There is no doubt about it, the 2022 Atlanta Braves leader in relief pitcher fWAR is struggling this year. A.J. Minter currently sits at 7.36 ERA while being second on the Braves’ roster in innings pitched for relievers (22.0 at the time of this writing).
So, what is going on, and can Minter turn things around?
In March we looked at Atlanta Braves pitchers who would need to make the biggest adjustment for the pitch clock. It just so happens that A.J. Minter was the pitcher that had to make the biggest adjustment, time wise.
As a refresher, you can look at Statcast and see a player’s pitch tempo, but it is from release to release. The pitch clock does not work that way. So, on average you subtract six seconds from the tempo and you can get an approximate estimate of how a player does under the parameters of the pitch clock.
Last year, Minter’s average with runners on base was a full two seconds slower than the twenty second pitch clock. That means Minter would have to speed up his average tempo by a full ten percent just to not get a violation on every pitch on average.
The question now is to look at his numbers with runners on base and see if we see a big change.
In 2022, Minter was excellent with runners on base. In 110 plate appearances, hitters were hitting .190/.259/.284. Hitters’ OPS against him was 51.0 percent below league average.
For his career, his performance with men on has not been quite as good, but it has still been decent with hitters hitting .242/.324/.348 which equates to hitters having an adjusted OPS against him that is 6.0 percent better than average.
This year, it has been an absolute disaster. In 39 plate appearances with men on so far this year, hitters have a slash line of .412/.426/.588. Hitters have an adjusted OPS that is 71.0 higher than league average against him.
Could these struggles be because he is struggling to adjust to the pitch clock?
Another area to look at is him pitching in the ninth inning. Over the past few seasons, he has struggled with thrust into that role.
When comparing his eighth and ninth innings splits over his career, they are very similar. He has pitched 92.2 innings in the eighth in which hitters have a .669 OPS. In 82.0 innings in the ninth, hitters have a .673 OPS.
In recent seasons, Minter seems to have been more comfortable in the eighth. From 2021-2023, hitters had a wOBA of .321, .273, and .266 respectively against him. In the ninth hitters had a wOBA of .312, .300, and .312 respectively.
If we look at xFIP, is shows he performs better in the eighth as well. From 2020-2023 his rolling xFIP has been 1.91, 4.54, 2.75, 1.54. In the ninth we see 4.14, 3.93, 2.22, and 3.50.
Of course, these sample sizes are small, so this leaves quite a few variables in play. However, it is something to at least be considered.
Can Minter turn things around?
If there is any true weight to the eighth versus ninth inning idea, then with Raisel Iglesias being back is already a step in the right direction.
Minter seems to be struggling due to the pitch clock, but pitch clock time average has dropped from 22.0 seconds to 12.3 second with men on. So, the time itself is not his issue as much as finding a balance.
From a high level view we can see that Minter has been unfortunate in terms of preventing runs. His xERA is much lower than his 7.36 ERA at 4.45. However, even if Minter’s ERA was 4.45, that is not exactly something to be excited about with your set-up man.
What specifically has been his issue?
It appears that hitters are having much more success against Minter’s fastball. Hitters have an average exit velocity of 91.5 MPH this year against his fastball, which is the highest against him in his career.
They are also swinging and missing against his fastball at their lowest rate since 2020 at 26.7 percent.
Hitters are also missing his fastball inside of the strike zone at a decreased rate. Hitters are swinging and missing at his fastball inside the strike zone 23.5 percent of the time, which is the lowest since 2019.
They are also making quality contact against his fastball at the highest rate of his career. Hitters have their highest xwOBA against his fastball since 2019 at 0.360.
It should almost go without saying that this had led to hitters having an xSLG against his fastball that is high as well. His xSLG against of .463 is his highest since, you guessed it, 2019.
Hitters are also having a much more optimal launch angle on his fastball (hence the increase in xSLG) at twenty-seven degrees, which is by far the highest of his career.
This has led to not only higher xSLG, but also has played a factor in the lowest groundball rate of Minter’s career. So far, Minter has a GB rate of 30.0 percent, when his career average is 40.9.
By looking at the above charts, you can see that it is almost the exact same story for his cutter in terms of xwOBA and xSLG. Both are his worst since 2019. His overall numbers are better on his cutter with an xwOBA of .336 and an average exit velocity being 88.4 MPH, but when both pitches are trending down, that is a bad sign.
When Minter is throwing his 4-seamer 46.2 percent of the time, and cutter 42.1 percent, it is safe to say that with how hitters are feasting off of these two pitches that Minter will continue to be in trouble.
It is also no wonder that his overall xERA/xwOBA is in the bottom 42.0 percent of MLB, and that his .445 xwOBA on contact (xwOBACON) is the highest of his career. For reference, he only has had one other season over .369, and that was his bad 2019 season with a .410.
There is at least some evidence that adjusting to the pitch clock and having to pitch in the ninth has played a role in Minter’s massive drop-off.
Obviously there are multiple variables in play, like the ones mentioned and the fact that this early in the season is a small sample size. However, he truly is struggling.
Minter pitches his fastball and cutter a combined 88.3 percent of the time, and both of those pitches have been his worst since 2019 by multiple metrics including xwOBA, xSLG, exit velocity, launch angle, and more.
Here is to hoping Minter can figure things out now that he no longer has to be the closer.