ATLANTA — Charlie Morton estimates that he and Max Fried had at least 30-40 conversations between last April and July. The latter mining through things with the veteran, searching for answers and consistency.
“When I was around him talking pitching, you could tell he hadn’t really decided or discovered exactly what worked,” the veteran Morton. “One game he’d go out and you could tell he’d try to attack the inner half, attack the inner third, like really spot up and then cut guys off. Kind of get cute.”
Fried had an 11.45 ERA in April, and by the All-Star break, only six National League starters had a higher ERA than the left-hander’s 4.71. This coming after a breakout 2020 in which he had a top-five finish in the Cy Young voting.
“Then he went on that run, that two-month stretch last year where he was the best pitcher in baseball in August and September,” Morton said “and I really didn’t hear him question much after that.”
If last season — when Fried rattled off a 14-start second half in which he led the majors with a 1.74 ERA and capped it by throwing a title-clinching gem in Game 6 of the World Series — was about establishing the now-28-year-old as a certifiable, undeniable ace, the follow up includes the continued Evolution of Max Fried.
Through 17 starts, Fried is third overall with a 3.3 fWAR, while pitching to a 2.52 ERA that’s fifth in the league and 11th in MLB. He’s tied for second in the NL with nine wins and only the Marlins’ Sandy Alcantara (123 1/3 innings) and the Phillies’ Aaron Nola (111 1/3) have thrown more innings than Fried’s 107 1/3.
“I think I’ve been feeling really good,” Fried said. “Just trying to simplify everything and just kind of continuing what I was doing towards that second half, which is go out, throw strikes, keep us in the game and just try do what I can to win.”
That continued success has come with an expanded arsenal. Fried is still relying on his four-seam fastball and 12-6 curveball, but for the first time in his six MLB seasons, he’s throwing five different pitches at least 12.7 percent of the time. That includes the highest sinker and changeup usages of his career.
“It’s like he’s always experimenting on himself,” said Morton, who is in his second season sharing a spot in the Atlanta rotation alongside Fried. “It doesn’t surprise me that there’s deviations in usage and I think you’ll continue to see that, because he is very curious, and he is very capable. So that kind of allows him to do that, kind of allows him some freedom.”
If anyone knows the intricacies of tweaking and adjusting a repertoire, and doing it successfully, it’s Morton. He did so in 2011 with the Pirates, when he remade himself into a ground ball specialist and again six years later as he became a strikeout machine.
It’s not nearly a remodel from the ground up like Morton, but after throwing his sinker/two-seamer 3.5 percent of the time in 2019, Fried is up to 13.4 percent this season. Likewise, his changeup usage rate has jumped from 2.4 percent in 2019 to 12.7 percent this year.
Largely working those pitches in on left-handers and away to righties, batters are hitting at a paltry .186/.213/.237 clip vs. the change and .176/.216/.224 against the sinker. Fried ranks seventh in the NL with a minus-seven run value — the run impact of an event based on the runners on base, outs, ball and strike count — on the sinker and he has the fifth best wOBA (.186) with his changeup.
“I think he has a pretty good idea of what he’s doing,” Morton said. “He’ll dive into the number and he’s good at it. He’s good at dissecting the data and I think he’s really starting to figure out who he is. His toolbox is full of stuff.
“There have been times when he’s talked about locating really well ... and there’s been times where you can just see him bully guys with stuff. I think he’s just starting to be more at peace with who he is.”
When Fried broke into the league in 2017, his vaunted curveball was his mean strikeout weapon, resulting in a 29.5 percent putaway rate. That continued in 2018 (27.6 percent) and 2019 (28.2), before last season when, for the first time, he had at least a 15.4 percent putaway rate with four pitches. The curveball was still first (26.3 percent), but the sinker wasn’t far behind at 25 percent, while Fried had a 21.1 percent putaway rate on the slider and 16.7 percent with his changeup.
That was the first time he’d had his lowest putaway rate with the four-seam (15.8), and Fried’s ability to spread the wealth when it comes to generating strikeouts has only increased this season. All five of his pitches have at least a 16.1 percent putaway rate, and right behind Fried’s curveball in racking up the Ks?
Yep, his changeup and sinker.
FRIED’S 2022 PUTAWAY RATES & YEAR/YEAR CHANGES ON PITCH USAGE
- Curveball: 28.7 percent (-5.7 percent usage rate)
- Changeup: 23.8 percent (+10.5 percent usage rate)
- Sinker: 23.3 percent (+2.1 percent usage rate)
- Slider: 22.3 percent (-0.8 percent usage rate)
- Four-seam: 16.1 percent (-7.7 percent usage rate)
Fried has 24 strikeouts with his four-seam, 25 with the curveball, 21 on the slider, 20 on the changeup and 10 with the sinker. From 2017-2020, he struck out a combined 14 batters on the slider and seven via changeup.
“I know there’s been times where he’s challenged himself to finish at-bats with certain pitches he typically wouldn’t ... like on a whim,” Morton said. “I’ve heard him before like ‘I’m going to strike this guy out on a changeup.’ There’s sometimes he’s playing a game within the game.”
Wednesday’s 3-0 win over the Cardinals included an abbreviated outing from Fried, who exited after six innings and 82 pitches after experiencing tightness in his right glute that’s not expected to impact his availability for the next scheduled start vs. the division-leading Mets.
It was Fried’s lightest workload in terms of pitches thrown since April 13, but he was dominant again, limiting the Cardinals to five hits with no runs. That five-pitch menu generated a 42 percent CSW rate (called strikes plus whiffs) on his slider, 38 percent on the changeup, 25 percent with the curveball and 22 percent with the sinker, but it was a four-seam-heavy outing, as Fried had his highest usage rate (41.5 percent) since Opening Day against the Reds, and St. Louis hit a mere .125 on the 34 four-seamers he threw with an 18 percent CSW percentage.
That also marked the ninth straight game Fried has started that the Braves have won, a note the lefty puts more importance in than his individual success.
“Absolutely (that’s means more),” Fried said. “My job is to go out there and give us a chance to win, and if we go out there and the team wins on the day that I throw, then I feel like I did my job.”
A two-time Gold Glove winner, recipient of the likely last Silver Slugger ever won by a full-time pitcher — with the designated hitter having taken hold in the NL — and a World Series champion, Fried’s resume is getting lengthy. That includes a heady reference from Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who said “I think he’s the best left-hander in the game.”
Fried has yet to be named an All-Star, a designation that could change later this month for the Southern California native in a game played at Dodger Stadium.
“Trying not to think about it, because I don’t have very much control over it,” Fried said “I know I have another start here in about five days, kind of just focusing on that.”
But he’s more than making a case with a 2.21 ERA in his last 16 outings and 1.72 ERA in the last eight, the third-best in the NL and overall, he’s now posted 13 starts with at least two runs allowed or less.
“I know that he’s willing to throw pretty much any pitch in any count and that’s partially what makes him really tough,” Morton said. “He has a good fastball, really good curveball, a slider he’s developed into something, and he throws that four-seamer, and it will play as a cutter too. He’s got a changeup and he’ll throw them all pretty equally in a lot of counts.
“He’s distributing pitches seemingly randomly — I know he has a game plan — but (it feels like that) in terms of if you’re a hitter and you’re looking for that (sequence).”
While we’re appreciating Fried’s expanded arsenal, let’s spend the rest of the Starting Nine running the playlist of his best strikeouts on the changeup and sinker this season.
1. Sinker vs. Freddie Freeman, Pt. I
- 94.4 mph
- 2,081 rpm
Max Fried locks up Freddie Freeman with filth pic.twitter.com/vsJykIyZXA— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) April 20, 2022
2. Changeup vs. Juan Soto
- 85.4 mph
- 1,524 rpm
Juan Soto had to just smile after striking out on this elevated changeup from Max Fried. pic.twitter.com/B5hHjtp4Sg— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) April 13, 2022
3. Sinker vs. Cronenworth
- 93.6 mph
- 2,123 rpm
4. Changeup vs. Jazz Chisholm Jr.
- 88.5 mph
- 1,530 rpm
Max Fried, Gorgeous 88mph Changeup. pic.twitter.com/wBE0Wpeyap— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 29, 2022
5. Sinker vs. Freddie Freeman, Pt. II
- 96.3 mph
- 2,114 rpm
6. Changeup vs. Mookie Betts
- 87.5 mph
- 1,285 rpm
7. Changeup vs. Trea Turner
- 88.3 mph
- 1,474 rpm
8. Changeup vs. Justin Turner
- 88.5 mph
- 1,177 spin
9. Sinker vs. Nick Senzel
- 94.3 mph
- 2,0088 rpm