Max Fried Is Leading the Resurgent Braves by Carmen Ciardiello August 30, 2021 The Braves have been a revelation over the last month. Jay Jaffe detailed last week how Atlanta turned its season around after the trade deadline, adding 67.4 points to its division odds and 5.3 points to its World Series odds in roughly three weeks. And all of that was in spite of losing Ronald Acuña Jr., for the season to a torn ACL. The Braves have gotten solid contributions across the board from their new-look outfield of Joc Pederson, Adam Duvall, and Jorge Soler, all acquired around or at the deadline. Of the rest of the core, only Ozzie Albies has performed worse post-July 30; the trio of Freddie Freeman, Dansby Swanson, and Austin Riley have been among the most productive players in the NL in that same span. Aggression in adding outfielders at the deadline in conjunction with a high level of play from star hitters has helped Atlanta surge to the top of the standings. The pitching has held up its end of the bargain as well, though, ranking as a top-10 unit since the trade deadline, improving its ERA by just over half a run and posting the sixth-best strikeout and walk rates during that timeframe. Much of this success can be attributed to Max Fried. Since the deadline, he ranks third in WAR among qualified pitchers, buoyed by a minuscule walk rate (1.6%, best in the majors) and a massive ground-ball rate (57.5%, fifth in the majors). That’s a recipe for elite performance even with a middling strikeout rate. It’s also a more exaggerated version of the profile he has shown since he became a full-time starter for the Braves two seasons ago; from 2019 to ’20, he ran a 53.5% ground-ball rate, a 24.1% strikeout rate, and a mere 7.1% walk rate. Fried’s season has not always been this smooth. After his first three starts, capped off by an eight-run, four-inning outing on April 13, his ERA sat at a grizzly 11.45. Worse yet, in that last game, he strained his hamstring running the bases, was placed on the injured list, and did not return until May 5 against the Nationals, allowing one run over five innings with six strikeouts and one walk. Besides missing a turn in the rotation due to a blister on his left index finger back in late June, he has effectively put his April woes behind him and pitched more like the version of himself we saw in the prior two seasons, with a 2.77 ERA and 23.9% strikeout rate. Fried has been largely the same pitcher since he entered the Braves’ rotation. He does not lean on strikeouts to turn over lineups, focusing instead on limiting walks and keeping balls on the ground with a bevy of offerings. He added more sinkers and sliders to the mix at the expense of his four-seamer after his rookie season, but his pitch usage rates have remained stable from last year. Fried Pitch Usage Season CH CU FC FF SI SL 2019 2.4 24.8 0.3 53.1 3.5 15.9 2020 4.7 23.4 0.0 40.7 10.2 20.9 2021 2.0 25.3 0.0 38.3 12.6 21.8 SOURCE: Baseball Savant He throws the slider mostly to same-side hitters (29.4% usage versus left-handed hitters to 19.6% against righties) and the curveball to righties (27.2% to 18.9%). The curveball shows most of its movement in the vertical direction, with Fried imparting a ton of topspin (92% active spin, per Baseball Savant) that yields 65.1 inches of vertical break, about four more inches than the average curveball with similar characteristics. Despite placing in just the 19th percentile for fastball spin, he has no such problems with the curveball, which sits in the 77th percentile. The slider also has a high-end movement profile, with above-average horizontal and vertical break. With the slider, Fried does not rely on spin efficiency like he does with his curveball, and instead takes advantage of seam-shifted wake. Only 44% of the pitch’s spin contributes to generating Magnus force, but it moves in a direction 45 degrees away from where the batter would expect based on the orientation of its spin. He leverages this same phenomenon with his sinker, which is even more exaggerated. His four-seamer and sinker look very similar coming out of his hand, then move in different directions. The same can be said (to a lesser degree) for his slider and curveball. Fried’s pitch usage has remained steady across the season, with a slight dip in slider usage in his last few starts compared to the rest. Like many pitchers with a seldom-used changeup, he reserves the offering for hitters in the opposite batter’s box. One thing that stands out when you dig into his pitch data is his aggressiveness throwing in the strike zone. In 2021, Fried has thrown in the zone 53% of the time, compared to the league-average rate of 48.9. This is consistent across all pitch types, aside from his seldom-used changeup. Fried Zone% by Pitch Pitch Type Fried Rest of MLB CH 33.3 39.9 CU 49.0 43.2 FF 57.8 54.6 SI 55.7 53.7 SL 47.0 44.3 SOURCE: Baseball Savant Both of his fastballs land in the zone over half the time, and both of his breaking pitches are far more likely to cross the plate compared to his peers, especially the curveball. The heat map for Fried’s bender is comical; we rarely see a pitcher so willing to try to land this type of pitch for a strike. Fried’s propensity to throw the ball in the strike zone helps explain his lack of strikeouts. His main swing-and-miss pitches are the slider and curveball, with 18.0% and 13.5% swinging-strike rates, respectively. Both are above the MLB mean — impressive, given that he rarely induces chases with the curveball (23.7% versus the MLB average of 27.3) and does so at an average rate with his slider, and all while throwing those pitches in the zone much more often than most pitchers. Curveballs and sliders yield 4.3% and 4.7% more swinging strikes on pitches out of the zone versus inside, but even without that benefit, Fried still has very good swinging-strike rates with both. His four-seamer, meanwhile, only gets whiffs 7.7% of the time, three points below average. He has been adamant about keeping that pitch in the zone, throwing three out of every five over the plate. Throwing fastballs there and not generating swinging strikes is a dangerous proposition; batters have posted a .417 wOBA and 1.53 runs per 100 pitches on heaters they don’t miss this season. If you look just at pitches that are put in play, that run value shoots all the way up to 6.63, with batters boasting a 9.8% barrel rate. Oddly enough, Fried has only been slightly worse than his peers in these situations, with opponents posting a .415 wOBA and 1.78 runs on four-seamers they hit. His saving grace is the quality of contact; the barrel rate on his four-seamers is just 4.93%. How does he mitigate barrels? His four-seam fastball is a ground-ball machine, especially compared to the rest of the league. The average four-seam fastball gets ground balls 34.7% of the time in 2021, with an average launch angle of 17.8 degrees, or roughly a line drive; Fried’s has a 54.9% ground-ball rate and an average launch angle of only 1.68 degrees. What makes this more odd is that he throws a below-average number of his four-seamers in the bottom third of the strike zone — 20.6% of his pitches in the zone and 11.9% of his total — despite those being more likely to result in ground balls than pitches up this season (50.8% of balls versus 30.6%). His sinker is also above-average at getting him grounders, with a 67.4% rate and an average launch angle of -3.93 degrees versus 56.1% and 3.61, respectively, for the rest of the league. So what happened in April? The short answer is his fastball gambit failed. Opponents posted a .579 wOBA on contact against the four-seamer in his three starts that month and three runs per 100 pitches when they did not swing and miss. The ground-ball rate on the pitch, meanwhile, was just 47.4%. Those struggles extended to his sinker, too, with a 60.0% ground-ball rate and a .790 wOBAcon. Whatever was ailing Fried’s fastballs in the early going seems well past him at this point, though, and just in time, too. If the Braves manage to win a fourth straight division title, they’re going to need the starting rotation to make an October push. Fried is an integral part of that equation.