A.J. Minter on Pitching Without Fear

© John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

Back in June, Ben Clemens noticed that Braves reliever A.J. Minter had taken a big developmental step, specifically by cutting his walk rate basically in half from 2021. Through some statistical trial-and-error, Ben discovered that Minter had revamped his approach after falling behind in the count, pitching in and around the zone almost exclusively in two- and three-ball counts:

“All he did was make one adjustment — before he ever got to a 3–0 or 3–1 count, he’d dial in and throw something competitive — and presto, walks were gone overnight.”

Three and a half months later, Minter’s walk rate has bumped up a little, but only to 5.2%. That’s still a fraction of his previous career low, 8.5%, and even more impressive given his 34.9% strikeout rate. There are other pieces to what makes a good reliever, like preventing home runs (Minter has allowed only four in 65 innings this year) and limiting hard contact, but based just on those strikeout and walk rates, one would assume that Minter has been one of the best relievers in baseball this season.

And sure enough: Minter is third among qualified relievers in WAR, at 2.1, and fourth in K-BB%, at 29.8. He has a 2.08 ERA, a 1.94 FIP, and more red ink on his Baseball Savant page than the Gospels in a King James Bible. Among the categories in which he ranks in the 90th percentile or better: xBA, xSLG, opponent wOBA, and opponent xWOBA. (He’s only in the 89th percentile in whiff rate, though, quel dommage.)

Minter was good last year, and a key part of the exceptional Braves bullpen that brought a title to the Cobb County suburbs last autumn. But he wasn’t this good. So I asked him how, without any noticeable change in the nature or relative frequency of his pitches, was he so much more successful this year?

“I wanted to take pride in not walking people,” he said.

So Ben was right, then. Good deal. Seems simple enough. We can all clock out and go home early.

It turns out there are advantages to not walking people apart from the obvious reduction in baserunners. By staying in the zone more, Minter is opening up other avenues for success despite not changing much else about his approach. For most of his career until this season, opponents swung at the first pitch roughly a third of the time against Minter. This year, their first-pitch swing rate is up to 43.3% from 34.8% in 2021.

“They’ve seen I’m throwing the ball in the zone this year,” he said, “so I’m sure, as a hitter, they’re going to be aggressive on the first pitch. I’ve given up four home runs this year and two of them have been on the first pitch. So hitters aren’t being patient either with the first pitch, they’re being aggressive.”

The other key to his success, Minter says, is that he’s throwing his fastball better than he was in previous years. Minter says he doesn’t like to watch a lot of video or dissect his mechanics when things are going well — better not to mess with something that’s working. But last summer, he spent a few weeks in the minor leagues, which provided an opportunity to revisit and refine his movements.

“When I got sent down last year, I went back and looked at when I first got called up in 2017,” he said. “I was getting a little more tilt, a little more going over the top. So I tried that out when I was in Triple-A, and I decided I was going to strike guys out.”

Minter also says he feels like he’s commanding his fastball better this year. Those improvements also did wonders for Minter’s changeup, which opponents tagged to a .332 wOBA last year. This year, that number is down to an even .100:

A.J. Minter’s Fastball and Changeup Values
Year wFB wCH
2021 0.6 -0.7
2022 10.2 5.1

Minter’s repertoire includes three pitches: the four-seamer, the changeup, and a third pitch that Sports Info Solutions classifies as a slider, Baseball Savant classifies as a cutter, and Minter — somewhat unhelpfully — referred to as a “slider/cutter.” The changeup he uses almost exclusively against right-handed hitters; over the past two seasons less than half of one percent of the changeups he’s thrown have gone to left-handed hitters. That’s pretty orthodox, but it means that the changeup accounts for a quarter of the pitches he throws to the majority of opponents.

Last year, the most common destination for a Minter changeup was right down the heart of the plate. This season, most of his changeups are on the outside corner or off the plate altogether to right-handed hitters:

“I think I’m just more confident,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re going to get better, is actually throwing it in hitters’ counts, behind in the count. So, I think if I’m going to miss with a changeup it needs to be away, so I’m not leaving it in the middle of the plate.”

Insofar as there’s a grand unified theory of Minter’s breakout season, it’s confidence. If it were just as easy as throwing more strikes, or being more aggressive in hitters’ counts, then everyone would do it. But it required Minter to make a specific effort to stop fearing failure.

“Especially pitching in high-leverage situations, I always got in trouble when I didn’t want to lose the game. I didn’t want to give up the game,” he said. “So therefore, you get scared, because you don’t want to give up a home run or whatever it may be. I just learned to throw it in the zone and make them earn it. If they earn it that day, you tip your hat.”

Confidence plays a big part in the life cycle of a high-leverage reliever. Minter says the role he played in last year’s World Series run helped him worry less about what would happen if things went wrong, and concentrate on getting outs and preventing runs.

“When you come into a one-run game, that plays in the back of your head, like ‘I have to be perfect right here. I have to make perfect pitches,’” Minter said. By fearing hits or home runs, he ended up walking batters — i.e., allowing baserunners — which only made failure more likely. “My thought process is: I’m going to make them get three hits to score a run. So I’m going to take my chances. Good luck getting three hits off me.”

That level of self-belief is as simple to express as it is difficult to attain. But it turns out you can put a number on it: 25 points of opponent batting average, 2.4 K/9, 1.6 BB/9, and more than a run and a half of ERA. That’s how much better Minter’s been in 2022, and how much less failure there is for him to fear.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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1 year ago

Nice red ink reference haha