A mainstay in a bullpen that (like most bullpens) has a lot of year-to-year turnover, A.J. Minter had a very A.J. Minter 2023 and was again one of the better relievers in the league.
The Braves drafted Minter with the 75th overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft. He made his debut in 2017 and has been a key part of the Atlanta relief corps nearly every season since. Ahead of the 2023 season, Minter and the Braves agreed on a one-year, $4.3 million deal to avoid heading to salary arbitration.
What were the expectations?
Minter was coming off of an absurdly dominant season in 2022, the best of his career. He had put up a 2.06/2.39/2.13/2.68 ERA/xERA/FIP/xFIP line in 2022 and was a top-five reliever in baseball by fWAR. While it probably wasn’t reasonable to expect Minter to fully repeat that performance in 2023, given how much he outpitched his still-excellent xFIP, it was certainly expected that Minter would be a top quality reliever for Atlanta once again.
Projections-wise, relievers are tricky, but Minter finished at 1.3 fWAR in 2021 and 2.1 fWAR in 2022. His projections had him in the 1.0-1.5 win range, which is a pretty wild number for a reliever, but one that Minter has fully deserved due to his performance.
Minter didn’t quite repeat his 2022, but his season was somewhat similar to his 2021 season. A 3.76/3.35/2.90/3.38 ERA/xERA/FIP/xFIP line isn’t quite what Minter has done at his best, but was still good enough to be in the set of the 20 most productive relievers by fWAR. Minter still struck out a huge 31.5 percent of the batters he faced, but his walks and homers crept back up from his 2022 levels.
All in all, Minter has had an interesting three-year run. In 2021, his pitching triple-slash (ERA-/FIP-/xFIP-) was 89/64/90, suggesting that he basically just rode a low HR/FB to an awesome season. 2022 had everything improve drastically to 50/55/68. And then in 2023, he ended up at 85/67/77 — a similar FIP to 2021, but this type much more supported by his peripherals.
Minter also accumulated 25 shutdowns to nine meltdowns in his 64 2⁄3 innings spanning 70 appearances. His 1.4 fWAR gave him his fourth career relief season in excess of the 1.0 threshold, which is an impressive mark for a reliever these days.
What went right?
Minter’s strikeout and walk rates weren’t quite as good as in 2022, but were still his second-best of any season since his 15-inning rookie year in 2017. He was pretty consistent on FIP and xFIP throughout the season, at least as much as a reliever can be. This is a pretty run-of-the-mill elite reliever season, and Minter’s excellence has become somewhat banal amid the drama that tends to be every team’s bullpen from year to year.
Here’s Minter striking out Bobby Witt Jr. early in the year to nail down a one-run victory with a 1-2-3 inning:
And here’s him doing something a little different, getting Trea Turner to hit into a double play with an excellent changeup (albeit the Phillies would go on to win the game with a Bryson Stott two-run double off him later in this outing):
What went wrong?
Minter had some wacky bad batted ball luck, especially in the first month to six weeks of the season. This inflated his ERA, despite his very good peripherals: through his first 19 innings, he had an ERA above 8.00 despite an FIP and xFIP well below 4.00. More on that in a bit. .
He did also walk more than his fair share down the home stretch in September and October. Aside from those two blips, Minter dipped a little from his absurd 2022, but was highly consistent and very good in 2023. His four-seamer was also hit much harder than in 2022, which seems to be the primary driver of the backsliding that he experienced, separate from the bad luck he suffered. It’s hard to say how meaningful that regression was, however, given the inherently small sample of his 2023.
Overall, the big difference between Minter’s 2021 and 2023 relative to his 2022 was the same as it’s going to be for almost any pitcher: command. In 2022, when everything was working, both his fastball and changeup were pinpoint and wore out the gloveside edge, while his cutter was thrown so it clipped the zone on the armside edge. In 2023, his command was largely a mess — fastballs down the pipe, cutters all the over the place, and changeups still reasonably well-spotted but much more erratic. It didn’t actually hurt him too much, as his stuff is just that good, but it explains the difference.
And, of course, when things went wrong, they went really wrong. Two of his nine meltdowns came in the same series against the Astros. On April 21, he gave up a two-out, two-run, go-ahead homer to Yordan Alvarez in the ninth.
Two days later, he was asked to face Alvarez with a two-run lead, two outs, and the bases loaded. This time, Alvarez hit a donut hole flare that tied the game. Then, in the ninth, Minter stayed in and struck out two but also yielded a single and a walk. Corey Julks followed with a 78 mph bouncer that scored the go-ahead run, giving Minter his worst outing, WPA-wise, of the season.
Lastly, few members of this team had a good NLDS, and Minter definitely didn’t. While he wasn’t charged with a run and appeared in three of the four games, he didn’t really help the cause. In Game 1, he had a strikeout, a single allowed, and a walk, with the single leading to a meaningless extra run on a catcher’s interference. In Game 2, he threw a 1-2-3 eighth down by a run before Austin Riley’s go-ahead homer, and then issued a leadoff walk to Bryce Harper in the ninth. Harper, of course, was then doubled off to end the game, but at that point, it was Raisel Iglesias pitching. And, finally, in Game 4, Minter got two ball-in-play outs around an infield single, and that was it for his season.
There is no reason to expect anything from Minter other than another elite season out of the bullpen. He should be seen as the set-up man and general fireman again for Atlanta, with Raisel Iglesias the incumbent closer. He should once again be one of the best relievers in baseball, and while it seems silly to expect a 1.5 WARish season out of any reliever, that’s been par for the course for Minter over the last three years.
The big question looming for Minter’s future is that 2024 is his last year of arbitration. He seems like the kind of guy who might want to stick around in Atlanta, but there is only a year left before he hits the open free agent market, so it will be interesting to see if the team works out an early extension with him or waits until after the 2024 season. It is possible that we could see him sign an extension after the season, similar to Pierce Johnson and Joe Jimenez earlier this offseason. I have generally believed with long-time Braves’ players and this front office that if they haven’t signed an extension before their last season with the team, they are unlikely to re-sign, but this might be less true for relievers, given the volatility and the smaller sums of money involved with bullpen pieces.