Coming into the 2023 season, A.J. Minter was expected to again play a key role in the back end of the Atlanta Braves bullpen. That high-leverage role became more critical when an injury to Raisel Iglesias pushed the left-hander into the closer’s role - one he first held in 2018.
Almost two months into the season and no one in the bullpen has struggled more than Minter, at least when it comes to in-game results.
There is good news - based on his underlaying numbers, he should be fine, eventually.
Through May 14, Minter had an underwhelming 2-5 record with an 8.05 ERA. While those basic old school stats don’t always tell the story of a pitcher’s effectiveness, in this case they are fairly indicative of the results he’s had on the field.
Minter’s strikeout rate is on par with his overall career average - actually a little bit above it - as he’s striking out more than 11 batters per nine innings. In addition, his walk rate is actually a little bit lower than his career rate as he’s walking a less than three batters per nine innings.
Where things get wacky is when it comes from his batting average on balls in play which through his first 19 innings is pushing .400 - ominously similar to his 2019 season.
Minter was first called up to Atlanta during the 2017 season and was impressive in 16 contests. The Texas-native had been a second-round pick of the Braves in 2015, ascending rapidly to the major league level after appearing at four MiLB levels before making his MLB debut.
Minter had the look of a future, full-time closer after 2018, but he took a step backward in 2019 as he struggled at the Major League level with a 7.06 ERA in 29 innings pitched. He saw his hits per nine innings increase to 11 and his walks per nine innings increase to 7.1 - each career worsts as his WHIP skyrocketed to 2.011. At the roots of his struggles were a .298 batting average against and a .393 batting average on balls in play.
Unfortunately, Minter’s 2023 season to-date has mirrored that 2019 season as his .289 batting average against and .392 BAbip (through May 14) line up in almost perfect lockstep with 2019. A bit of good news is there is one significant difference between those two seasons - Minter’s walk rate this season is below his career average at 2.8 per nine innings.
Minter ended up pitching at the Triple A level during that disappointing 2019 season, but he rebounded into form during the COVID shortened season of 2020 when he dominated in 21 innings pitched, providing the Braves with a 0.83 ERA and a 1.108 WHIP while reducing his walk rate to 3.7 walks per nine innings.
Since 2020, Minter has been a key cog in the various Braves bullpen iterations. In 158 games from 2020 through 2022, Minter pitched in 158 games, with a 172 ERA+ backed by a 1.056 WHIP, 10.9 SO/9 and 3.98 SO/W rate in 144 innings.
Minter was phenomenal in 2022, and if you take a few moments to peruse his Baseball Savant page, you’ll understand why. He was well above average in his XBA, XSLG, WOBA, K% and xERA. His ability to repress home runs wasn’t limited to 2022 as the prior seasons he allowed only 0.5 HR/9.
Here is where putting a magnifying glass on 2023 provides more than a glimmer of hope for Minter. His barrel % is better than it was last season and still better than the league average at 5.1%. Likewise, his average exit velocity is in-line with his career, and better than league average, at 87.4 MPH. Furthermore, his hard-hit percentage is at 30.2%, lower than his last two seasons.
His pitch selection and average velocity is in line with the last couple of seasons of his career, with one note that is a bit worrisome. So far in 2023, his average velocity on his 4-seam fastball has dropped to 95.7 MPH, down almost one MPH from 2022. The good news is that it is still slightly higher than it was in 2020.
Back to the positives, the movement and spin of his three pitches - the 4-seam fastball, cutter, and changeup - are all in line with last several seasons.
So, what gives?
Bad luck, plain and simple. A thousand words cannot do a better job explaining Minter’s positives and negatives any better than the following percentile rankings from Baseball Savant.
Minter is still good and the things he has been good at for several seasons but has been unlucky in almost every other way (outside of troubling declines on his fastball).
There is one change - a notable one - that might play a small role (or major one) that is almost impossible to define:
The pitch clock.
Minter worked slowly, especially with runners on base, prior to this season. Need proof?
Again, thanks to Baseball Savant, the following graph shows how Minter’s temp has been forced to speed-up thanks to the new-for-2023 Pitch Clock rule.
Below, you can see how this has trended. From left to right are his pitch tempo averages with the bases empty and with runners on bases in the 2023, 2022, 2021 and 2020 regular season. With runners on base, he is pitching almost 10 seconds faster than he has in the past three seasons.
Is it possible that, in some fractional way, Minter’s tempo has caused just enough of an impact to make him less effective?
It is plausible, and 19 innings is still a small sample size, but it is worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses.
As another point of reference, Minter has a xwOPA of .314 - tied with fellow reliever Jesse Chavez for sixth-best on the Braves staff this season. Minter is underperforming that expectation while Chavez is exceeding it - as also shown by Minter’s 8.05 ERA vs. 4.04 xERA and Chavez’s 2.16 ERA vs. 4.04 xERA.
As a matter of fact, of the pitchers with a better xwOPA than Minter, only Max Fried was underperforming against his expectation.
Again, could pitch tempo be playing a role? Chavez has been a notoriously fast worker in the last two seasons - the opposite of Minter. Chavez is working faster this season vs. last season, but nothing close to the change Minter has made.
To this point in his career, Minter has shown the ability to adjust and work through challenging stretches to be a consistent and effective high-leverage reliever.
Based on his underlaying numbers so far this season - and his historical performance - there isn’t a reason to think that he can’t give the Braves the late-inning dominance he’s shown this decade, from this point forward.