After a 2022 season that saw Max Fried place second in Cy Young voting, expectations were naturally high for 2023. However, it turned out to be an injury-riddled year for the southpaw, as he made just 14 regular season starts in between three separate stints on the Injured List, the longest of which lasted three months.
As we all probably know by now, Fried was acquired in the Justin Upton trade with the Padres in 2014, a trade that definitely looks amazing in retrospect. The bigger conversation at this point, as we all also probably know, is that, barring a contract extension, Fried will be a free agent after the 2024 season.
Fried has experienced arbitration hearings in each of the last two offseasons, so that seems to be a natural outcome this year again should he not sign an extension before hearings begin in early 2024. He lost last year’s hearing, filing at $15 million but ultimately earning the Braves’ number of $13.5 million. This time around, he is estimated to be worth $14.4 million. There’s probably a higher chance he goes to arbitration than signs any kind of deal, given his status as the team’s union representative.
What were the expectations?
When I wrote Fried’s review after the 2022 season, I noted that the year had been the healthiest of his career from an injury standpoint, as he had only seen one IL stint due to a freak concussion in August (I should’ve knocked on more wood when I wrote that, I know). Such a year would, in theory, be a good point from which to build, and naturally, expectations were high. Fried entered the year still considered Atlanta’s ace over Spencer Strider, and 2023 should’ve provided an opportunity for him to cement that status.
From a numerical perspective, projections tended to have Fried between 3-4 WAR. Fried’s 5.0 fWAR mark in 2022 was driven by him outpitching his xFIP, but even if his outputs regressed to his career-best 3.09 xFIP from that year, he’d still be one of the best hurlers in the game.
Fried’s 14 regular season starts were split up such that he made one in March, three in April, one in May, five in August, and four in September. In those starts, Fried tossed 77 2⁄3 innings and compiled 1.9 fWAR. His pitching line was a 57 ERA-, 73 FIP-, and 71 xFIP-.
Coming into the year it was 72/79/80; and it was 60/69/78 last year, so he basically replicated his elite 2022 performance, just in way fewer games.
He struck out 80 batters, nudging his strikeout rate above a quarter of batters faced for the first time since his small-sample 2018 season. Perhaps none of those 80 were as fun as this one against a certain member of the Cubs lineup in Fried’s return from his 91-day Injured List stint:
Max Fried K'ing Dansby Swanson with 97mph ⛽️— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 4, 2023
And, the Ripper puts Dansby on the Eternal IL. ☠️ pic.twitter.com/ZcRfsIXQoo
In the midst of what could easily be mistaken for medical documentary about blisters, Fried also started the Braves’ lone NLDS victory. The rust from his third and final IL stint was evident, as he only lasted 4.0 innings and allowed three runs on six hits, walking four and striking out three. He would’ve started the decisive Game Five had the Braves forced it.
What went right?
The amazing thing about Fried’s season was that despite all the injuries, he didn’t seem to show any diminished effectiveness. His lengthy injured stint was due to a forearm issue, which made everyone fear the worst — but not only did he avoid being knocked out for the year, he came back and pitched pretty much like Max Fried. These days, the pitching minefield is such that even routinely-reliable starters get felled by injuries or out-of-nowhere ineffectiveness; Fried missed much of the year but didn’t seem particularly fazed or affected by any of it when he got back on the mound.
The highlight of his 2023 season was a seven-inning masterpiece in an ever-important series at Dodger Stadium on September 1. He did not allow a run and struck out 10:
Max Fried Gem— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) September 2, 2023
Watch all against the Dodgers. pic.twitter.com/P86QkkB3xC
He also had a nifty and gritty start against the Astros earlier in the year, where he pitched 6 2⁄3 innings of scoreless ball despite just a 5/3 K/BB ratio, and departed with a 2-0 lead. (The bullpen ended up blowing that game as the Astros swept the series, but Fried was a bright spot here.)
Vintage Max Fried includes having a guy off-balance enough to mash a 97 mph over-the-plate fastball into a double play:
What went wrong?
Injuries are clearly the short answer here, and 2023 proved inauspicious from the very beginning for Fried. His Opening Day outing in Washington was cut short by a hamstring tweak suffered while running over to cover first base in the fourth inning, and with the cooler weather, the Braves’ training staff decided to be cautious and end his day early. Fried was placed on the IL the next day—no, it wasn’t an April Fools’ Joke—and then activated on April 17.
A few weeks and four starts later, the announcement that Fried would be placed on the 15-day IL, retroactive to May 6, with a forearm strain was jarring. He had thrown well in his three April starts, as each outing was scoreless and lasted at least five frames. Looking back on it now, though, his May 5 start was his worst of the year in terms of runs allowed and FIP—seven total, with five earned, on eight hits, including two homers—so do with that what you will, after you consider that his 3.85 xFIP in the game was still plenty fine. Fried ended up being transferred to the 60-day IL on June 5.
After making rehab appearances with both Rome and Gwinnett in July, Fried returned on August 4 for a dominant outing against the Cubs. He spun six shutout innings with eight strikeouts, including the one of Dansby Swanson shown above, and zero walks in an 8-0 Braves win, seemingly shutting down any lingering concerns about how his arm would fare going forward.
The month continued smoothly for Fried until an index finger blister landed him back on the IL on September 22, meaning that he could be activated just in time for the NLDS. The blisters were common for Fried early in his career, but he’d seemed to have them under control during the last few years, so it was just an unfortunate cherry on top of an unfortunate season.
With few starts and few clunkers given his level of performance, it’s hard to pinpoint anything that went poorly for Fried when he was on the mound. Probably the most annoying outing for him was the one against Pittsburgh on August 9 — Fried departed after four innings with a 4/1 K/BB ratio and four runs allowed, but all four runs came in the fourth, courtesy of a 67 mph infield single, an 80 mph groundout, and a bouncer through the infield that tied the game and is possibly an out if teams were still allowed to shift without restriction.
He also threw this very bad pitch to Wilmer Flores, which is memorable because this sort of thing just doesn’t happen to Fried very often.
Any kind of forearm injury is always scary for a pitcher, but it was mostly business as usual for Fried when he returned from his long IL stint in August, so that hopefully will not be a concern that extends into 2024. If he can regain his 2022 form, he and Strider will make quite the one-two punch, in whatever order you so choose.
As a result of him missing so much time in 2023, his projections will likely bake in a diminished production level to some extent. Steamer currently has him at 3.5 WAR over 185 innings, which seems very reasonable — though it’s worth noting that Fried’s pitched much better than that on a rate basis in each of the past four seasons, and there’s some regression to the mean which may or may not transpire in play here.
The overwhelming storyline of 2024, unless something changes between now and then, is Fried’s future in Atlanta. It will be interesting to see if he ends up as the latest name in the list of big free agents that the Braves allowed to walk (see: Freddie Freeman and Dansby Swanson). There’s certainly an argument to be made that Fried might be willing to take a bit of a discount now to provide multi-year security rather than allow his future value to be left up to the chance of a repeat of 2023. That said, owing to his status as an MLBPA representative, along with his West Coast ties and the assumption that he’ll ultimately command more than the $22 million AAV threshold that Alex Anthopoulos has thus far been unwilling to surpass, most have it chalked up as a foregone conclusion that the 2024 season will be Fried’s last in a Braves uniform—even to the point that the notion of trading him rather than “just losing him” in free agency has become a topic of discussion.
In what world a trade would amount to a beneficial outcome, I’m not sure. With the current starting pitching question marks—which, to be fair, Fried’s injuries magnified—it doesn’t make a lot of sense to trade away a guy who has shown the ability to be a perennial Cy Young candidate. If 2024 is, in fact, it, I choose to enjoy every second of every Max Fried Day rather than lament that the Braves didn’t get some kind of “return” for him. I encourage you to do the same.