Life Is Easier When You Hit Your Spots

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Max Fried is unusual; he’s a good homegrown Braves player who didn’t sign a team-friendly, million-year contract extension. (It feels like this team hasn’t had one of those since Johnny Sain.) As a result, Fried will be a free agent at the end of the season, but insofar as the Braves are preparing for life without Fried eventually, they very much need him now.

Now that Spencer Strider is out for the season, the Braves rotation consists of Fried, two aging big names (Chris Sale and Charlie Morton), one guy who was a reliever next year (Reynaldo López), and we’ll figure out the no. 5 spot when we get there. It’s a lot of upside, and all things considered it’s not that bad when every team seems to be down at least one starter. But suffice it to say that Atlanta has less wiggle room, pitching-wise, than it did two weeks ago.

Therefore it was a bit alarming when Fried came out of his first two starts having completed just five innings total. In those two outings, he allowed 12 hits and 11 runs, 10 of them earned, to bring his ERA up to 18.00. The Braves’ offense is good, sure, but no baseball team ever made could reliably provide 18 runs of support per game for its no. 1 starter.

Fortunately, Fried righted the ship in his third start: 6 1/3 innings, only one earned run, which came after he’d been lifted from the game. Through six innings, Fried had faced 21 batters and retired 18 of them without allowing a run. Even with the bumpy ending, he cut his ERA in half. Maybe things are going to be OK after all.

Fried said after his most recent start that he hadn’t been feeling on top of things in the first week of the season. But against Miami on Friday, he was able to relax and attack hitters, and regularly scheduled programming has resumed.

“The big thing was just going back to who I am, and that’s changing speeds and not worrying about the results and just attacking,” Fried said. That’s a pretty dry answer from an athlete, but I do think it says something about the value of pitching with confidence.

Fried has basically average fastball velocity, and for the past three seasons, he hasn’t exactly posted a power pitcher’s strikeout and walk rate stats. Fried has never posted a double-digit K/9 ratio in a full season, and since 2021, his BB/9 has been within a couple tenths of 2.0. And to be honest, he doesn’t look like a chucker; he’s skinny, with a youthful face, and he’s wearing the same uniform Greg Maddux did.

But Fried isn’t really a finesse pitcher either. PitchingBot and Stuff+ both have his command at about average, and from 2021 to 2023, he threw 50.0% of his pitches in the strike zone, which was 117th out of the 182 pitchers who threw at least 200 innings in that span. A strikethrower Fried is not.

Assuming good health and performance this year, the 30-year-old lefty is going to make — to use the proper business school term — a crapload of money this offseason. And the reason for that is his ability to pitch effectively just outside the strike zone. The term “nibbler” is not only pejorative, it’s being monopolized by Blake Snell these days, but there is a bit of Snell-in-miniature to Fried, who’s one of the best pitchers in baseball at the edges of the strike zone and beyond.

If you’re a Baseball Savant sicko, you already know the four attack zones: heart, shadow, chase, waste. For those of you who go outside sometimes, the shadow zone straddles the border of the strike zone itself, 3.3 inches to either size of the edge of the zone on the sides, four inches on either side of the edge of the zone on the top and bottom. That’s where pitchers make their living, because when a ball is pitched there, hitters have to swing or else risk letting a strike go by.

The chase zone is the area between the outside edge of the shadow zone and a box twice the size of the strike zone itself. This is where a ball might look like a strike for a moment, tempting the hitter to, all together now, chase. Very good, class.

I mention all this in order to illustrate where Fried usually has success, and to explain how he failed so utterly in his first two starts of the season, despite having his usual mechanics and stuff.

Between 2021 and 2023, Fried was one of 105 pitchers to throw at least 5,000 pitches in the majors. Among those, he was fifth in opponent wOBA in the chase zone and 10th in opponent wOBA in the shadow zone. He didn’t throw in those areas with abnormal frequency, only with abnormal success.

Now, it’s tough to make a statistical analysis of two bad starts. First, it’s just two starts. Second, Fried was so bad in those two starts he only lasted five total innings, which makes it an exceptionally small two-start sample.

And even then, it’s only two bad innings. In his first start, on the second day of the season in Philadelphia, Fried didn’t even get out of the first inning; he was up to 43 pitches by the time manager Brian Snitker figured that enough was enough and went to get Fried before he hurt himself. Next time out, Fried allowed six of his eight runs in another disastrous first inning during which the Diamondbacks got two-thirds of the way through the lineup before they made an out. To be honest, with 37 pitches on the board by the time the last out came, if Snitker had pulled Fried before the end of the first inning nobody would’ve blinked.

But those two bad innings show us what happens when you live on the edge of the strike zone and you can’t hit your targets. I’m going to show you one representative pitch from each start. In each case, it’s a fastball to a right-handed hitter, with Travis d’Arnaud set up low and right on the inside corner.

Against Philadelphia, Fried allowed three earned runs in two-thirds of an inning; more Phillies hitters walked than made outs. But what Fried didn’t do was get knocked around. The Braves were actually winning until Fried’s last pitch, and of the three balls in play he allowed, the hardest came off the bat of Bryson Stott at 85 mph.

But when Fried needed a strike, he couldn’t get it. He kept falling behind, and even when he needed to level the count, he couldn’t find the zone. Here’s the action pitch to J.T. Realmuto in their only confrontation of the game:

It didn’t miss by a huge amount, but Realmuto knew it was a ball before it was anywhere near crossing the plate. In a way, running up the pitch count was the best thing that happened to Fried; it got him out of the game before he was able to walk the Braves out of contention entirely.

Against Arizona, he went the other way. Here’s the second pitch of the afternoon, to Ketel Marte:

A couple inches too far off the corner, it’s an easy walk. A couple inches the opposite direction, and KABOOM! That ball went off the bat at 114.4 mph and traveled an estimated 461 feet. It had been five years since Marte hit a home run this long. But that’s what happens when you leave a belt-high fastball out over the plate to a good hitter.

This time, Fried actually did get thumped, at least in the first inning. The first four hits of the game were all 94.8 mph or harder; the Diamondbacks had four first-inning hits at 100 mph or more and two over 110 mph.

But don’t worry, Fried figured it out eventually. Here he is against Emmanuel Rivera on Friday:

You can see Fried made his pitch; he wasn’t right on d’Arnaud’s target, but he got up and in on Rivera’s hands, the edge of the plate bisecting the baseball as it traveled. And Rivera could do nothing with it but knock it straight into the ground, where Fried — a three-time Gold Glove winner, it bears mentioning — retrieved the ball and threw him out with ease.

That’s how it’s supposed to look. But actually executing is easier said than done, when even a few inches of deviation leads to either a walk or a trot.

Fried in the Shadow Zone
Year Pitches Whiff% Swing% OBP SLG wOBA
2023 531 28.1 52.4 .208 .206 .188
First Two Starts of 2024 60 11.5 43.3 .357 .385 .336
Last Start 47 25.0 47.6 .286 .231 .244
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Take a small slice of one game for what it’s worth, but Fried’s numbers against Miami are encouraging at the very least.

Fried’s up-and-down fortunes over the first two weeks of the season illustrate — in case there was ever any doubt about this — just how fine the margin is between a quality start and a quick exit. Whatever ineffable, capricious element Fried found on Friday, he needs to keep hold of it for the rest of the year. For his team’s sake, and his own.





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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Anon21member
1 month ago

It is worth noting…though a bit embarrassing to the Phillies…that Fried actually did get out of the 1st inning without allowing a run in his first start, only Bruce Dreckman had a mini-stroke and called a 2-2 fastball right down the pipe to Nick Castellanos a ball.

howieloader
1 month ago
Reply to  Anon21

This is absolutely true. Braves have had some egregious misses against them in a very short amount of time so far this year.