Spring training 2023 was supposed to be an opportunity for Darius Vines. With the back end of the rotation unsure, his spot on the 40 man roster gave him an advantage over his teammates. Unfortunately a shoulder very early on in spring sidelined him for much of the year, during which time multiple pitchers tried and failed to hold down the fifth starter role. Now with Kyle Wright back on the rehab trail it seemed Vines’s opportunities may have run out for this season, but the Atlanta Braves made the call to promote him to the major leagues on Monday where he could potentially make his debut.
Vines was an unheralded seventh round pick out of Cal State-Bakersfield in 2019, a school he spent just one season at while posting pedestrian numbers. His professional debut went with little fanfare as he posted a 6.61 ERA with the advanced rookie league Danville affiliate, and the pandemic in 2020 further delayed his development as he was not on the alternate site for the Braves. This led to him debuting in Low-A at age 23 in 2021, and his path to the major leagues would need to accelerate. Vines got off to a roaring start in Augusta, and just eight starts into the season he was pushed up to Rome after posting a 2.25 ERA and 33.6% strikeout rate. Vines continued to put up good numbers in Rome, striking out 27% of batters while walking only 6.3%, but the first sign of what would be his biggest hurdle would show. Vines allowed 12 home runs in 75 High-A innings in 2021, and that issue has not gone away for him since. Vines got off to a horrible start to his 2022 season with Double-A Mississippi, as his home run troubles plagued him. Vines mostly repeated his previous numbers with a 27.7% strikeout rate and 6.8% walk rate, but his home runs ballooned to 2.2 HR/9 through June 14th and his FIP sat at 5.28. Vines was struggling, but that made way for the best run of his career and he finished out his final eight games in Mississippi on an asbolute tear. Vines’s strikeout rate climbed up to 29.8% and along with that he allowed only two home runs over 48 2⁄3 innings. This proved to be key and he had a 1.48 ERA and 2.64 FIP in this span which ultimately earned him a call up to Triple-A. Vines managed to continue to avoid home runs for Gwinnett, but his strikeout rate dipped to 20.3% and his walk rate jumped to 9.8% as he finished out the season with seven games in Triple-A.
In all, Vines had a bit of a breakout season, and in addition to moving him near the top 10 in the system his 2022 also earned him an important step to the major leagues. Vines was Rule 5 eligible going into the winter of 2022, and as a starter with Triple-A experience the Braves thought it necessary to protect him from the draft and added him to the 40 man roster. With two of Vines’s main competitors in spring training being Dylan Dodd and Jared Shuster — neither on the 40 man roster at the time — this would have been a major key for Vines had he stayed healthy. Instead both tried and failed to make it at the major league level and Vines didn’t throw a pitch in a game until June 30th. Vines ripped through his four rehab assignments with expected ease, and on July 27th finally made his first Triple-A start of the season. His five starts since have been inconsistent, but the more he has furthered himself from his shoulder injury the better he has performed. Vines’s command, a hallmark of his profile in prior seasons, was not there in early starts and he struggled with walks especially in his first two starts. In his most recent he has started to locate more like he has in the past, and it culminated with two strong starts in his last two outings. In an August 17th start against the Durham Bulls Vines set his season high with seven strikeouts and led all Triple-A starters with 24 whiffs. Unfortunately the problem with home runs was still present, and on two notable mistakes the Bulls were able to capitalize. His next outing on August 23rd Vines went seven innings for the first time this season, and again matched his prior outing with 24 whiffs in the game. Of note, he did not issue a walk or a home run in this outing. Thus with the schedules lining up and the leash on Shuster and Dodd ripped to shreds, Vines was given his first major league call up.
It’s not entirely clear that Vines will even pitch at the major league level as he could just be insurance, but it seems likely that he will which could be a bit of a curse. Making your major league debut at Coors Field is less-than-ideal, but despite his home run troubles Vines may be suited for the environment. Vines’s main weakness is his fastball velocity, and there’s no getting around how big of an issue that has been for him. Vines averages less than 90 mph on his four seamer, and in his last start averaged just 88.7 mph as his velocity especially dipped late into games. Keep in mind, while Vines is a couple of months removed from his rehab assignment he still isn’t 100% and last start was limited to only 90 pitches. His fastball has a mediocre movement profile and thus is dependent nearly entirely on command, which Vines has done an increasingly better job of as he has built up. Vines has simply mechanics and plus athleticism, allowing him to locate his pitches at an above average to plus level. Vines avoids hard contact and gets reasonable swing and miss on his fastball because he is adept at keeping it out of the middle of the zone, preferring often to walk batters than to throw a pitch in the zone. However, everyone makes mistakes, and Vines’s get his hard. A poor command day can go south for Vines in a hurry, and even in seemingly strong starts he has a tendency to tire as he reached the sixth innings and later and lose command of his pitches. Managing that usage will be important to avoid the game unraveling on Vines.
The reason that Vines can be successful beyond his command is both his pitch usage and how good his changeup is. Vines’s changeup is the best offspeed pitch in the system when encompassing all factors, and he uses it in that way throwing it more often than any other pitch. Vines’s changeup lacks elite movement, but it’s solid and more importantly well-commanded. Vines pounds the arm side and lower parts of the zone just out of the zone, and gets most of his swing-and-miss from his changeup. In his prior starts he got 16 and 15 whiffs on his changeup, but his reliance on high chase rates may prove hard to translate to the major league level. Few major league pitchers can maintain chase rates in the 45+% range on their changeup and putting his changeup just out of the zone and expecting swings is exactly what Vines has done to be successful. With the fastball and changeup Vines tends to avoid line drive, especially hard line drive contact, and combines with his low walk rates it can be tough to string together multiple hits against him. However, both pitches are susceptible to being crushed when they drift over the zone, and his other secondaries haven’t taken a step forward to cover Vines. In seasons past Vines threw both a slider and a slow curveball, but both stagnated and he ultimately dropped the curveball last season. His slider was a weapon at the lower levels, but in Triple-A he has lacked that effectiveness. Spin is mediocre, he can’t rely on velocity for obvious reasons, and so far he has not commanded his slider at all. It tends to be the pitch most susceptible to catching chunks of the zone, and batters do not miss on it. Much of this is due to him, again, not being fully back from that shoulder injury, but with his limitations he needs to get that slider back to the 50-55 range it was at the lower levels in order to maximize his potential. Vines has been throwing a cutter this season as well, and it projects to be a pitch that can be effective for him, though as of now his utilization is low due to his issues commanding the pitch.
Right now we don’t know what role Vines is expected to play, though he could make the start on Wednesday if he is not needed out of the bullpen until then. I have been a vocal fan of Vines’s game and like his long term future due to his command, athletic aptitude, and where I believe his secondary offerings will be once he gets his feel fully back. It’s a narrow profile that is limited to being a back-end starter, though I do believe he has the athletic ability to diversify his pitch mix and that could help him as well. As he is now, I don’t think we can expect much of him at Coors Field. It’s such a tough place to pitch, and for guys so dependent on command it can pose a challenge when they go to altitude and their pitches suddenly act differently than they are used to. However, should his ability to avoid the middle of the zone prevail he could provide some solid innings and is a player that rarely hurts himself. He rarely has command break downs leading to multiple walks in an inning and is one of those pitchers with a short memory, capable of making a mistake and immediately executing his next pitch. These are going to be valuable traits. Going multiple times through a major league lineup is going to be a challenge for him, and especially so if the Braves try to get him through a third time as he has always had issues with finishing starts. His best role in the present would be in relief, where he can rely on his changeup and deception more heavily and not have to worry about fatigue robbing his command late in starts. This will be a short call up for Vines and a good chance to look at him at the major league level, though I think his real opportunity starts in spring training 2024. If Vines can impress here it is certainly an advantage for him, but realistically this isn’t the best situation for him given the field he will be pitching at and his inconsistencies this season. When looking at the Braves currently personnel, Vines is a better option than Shuster or Dodd. I believe Vines can be thoroughly in the mix for a roster spot in 2024, and if he doesn’t have a job out of spring training then at some point he will be among multiple players to get a shot throughout next season.