. And better than FIP. And definitely better than Fried’s teeny-tiny 2020 ERA. So, there’s the rub: a bunch of stuff that says “elite,” an improved FIP, and yet, the predictive stuff is throwing some red (well, orange flags) out there for everyone to see.

If you look at this conventionally, with the very important caveat that nearly everything about 2020 was a small sample, the concern isn’t hard to see. The curve lost some more whiffs and overall effectiveness. The slider was mostly the same, but lost some drop, making it less of a two-plane offering than it was. The fastball continued to gain spin but “sunk” even more as it lost a tick of velocity, and beyond that, Fried started integrating a sinker far more heavily than ever before, which paid the opposite of dividends. Fried got more whiffs out of the zone, but fewer whiffs in the zone, lowering his overall whiff rate. His first-pitch strike rate fell. Overall, his strikeout rate fell to below league average, and the walk rate crept up from its 2019 levels. While the grounder rate stayed more or less the same, hitters were better able to elevate Fried’s pitches across the board; the only place the sinker helped is not letting his average launch angle allowed skyrocket (though to be clear, it wouldn’t be damning in and of itself if it did).

And yet, what if there was another story here? To be clear, I’m not saying there is — if you made me pick sides instead of giving a nuanced appraisal, I’ll go with the xFIP and the downscaled projections, but don’t make me pick sides, okay — just that you can frame Fried’s 2020 experience in a different light. If there were another story, it would go something like this. Again, this isn’t a slam-dunk story, just a suggestion.

Location-wise, Fried moved his pitches, especially his breaking stuff, towards the edges of the zone. The changes aren’t dramatic, but there was a concerted effort to move the curve from its 2019, “anything goes, including surprise curves down the pipe” usage to something more focused on the backfoot to righties. You can see this clearly in the heatmaps above — they’re actually not too dissimilar, just that the 2020 version is if you took the red parts of the 2019 heat map and gave them a hard yank down and to the left, such that not much remained in the middle of the zone. At the same time, the slider command got a little better, with more stuff hitters might actually hit if they swung, but not anything they’d hit hard either way.

The story with the fastball is a bit more complicated. The heart rate (heh) didn’t change, nor did the shadow rate. The chase rate went up, but the heat maps again show the key difference — whereas the 2019 fastball distribution was largely down the pipe and wherever else it missed, the 2020 fastball was mostly aimed up, or at least missed up. The weird part is that this didn’t result in that many more whiffs... but it did lead hitters into horrendous contact. The change doesn’t seem dramatic, but going from this:

to this:

on fastballs up apparently had a .100-point effect or so on xwOBA-against, and a 10-point effect on exit velocity surrendered. You know the whole launch angle increase, more fly balls thing? The reality is that Fried’s actual fly ball rate barely budged up. Instead, he got a ton more infield pops. If you look at a measure that includes pops as fly balls, it’s obscured. If you break it out, well, let’s just say the fly ball rate looks a lot better. Is that substantially predictive to not fret about the xFIP? I’m not sure.

To be honest, I don’t know that I see enough difference in Fried’s across-the-board, or fastball-specific characteristics in 2020 to be confident that he now has a contact mitigation skill down pat. On the other hand, I don’t see much reason to think that his 2020 xFIP is a bummer either. It was only 50 frames, after all, and he actually did better in that regard in the postseason despite the to-some-extent tougher competition. So, think what you want, the 2021 season will be here soon either way.

2021: Who knows?

What will Max Fried do in 2021? We have some guesses, but of course, no one really knows. Will he go back to his 2019 strikeout and walk rates? Will he take more of a page from 2020 and get more contact on the zone’s edges, succeeding without the whiffs? Will he develop yet another new pitch? Perhaps a resurgence of the changeup is in order. Just please, not the sinker — unless he can somehow make it work. Whatever Max Fried does, look for it to be interesting, and bank on it being surprising. He hasn’t disappointed on those fronts yet.

I leave you with two charts that have brought me no end to slight amusement, especially when taken together. I present them without further commentary.

Oh, and a random video, just for fun:

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