Let’s flush this weekend’s outcome with some positivity, shall we?
In the top of the eighth inning on August 8, 2017, the Braves were down 5-2 to the Phillies when they brought in a young reliever they’d just called up from Double-A Mississippi a few days prior to make his Major League debut. He walked the first batter he faced before striking out the next one and inducing two groundouts and, despite giving up a pair of hits in the ninth, he put together a scoreless debut.
A small sign of things to come for Max Fried, who has firmly established himself as an Atlanta ace in the years since.
Anyone familiar with Fried will know that his curveball was the pitch that launched him into household name-dom, and it’s certainly something that will never get old.
Max Fried, Beautiful 76mph Curveball...and Sword. ⚔️— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 1, 2020
And Devers reaction. pic.twitter.com/qL74STGatl
During Fried’s start against the Mets this past weekend, the broadcast spent a while discussing how part of what has made the lefty so successful over the last few seasons is that he’s actually throwing that signature curveball less—with the result being that he’s now less of a strikeout pitcher and more of a pitch-to-contact guy.
It sounded right at the time, but naturally, I wanted to dig into the Fried’s stats and see how true it was.
Let’s start with pitch usage.
In the early days of Fried’s career, his three primary pitches were a four-seam fastball, the curveball, and a changeup that was only utilized about 10 percent of the time, so he was almost fastball- and curveball-exclusive. He developed a slider and eliminated a cutter in 2019, and what we’ve seen in the years since then is a dramatic decrease in his fastball and, albeit less so, curveball in favor of a much greater mix.
The changeup usage dipped significantly in 2019 but has become much more a part of his repertoire this year, and his sinker usage has steadily increased. And, as the broadcast correctly noted, his curveball utilization is currently the lowest of his career at just over 20%—in fact, that usage is closest to his 2020 measure, which was the best season of his young career despite a smaller sample size due to the COVID-shortened season. So, for as much as we all love the rainbow curve, mixing his pitches has clearly proven more effective.
Once you get into his actual production numbers, Fried’s best seasons for comparison are 2019 and 2021—two seasons during which the unpredictability of baseball somehow allowed him to throw the exact same number of innings, 165.2.
In 2019, he had 30 starts in 33 appearances, gave up 174 hits and 74 earned runs—good for an ERA of 4.02—and struck out 173 of the 702 batters he faced.
In 2021, all 28 of his appearances were starts, and he gave up significantly less hits (139) and earned runs (56)—good for an ERA of almost a whole point lower at 3.04—and while his strikeout number was certainly down, so was the number of batters he faced (158 of 667).
In percentage form, that means that his strikeout rate was 24.6% in 2019 and 23.7% in 2021, so it actually was not really much of a change.
In terms of the pitch-to-contact metrics, the three biggest things that changed for Fried from 2019 to 2021 were hard hit percentage, line drive percentage, and fly ball percentage.
His hard hit rate dropped from 42.1% in 2019 to 34.3% in 2021, and the corresponding average exit velocity allowed decreased from 89.1 MPH to 85.2 MPH. He started giving up less line drives (26.3% in 2019 compared to 20.6% in 2021) and turned those into fly balls (up from 16.6% in 2019 to 20.6% in 2021).
Overall, these are just a lot of numbers that support what we all just understand from watching every fifth day: Fried has developed into a more efficient pitcher, which has allowed him—and us—to expect at least 6.0 or 7.0 strong innings each start.
With Austin Riley locked up for the next decade, there is a really strong case that Fried should be the biggest priority for the Braves. Yes, Dansby Swanson is a free agent at the conclusion of this season, and Fried is under club control until 2025. Do I hope they extend them both, and do I think they will ultimately extend them both? Yes. But the reality is that the Braves without Fried is more of a glaring issue than the Braves without Swanson.
Ok, that feels negative, and this was meant to be some positivity for your Monday off day. Suffice it to say, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with extensions over the next few months.
I’ll leave you with this iconic Max memory:
Does anyone else sometimes miss pitchers hitting, or is it just me?
A debate for another day.