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2022 Atlanta Braves Season in Review: Max Fried

The Braves’ ace finished second in Cy Young voting after another really strong year.

Division Series - Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves - Game One Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Between Spencer Strider’s emergence and Kyle Wright flipping his script en route to a more-than-solid season in 2022, it almost felt like Max Fried had a quiet year. Of course, a quiet year for Fried means that he put together a campaign that earned him second place in Cy Young voting, his first All-Star Game selection, his third consecutive Gold Glove, and by far the most fWAR in his career (5.0).

How Acquired

Fried was acquired in the Justin Upton trade with the Padres in 2014. A former first-rounder in the middle of recovering from Tommy John Surgery, Fried was the prized prospect of the deal, which also brought infielders Jace Peterson and Dustin Peterson and outfielder Mallex Smith to Atlanta.

With Fried set to become a free agent after the 2024 season, it will be interesting to see when (or even if, yikes) he and the Braves agree to an extension. Currently, he’s set for an arbitration hearing ahead of the 2023 season unless he and the Braves agree to terms beforehand, and he is projected to earn a bit over $12 million for the year, which would be substantial raise over his $6.85 million salary for 2021 (as a result of beating the Braves in arbitration).

What were the expectations?

Fried was considered the staff ace prior to his iconic World Series Game 6 ankle-stepped-on performance, but if that outing foreshadowed 2022 in any way, the top of the rotation was in good hands. The projections for his 2022 were largely in line with his 2021 production, i.e., a very good but not elite starter, and Fried would live up to and exceed them in multiple notable categories.

2022 Results

In 30 starts, Fried posted a 14-7 record with a 2.48 ERA, 170 strikeouts to 32 walks, and a career-best 1.014 WHIP. The 30 starts tied his career high, matching his 2019 total, but Fried threw 20 more innings in 2022, a career-high 185 13, as he continued to demonstrate that he can be consistently relied on to go at least 6 or 7 innings per outing.

His 2.48 ERA ranked third in the National League and was the fourth-lowest single season ERA among Braves’ left-handers in the live ball era (min. 150 IP), behind Warren Spahn twice and Tom Glavine.

As mentioned earlier, he finished second in Cy Young voting behind Sandy Alcantara and also earned his third straight Gold Glove.

Overall, Fried totaled 5.0 fWAR in 2022, clearing his previous career high of 3.8 from the prior season by a ton. He posted the best single-season FIP- (67) of his career, and his xFIP- of 78 was bested previously only by his mark of 75 in 2019, which included three relief appearances. Fried finished seventh in MLB in fWAR among pitchers in 2022, a fraction of a win ahead of Strider.

What went right? What went wrong?

In 2022, Fried ranked in the 92nd percentile or better in three categories: average exit velocity (92nd), walk percentage (94th) and barrel percentage (94th). His walk rate, 4.4 percent, was the lowest of his career by far, a metric he’s halved since 2020.

Fried often sings the praises of the defense behind him, and it worked out for him this year—he gave up more batted balls than he ever has but yielded less runs. His average exit velocity, 86.2 MPH, was the second-lowest allowed of his career, as was his hard hit percentage, 32.2 percent.

When the left-hander celebrated the fifth anniversary of his Major League debut this past August, I looked at his pitch usage this season and how decreasing the usage of his signature curveball has made him a more effective pitcher. In addition to that, he continued to rely less on his relatively ineffective four-seamer and really developed his changeup into a quality, routine offering.

You might think that Fried’s really low walk rate was the result of him pounding the zone, but that’s nowhere near true: he actually had the lowest zone rate of his career in 2022. What ended up happening was that he threw enticing changeups and two-seamers that hitters were bamboozled into chasing, which propped up his strikeout rate and led to a lot of bad contact. His curveball continued to be incredibly nasty, and he appeared to leverage opposing hitters’ respect for it into a gameplan that hitters simply couldn’t handle. Having five pitches made Fried uniquely suited to working his way through a lineup multiple times:

Among the 97 starters that faced at least 100 batters after the second time through the order, Fried’s FIP was fifth-best and his xFIP was ninth-best. None of the five with a better FIP had more such batters faced than him; only three of the nine with a better xFIP did. Don’t be fooled by the increasing wOBA across the split, either: his xwOBA actually went down from .290 to .269 between the second and third time through the order.

The obvious thing that went wrong was the conclusion of Fried’s season, when illness in the form of flu and an upper respiratory infection limited his effectiveness. The illness first forced an early exit in the lefty’s final start of the regular season, as the TV crew caught Fried suddenly becoming ill in the bottom of the fifth inning after he’d retired 10 straight Mets in a battle with Jacob deGrom. Fried was pulled after his encounter with a bucket, but still pulled out the critical victory.

Though he and the Braves’ staff both insisted he was fine ahead of the NLDS, Fried’s Game 1 start was his worst of the season. He threw just 3.1 innings and allowed 6 runs on 8 hits, good for his shortest outing and most runs allowed all year, clearly setting the tone for the rest of the series. Rick Kranitz revealed later that Fried lost 15 pounds during those few weeks, which certainly illustrates just how sick he was and explains away any lingering concerns — it’s remarkable he was able to pitch as much, and as well, as he did.

A few other notable outings for Fried: his domination of the Rockies, at Coors Field no less, was nothing short of special: he threw eight scoreless frames in a game that stayed scoreless (and eventually ended in a 3-1 Braves extra-inning win). Somehow, he managed to throw said quantity of scoreless frames with just four strikeouts. Only six batters left the infield against him in the game.

And here’s Fried dominating the Mets while sick to his stomach, for good measure:

Fried had few poor starts to choose from — in his 30 outings, the pitching and defense while he was on the hill only lost WPA in five of them. The worst was probably his May 13 effort against the Padres, where he had a perfectly good 6/2 K/BB ratio, but gave up four runs, including an Eric Hosmer dribbler for a two-run single (the worst single WPA play Fried was involved in) and a homer by Wil Myers.

There was also the second game of the doubleheader against the Mets in August, where again, Fried was more than fine (5/1 K/BB ratio, no homers allowed), but was done in by some poor infield defense and apparently pitched multiple innings after banging his head on the ground and before hitting the seven-day Injured List for concussions.

One more cool Fried thing: here’s him getting Nolan Arenado to hit into a double play as part of a 3-0 shutout win. When even his worst pitch can get this type of weak contact, hitters are in trouble, and they were every time he took the mound.

2023 Outlook

Knowing Fried, he’ll be ready to avenge his end-of-season performance and then some in 2023. Illness aside, Fried’s only IL stint of 2022 came after suffering that freak concussion while chasing after a ball in New York, so it was actually the healthiest year of his career from an injury standpoint and thus a good point from which to build.

One thing that will be interesting to monitor next year and in seasons to come is how the lack of the shift will affect him as an increasingly ground-ball-focused pitcher. But if anyone on the Braves’ staff will be able to figure it out, it’s Fried. It’s not like he isn’t capable of pivoting to a more strikeout-oriented approach a la his 2019, should it be needed. The question at this point seems to be how he’ll evolve in 2023, rather than whether he’s capable of doing so once again.

As a relatively crafty hurler without an overpowering fastball, some projections don’t see Fried as more than a good starter, despite him banking his elite 2022 season. He probably has the inside track on beating those once again next year, but we’ll see what happens.

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