A.J. Minter had one of the best seasons of any relief pitcher in baseball in 2022, the best season of his career to this point.
Minter was drafted by the Braves in the second round of the 2015 MLB Draft. He was expected to be a reliever, and his selection was a very high pick to use on a pure relief prospect. While his career has definitely had ups and downs (not all downs entirely deserved), Minter has certainly justified this pick, despite playing a relatively low value position: he has been very good for Atlanta in all but one major league season. Minter has accumulated 5.7 career fWAR so far for the Braves, with 2.1 coming in 2022 alone. With two more team-controlled seasons remaining, that number will probably grow, and Minter will get some good money in arbitration for a reliever, to add to the $1.3 million he got in 2021, and his $2.2 million salary for 2022. MLB Trade Rumors projects Minter to earn an even $5 million in 2023.
What were the expectations?
The expectations for Minter coming into the season were that he would be a very good high leverage reliever that likely stood to benefit from some positive regression, given that he was very good but unlucky in 2021.
Specifically, in 179 2⁄3 major league innings heading into 2022, Minter had compiled 3.6 fWAR with a 86 ERA-, 68 FIP-, and 89 xFIP-. That included two great seasons (2018, 2021) and two very good but partial seasons (2017, 2020). It also included a rocky 2019 where he struggled, and spent time in the minors. Notably, the Braves also sent Minter to the minors for part of 2021, a strange move given that when it happened, he had a 114/73/100 line. In any case, Minter was coming off a strong, 1.3 fWAR season (demotion or not), and was probably expected to be an above-average relief arm even if there was skepticism that his 2021 season was as good as it appeared on paper.
Minter lived up to most expectations and then some in 2022, with a season that was nothing short of dominant. Posting an ERA/xERA/FIP/xFIP slash-line of 2.06/2.39/2.13/2.68 over 70 innings while racking up 2.1 fWAR, Minter was spectacular by essentially any measure.
His average fastball velocity tied it’s highest of his career, previously set in 2018, at 96.6 mph. He posted career bests (ignoring his 15-inning debut season) at 12.09 K/9 and 1.93 BB/9. These were both substantially better than his next-best mark on from a full season. All of this added up to a top five reliever in MLB by fWAR. Minter was the best reliever in the Atlanta bullpen, which was one of the best in the league, and did get five saves, despite a team management style that gives essentially every opportunity to an established closer and the existence of Kenley Jansen and (eventually) Raisel Iglesias on the roster.
What went right? What went wrong?
Minter threw his changeup a bit more this season, a little over 18 percent of the time, and he located it very well, throwing it consistently in the same place that he also painted with his fastball. It gave him an effective weapon against righties — his 2.34 FIP / 2.61 xFIP when lacking the platoon advantage was by far his best mark since his small-sample first year. (For comparison, from 2018-2021, his marks against righties were 3.72 / 4.32.)
Lefties, meanwhile, continued to be diced up by his cutter, which patched up any holes in his game that came from occasionally being unable to locate the fastball.
Minter flipped the script on his 2019 struggles by making his cutter/slider offering into something that dropped as well as broke gloveside. In 2022, he lost some of that drop, but the changeup usage and location picked up a lot of the slack. He also struggled to keep the fastball’s horizontal fade consistent from pitch to pitch, but it ended up not mattering so much given that he had no reason to overuse the fastball and had two devastating, well-located pitches that hitters could rarely eliminate and guess fastball.
If there was anything particularly negative about Minter’s overall season, it was that in his tiny postseason sample, he suffered from some bad BABIP luck despite fantastic underlying numbers that were even better than his regular season numbers.
Overall, Minter racked up a ton of WPA (over 2.00) and had 32 shutdowns to just seven meltdowns, an elite ratio that is pretty much what you’d expect from a guy with an elite relief season. His best WPA game came on August 12: he entered a one-run game with one out and the tying run on second, and proceeded to strike out pinch-hitter Garrett Cooper before eliciting a pop-up from Jon Berti. The Braves went on to win by the same lone run.
The cool thing about throwing 97 mph is that even when you miss horribly with your good-rise fastball, it can still overpower hitters in bad locations.
His single highest WPA play came a few months later, in the division-clinching October 4 game. It was a bit of a rocky outing for Minter, as he allowed a one-out double and walked two, along with a wild pitch — not his best effort of the season. But, a well-located 98 mph fastball and Nick Fortes bailed him out, for sure.
On the flip side, when Minter melted down (though he did so rarely), it was ugly. He had a few particularly horrible games, but probably none were worse than August 28 in St. Louis. He came on with a one-run lead, immediately gave up a game-tying homer to Tommy Edman and then walked the next batter. After an error, Minter came back to punch out the mini-Murderer’s Row of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado... but then Tyler O’Neill popped a three-run homer off of him.
And, of course, there was the other brutal game, where Bryson Stott inexplicably hit this three-run homer off Minter to turn a one-run lead into a loss.
Minter will be 29 years old for most of the 2023 season, so there is no strong reason to expect any age-related regression yet. Any pitcher with a season as good as his 2022 should not be expected to be quite as good the next season, but Minter still projects to be a very good reliever in 2023 for Atlanta, even if he isn’t quite as dominant. There won’t be many relievers with better projections heading into 2023, and Minter seems like a safer (but still really risky) bet to clear 1 fWAR than most relievers next year.
With that being said, it is possible that he could continue to improve his changeup and use it a bit more on his way to a similar or even better season than his incredible 2022.