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Starting Nine: Time to call NL ROY race? Fried’s pickoff move nearly cost Olson his teeth

On Spencer Strider’s epic night and how Max Fried’s pickoff has surprised his first baseman and influenced a teammate

Colorado Rockies v Atlanta Braves
On the night Spencer Strider broke the Braves’ single-game record with 16 strikeouts, he also broke the franchise’s rookie record, a total that now sits at 174.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

ATLANTA — Is it time to call the National League Rookie of the Year race?

Sixteen strikeouts, an Atlanta-era record and one of the most dominant pitching performances by a Braves pitcher in the last quarter century.

“It’s pretty wild, the guys who’ve thrown in this organization, it’s a long, incredible list,” Strider said after allowing just two hits with no walks over eight scoreless innings in the Braves’ 3-0 win over the Rockies on Thursday night. “I’m just grateful to be here and having success.”

The 16 strikeouts broke the Atlanta record of Hall of Famer John Smoltz, who fanned 15 on both April 10, 2005, vs. the Mets and May 24, 1992, against the Expos.

And how does one react when realizing they’ve one-upped a franchise icon?

“I lost track after five,” Strider said. “I came out of the game and Kyle [Wright] was telling me something about John Smoltz or whatever, and I had no idea what he was talking about. It didn’t make any sense. And then somebody else said something and I just kind of looked cross-eyed at them and they were like, ‘You know what just happened?’”

It was part of a record night as Strider ran his season strikeout total to 174, breaking the Braves rookie record of 170 set by Julio Teheran in 2013.

The overall rookie fWAR leader at 4.2, Strider nearly doubles the next closest pitcher — the Mariners’ George Kirby at 2.3 — and is 0.4 ahead of the top position player — Seattle’s Julio Rodriguez — and leads teammate and fellow ROY candidate Michael Harris II by 0.5.

Strider’s production is staggering considering he didn’t make a start until May 30 and didn’t pitch past the fifth inning until June 10.

Harris’ impact has been undeniable in solidifying the Braves’ outfield and in the Atlanta era, only Dusty Baker (4.8 in 1972), Jason Heyward (4.6 in 2010) and Ronald Acuña Jr.’s 4.0 during his ROY 2018 have produced better fWARs, and Harris is all but certain to equal or surpass Acuña.

But to find a Braves rookie pitcher that has been as valuable as Strider, you have to go back to pre-war, like World War I. Dick Rudolph, who had a 4.7 fWAR in 1913, is the last Braves pitcher to put up a bigger number than Strider, who already surpassed Mike Soroka (4.0 in 2019) for the Atlanta mark.

From that end, how can anyone deny Strider?

There will be more bold-faced lines of his ROY resume — Strider is on pace for 214 strikeouts, which would be the 13th 200-strikeout season by a rookie in the Live-Ball Era, and the first since Yu Darvish fanned 221 in 2012 — but Thursday night is a tentpole in that candidacy.

Wth a Game Score of 94, Strider’s gem is fourth among all Braves since 1966. He trails only Kevin Millwood (98 on April 14, 1998, and 96 on Aug. 28, 1999) and Greg Maddux (96 on May 2, 2001).

“I’m watching some of the replays of the pitches and it’s like, ‘My God,’” said manager Brian Snitker. “Some of those breaking balls, the depth on them, it’s just ... and he holds his velocity, too. It’s pretty impressive.”

Let’s take a spin around the diamond, starting with one of Max Fried’s biggest weapons

1. Fried’s pickoff move is deadly. Just ask Olson

The leg kick, then the slight drift home. That’s the part that lulls the runner into a false sense of security, just before Max Fried fires to first base.

Another victim of what first baseman Matt Olson calls “the best lefty move I’ve ever seen.”

If you think the runners are stunned, they’re not alone. When Olson first arrived at spring training after being acquired from the A’s, Fried told the two-time Gold Glove winner he had a good pickoff move. Olson saw glimpses of it during pitcher fielding practice drills, but it reaches another level when the lights turn on.

“Honestly, he still surprises me every once in a while,” Olson said. “It’s definitely gotten a lot better. ... I actually almost took one in the teeth (early in the season). After that, I realized I had to watch him a little longer than I thought.”

Fried laughed when told he nearly cost Olson his teeth, but he did warn him.

“A lot of it just feeling the game out and being attentive and ready,” Fried said. “We’ve had conversation, but a lot of its kind of in the moment, like spur-of-the-moment.”

Since 2017, Fried tops all pitchers with 22 pickoffs, four more than the second player on that list, the Brewers’ Eric Lauer. That includes four seasons of four or more pickoffs, the most of anyone, with the Cubs’ Wade Miley — who has three such seasons — the only other pitcher with more than two.

It’s helped Fried claim back-to-back Gold Gloves, and he’s picked off two runners so far this season, keying a rundown between first and second to get the Pirates’ Ke’Bryan Hayes on June 9, and he nabbed the Giants’ Luis Gonzalez at first on June 20.

“Everybody’s pretty shocked,” Olson said of opposing players’ reactions. “When you see base stealers getting on base and they’re shutting it down, like that’s part of their game and they don’t want to run, that’s when you know it’s a pretty good move.”

Call it the Fried Fear Factor.

He has the highest caught stealing percentage (66.6 percent) among left-handers with at least 500 innings pitched over the past four seasons, largely because few want to be his next victim. In that span, the 27 steal attempts — in which runners have been successful 18 times — are the lowest of anyone lefty within that innings plateau.

The secret is in Fried making the pickoff move look exactly like his delivery, until it’s not. It’s a part of his game that’s been there since he was playing youth ball.

“Something that I was always good at when I was younger, when we were first doing pickoffs and leadoffs and all that kind of stuff,” Fried said. “Just something I kind of took to and has been natural for me.”

Fried’s move is so good it’s created pickoff envy, at least with fellow left-hander A.J. Minter.

“I’m so envious that I was working so hard this offseason to beat him in pickoffs this year,” Minter said. “But obviously, he has one of the best ones.”

Minter watched film of his teammate and asked him for advice on improving his own move, and it’s paid off.

In his first four seasons, Minter had never picked anyone off and runners were 11 for 12 on stolen base attempts with him on the mound. But last season he picked off two runners and has one this season.

“In the past I wasn’t very good at picking off,” Minter said. “I don’t want to say I was scared to; I just didn’t practice it enough. Watching him, I realized it is an advantage to keep runners honest on first and second base. I have gotten some pickoffs this year because of just practicing it and watching him. Still got a ways to go, though.”

Said Fried “It’s really cool that someone would be able to look at me to kind of look to (for that). I’ve definitely seen an improvement in A.J.’s pickoff over the years. It’s a part of his game that he’s really taken into more consideration ... he’s asked me a couple things.”

After ranking first or second in pickoffs in each of the last three seasons, Fried is further down the MLB rankings in 2022 in a tie for sixth with 28 other players, and he’s not even the Braves’ leader (that would be Charlie Morton with three).

Credit that to the Fried Fear Factor, with runners not being added to a pickoff ledger that has the 28-year-old climbing up the Braves’ all-time ranks.

On a list topped by Warren Spahn (74), Fried is tied with Dick Rudolph (1913-1927) for eighth in franchise history, and he’s two from Bob Smith (1923-1937) for seventh. In the Atlanta era (1966-on), Fried is fifth, six from Tom Glavine, and he’s not yet halfway to Phil Niekro, who tops all pitchers since the club’s relocation with 48.

But it’s how quickly Fried has reached that top five that’s so staggering. Glavine’s 28 came in 3,408 innings, Julio Teheran amassed 34 in 1,360 innings, Steve Avery’s 34 came over 1,222 1/3 frames and Niekro’s total was over 4,532 2/3 innings. Fried has thrown just 605 1/3 innings.

2. Where Snitker’s concern with Acuña lies

The Braves are better with Ronald Acuña Jr. No one’s debating this. On the season, they’re 64-29 (a .688 winning percentage) when he’s in the lineup, and 17-22 (.436) when he’s not.

That impact was on full display Wednesday vs. the Rockies, when he clubbed a 444-foot home run to dead center, helping the Braves to a win after losing their last three games, all of which Acuña missed as he dealt with “intense pain” in his surgically repaired right knee.

After that victory, when asked about his knee, a laughing Acuña said it feels “terrible, but we’re going to play through it until the season is over.”

Maybe Acuña’s tenor when saying “terrible” underscores that nobody seems overly concerned about it, and the fact that Acuña has avoided a stint on the injures list backs that up. But as manager Brian Snitker discussed Tuesday, the biggest issue with Acuña has come with starting and stopping, hence Acuña slotting in as the designated hitter Wednesday and Thursday vs. Colorado.

“Probably stealing bases, just the takeoff isn’t great,” Snitker said of his top area of concern. “A lot of it is the slowing down, running in on balls, shutting it down, things like that irritate it pretty good. It’s better. It’s quieted down a lot since we last played him, so that’s good.”

Snitker admits that it’s hard to get Acuña to town down the parts of his game that lead to those issues, though he’s taking steps to limit the wear and tear. Acuña has attempted one steal in the past eight games, that after being caught in his last three tries and last successfully stole a bag Aug. 13).

“It’s hard to do that. It’s hard to do those parts of the game,” Snitker said. “When a ball’s hit, he’s going to run. In the outfield he’s going to try and catch everything and it’s hard to do that. Just trying to limit the stolen bases if we can and he’s been pretty very about managing it out of the box when it’s a routine play compared to something he feels like he can beat and he can turn it on.”

The reality is his knee isn’t likely to get any better during the grind of the season, meaning managing his pain is going to be a continued topic, especially as the postseason draws near.

“It’s hard,” Snitker said. “It does bother him, but it’s like we’ve talked about many times, it’s just something I think he’s going to have to deal with to get through the year.”

3. Could Soroka return next week?

Mike Soroka will make his fourth rehab start Friday for Gwinnett — the third at Triple-A — and Soroka told me he’s aiming for 90 pitches, as he continues to work his way back to a big-league mound for the first time since Aug. 3, 2020.

“Just got to keep pitching,” Soroka said.

Soroka threw 75 pitches in his last outing, though he wasn’t particularly sharp, giving up four runs on four hits with three walks and three strikeouts. He’s been building after throwing 58 pitches and 45 pitches in his first two starts.

“It’s all going in the right direction,” Snitker said. “It’s all about getting the repetitions now.”

Reaching that 90-pitch mark would seem to suggest that would be the end of Soroka’s rehab and getting him back in the fold — beyond being a remarkable comeback story from two Achilles surgeries — could be a major benefit to the rotation.

Kyle Wright — who has already skipped due to arm fatigue — has thrown 154 2/3, the most of any of his six professional seasons, and the same with Spencer Strider (114 2/3), though Strider just keeps looking stronger (see his record-setting 16 strikeouts Thursday vs. the Rockies). Soroka would allow the Braves to manage their innings over the last month, while also adding a former All-Star to the mix.

Should all go well Friday, could we see Soroka return as early as the Sept. 6 or 7 games in Oakland? Those would time out with either Wright or Strider’s next start.

4. Albies’ impending return brings questions, no answers

Ozzie Albies began his path back to the Braves’ lineup Thursday, going 0-for-4 as DH for Gwinnett as in his first action since breaking his foot June 13. There’s no firm timetable on when Albies will be back on the field in Atlanta, with Snitker saying at this point it’s more about monitoring the two-time All-Star, but it’s within reason to think he’s back in a Braves uniform next week.

“He’s in good shape. He’s done a lot of work and everything,” Snitker said. “But until you get out there and put the cleats on and play the innings and everything, just get his body into game shape. I think we’ll be able to tell. Just day to day, see how he’s feeling, things like that.”

But as Albies inches closer, the questions that everyone has been asking are going to need answers. Chiefly, what will it mean for Vaughn Grissom.

The rookie has cooled off after hitting .420 through 14 games, going 3-for-27 since to drop his average to .312 with an .821 OPS and he hasn’t had an extra-base hit in the last eight games.

“It’s great experience for (Grissom),” Snitker said. “Time will tell going forward what happens. It’s been very encouraging and great to see another young guy called up and doing well.”

Grissom was in the outfield during batting practice Wednesday taking some reps, the most obvious spot defensively to assure he gets continued at-bats. He’s never played the position as a pro, though the shortstop is already playing out of position at second base, anyway. Plus, with William Contreras and Travis d’Arnaud (when they aren’t catching), Eddie Rosario and Marcell Ozuna (if he remains in the plans), Orlando Arcia and Acuña, when he isn’t used in the field, ABs at designated hitter, are going to be hard to come by.

The Braves are going to have to get creative to make it all work and having to piece together that puzzle is becoming more of a reality, though it’s likely a welcome issue if it means Albies is back in the fold.

“We miss a guy like Oz, what he brings to our club, day-in and day-out, who he is,” Snitker said.

5. Running their way into Braves history

While we may not see Acuña trying to swipe bags with regularity the rest of the season, he’s done his part to create a place in Braves history. Now it’s up to Michael Harris II and Dansby Swanson to do the same.

Harris stole his 16th base on Tuesday, making the rookie 16-for-16, and putting him four more from becoming the sixth player ever to have more than 20 steals without being caught in a single season (joining record-holder Chase Utley with 25, Alcides Escobar with 22, Quintin Berry with 21, Kevin McReynolds with 21 and Paul Molitor with 20).

But that’s not the history we’re talking about, as Harris and Swanson both need four steals to give the Braves three players with at least 20 stolen bases for the first time since 2000. Rafael Furcal, Andruw Jones, Reggie Sanders and Quilvio Veras all did it that season, and if Acuña/Harris/Swanson can all get to 25 steals, they’d be the first Braves trio since Ron Gant, Otis Nixon and Deion Sanders in 1992 and just the third since 1911.

6. Kyle Wright’s bid to join Tom Glavine

Wright picked up his MLB-leading 17th win Tuesday, stifling the Rockies over seven scoreless innings. He was dealing against a Rockies lineup that didn’t include a single player who had ever seen Wright before.

No Braves pitcher has led the National League in wins since Russ Ortiz in 2003 (which was also the last time they had a 20-game winner) and Atlanta hasn’t had the majors’ wins leader since Tom Glavine won 21 in 2000.

Wright’s chances of doing so increased with the two players who went into Wednesday sharing the MLB lead with him at 16 wins — the Dodgers’ Tony Gonsolin and Astros’ Justin Verlander — both landing on the injured list.

Gonsolin is on the 15-day IL with a right forearms strain, which is expected to cost him two starts. Meanwhile, Verlander is also on the 15-day IL after undergoing an MRI that revealed a right calf injury.

Gonsolin and Verlander have teammates that are on Wright’s heels, though, with Houston’s Framber Valdez and Los Angeles’ Julio Urias both sitting on 14 wins. But should Wright continue his normal rotation turns — which, again, is something to monitor as the innings are a new high each time he takes the mound — he’s in a strong position to end the Braves’ league and MLB wins’ leader drought.

7. Deep diving for souvenirs

Matt Olson has five career grand slams, but the fifth — and first with the Braves — had someone reaching entirely new depths to retrieve it.


Pittsburgh River Rescue went diving into the Allegheny River on Tuesday to retrieve the ball Olson hit on Aug. 24, a 420-foot homer that was part of a 14-2 Atlanta win. Olson is the only player in Braves history to hit a ball into the water.

The Pittsburgh River Rescue, for those wondering, is a unit within the city’s government offices. Pittsburgh’s web site say it combines “the efforts of the Bureau of Emergency Medical Services’ SCUBA Search & Rescue Team with those of the Bureau of Police River Patrol.”

People of Pittsburgh have to love this fantastic use of tax dollars at work rescuing this baseball, as the public safety department used the recovery for a training exercise.

“Braves, if you want Olson’s grand slam ball, we have it,” Pittsburgh Public Safety posted on Twitter. “Have your people call or people (send a DM).”

8. Happy anniversary to Duvall’s history-making outburst

While Adam Duvall is out for the season dealing with a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist, we’ll dial it back to two years ago on this day, when he made history at Fenway Park.

One night after Marcell Ozuna hit three home runs, Duvall followed it up with three of his own, making them the only teammates to ever have three homers in back-to-back games.

Technically, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth did it on May 21 and 22, 1930, but that included part of a doubleheader in between. Duvall bashed two-run homers in the second and sixth innings, then followed with a solo shot in the eighth.

Told of the feet, the aw-shucks Duvall replied “Wow, that’s pretty neat. That’s pretty cool.” Yes, pretty cool indeed.

9. HBD to a former Braves top prospect

Back in 2014, I caught up with Christian Bethancourt, who was at his locker before a game in which he was scheduled to catch, headphones in and poking at his iPad. He was playing a Japanese baseball game where he was working on his create-a-player and the then-rookie Bethancourt told me of his playing prowess “I’ve played 11 seasons and I’ve been MVP eight times.”

Go ahead and enter your jokes at this stage, as Bethancourt’s actual production has yet to match up to his virtual avatar.

The now-31-year-old has played for four different teams, bouncing from the Braves to the Padres, A’s and now Rays. He’s played catcher, first base, second base, third base, right field and left field and even pitched nine innings, amassing a career fWAR of minus-0.6.

But rest assured, somewhere in virtual form, he’s meeting the hype that came with being a consensus top-100 prospect.

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