This offseason here at Talking Chop, Ivan wrote about Max Fried’s first four seasons. Really, go read it if you haven’t. I can wait.
As you now know, Fried’s slider was brand spanking new in 2019, and it was a catalyst for his breakout. From the catcher’s perspective, it swept downward and leftward, with above-average velocity. In 2020, the pitch didn’t break downward quite as much, but it was still useful in tandem with his fastball and curve. As Ivan pointed out:
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).
And when talking about 2020:
The slider was mostly the same, but lost some drop, making it less of a two-plane offering than it was.
Now, I typically wouldn’t expect to find anything in the data of a single game, but because it is opening weekend, I am content to look at typically useless information. And lo and behold, I saw something on Fried’s Baseball Savant page that caught my eye:
Oh, hello! The once-84 MPH slider is now an 87 MPH slider?
First off, I brushed this off as insignificant noise from a single game. After all, these MPHs are just averages, and it’s typical for pitchers to sit in a range. I figured Fried has always had games where it ran a bit faster, averaged out by games where it sat a bit lower. Let’s look:
2021 is on there, but you probably missed it at first. Go glance in the upper right-hand corner, and find that happy little yellow dot just hanging out, out of place.
This got me interested in Fried’s historical, for lack of a better term, max. Of the 611 sliders Fried threw in 2019-2020, 54.3% were under 84 mph, 21.1% sat between 84-85, 16.2% were between 85-86, 9.1% were between 86-87, and 4.7% were over 87. While that looks like well over 100% of his pitches, that’s due to the fact pitches exactly 84, 85, and so on will drop into multiple buckets. It’s a quirk of Statcast’s search function, so just bear with me, and focus on this. Fried threw 29 sliders at 87 or higher in two years. On Thursday, he threw 13. Coming into this season, he had topped 90 with the pitch twice. Against the Phillies, he did it five times. As the headline gave away, Max Fried’s slider, v3.0, is faster than ever.
Here’s one of those 90 plus sliders making Didi Gregorius look silly:
If you remember Fried getting squeezed on a pitch or two, this one might look familiar. It also happens to be the hardest slider Max Fried has ever thrown.
The caveat here is that more velocity doesn’t always equate to more effectiveness. Despite throwing the slider harder than ever, the Phillies got three hits and a double off the offering. The xwOBA on the pitch was .443. I’m not as worried about this, though. I don’t think anyone who watched Thursday’s game would suggest Fried had perfect command on the blustery Philly afternoon, so we’ll wait and see if the command improves with better weather and no risk of opening day jitters.
Another unfortunate consequence: throwing it harder may also come along with a continued evening-out of the pitch, vertically. Another graph!
Fried’s 2021 debut resides in the same lonely little corner of the vertical movement graph as his velocity graph, except this time, it’s not as optimal. Part of what made Fried’s slider so good in 2019 was the way it made Patches O’Houlihan happy, ducking, dipping, diving, and dodging bats all year with its downward motion. If you’ll notice the Y axis labels, this is still a pitch with good vertical movement; it’s just not as good.
There is another sign the poor results were likely due to nothing more than occasional lack of command (and maybe even good luck on Philly’s end): the Phillies did get those 4 hits on the pitch, but they also whiffed on more than a third of their swings against the slider. After generating slider whiff rates of 28.6% and 29.0% in 2019-2020, the 36.8% mark to start 2021 is very encouraging. Also encouraging is that Fried seems confident in the slider, throwing it on 26.6% of his pitches. It was just the 5th game of his career where the slider occupied a quarter or more of his pitch selection.
All in all, this is still a single game, but Max Fried did things in this game he had never done before, with great success on a process level despite mixed results in the box score. How he uses this new weapon going forward bears watching, and if he can harness his command of the now upper-80s, low-90s offering, it would significantly help Fried move closer to the upper ranks of baseball’s pitching elite.