Mike Foltynewicz’s Slow Start

After years of inconsistent production, Mike Foltynewicz finally harnessed his elite fastball and emerged as an All-Star in 2018. Across 183 innings, Foltynewicz struck out 202 hitters while notching a 2.85 ERA and a 3.37 FIP. All of those marks were easily career bests and, perhaps most impressively, he managed to miss tons of bats while also increasing his ground-ball rate. One year doesn’t make an ace, but Foltynewicz’s stock surged as much as anybody’s in baseball last season.

But Foltynewicz hasn’t built off his breakout campaign in 2019. The right-hander started the season on the disabled list, didn’t look quite right when he rejoined the rotation, and has yet to resemble his 2018 form in anything more than short bursts.

Across 10 starts this year, he’s posted a 5.53 ERA and a FIP north of 6.00. After striking out nearly 10 hitters per nine innings last season, he’s now whiffing fewer than eight. Even worse, Foltynewicz’s home run rate has tripled in 2019, and his 2.44 HR/9 ratio is the fifth-worst in the league among pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings.

There are a few factors that explain Foltynewicz’s plummeting numbers. As always, velocity is the first thing to check when a pitcher suddenly starts getting hit around, and sure enough, Foltynewicz is down a bit relative to last season.

However, in this case, seasonal velocity averages are a bit misleading. When Foltynewicz came off the disabled list, he wasn’t throwing very hard at all — at least by his standards. In his first four starts, his average fastball velocity never reached 95 mph, and it was all the way down to 93.6 in his outing against the Cardinals. Few pitchers would do well sitting a few ticks lower than normal, and Foltynewicz was no exception early on:

Mike Foltynewicz’s First Four Starts
Game IP Runs Strikeouts Walks Homers
vs. Colorado 6 4 5 1 2
vs. San Diego 4.2 6 2 0 2
at Los Angeles 6 5 2 4 2
vs. St. Louis 4.2 8 4 3 3

The electric stuff that made Foltynewicz famous has returned in recent weeks. He’s averaged 95-97 mph in his past six starts and even touched 99 a couple of times in Sunday’s game against Philadelphia. His secondaries have ticked up as well, and in some respects, Foltynewicz has again looked dominant. Glance at his pitch mix, and you won’t see anything too abnormal in either his usage or whiff rates:

Mike Foltynewicz Whiff Rates 2018 & 2019
Year Fastball Sinker Slider Change Curve
2018 8.12% 6.51% 18.71% 13.65% 9.15%
2019 8.68% 6.34% 18.34% 22.92% 7.41%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

And yet the end product hasn’t looked entirely encouraging in recent outings either. Over his last six starts, Foltynewicz’s ERA is just under four and he’s struck out a batter per inning, but he’s also allowed seven homers and completely lost his command at points. He’s walked nine hitters in his last two starts and sent multiple fastballs to the backstop on the fly in Sunday’s game. While diminished velocity was certainly a factor in Foltynewicz’s slow start, it doesn’t entirely explain his early-season malaise.

One problem for him has been the consistency of his breaking balls. Offspeed pitches were key for him in 2018, as batters hit under the Mendoza line against his curve, slider, and changeup, and he only surrendered four total homers on those pitches.

This season, everyone’s teeing off against the curve and slider. He’s yielded six dingers on the slider alone and another three on the curve. Hitters are batting nearly .300 with a slugging percentage above .600 on each of them.

There could be a few explanations behind the year-over-year discrepancy. Obviously, some of it stems from his early-season velocity reduction. But Foltynewicz has also tipped his pitches some in the past, using a slightly looser arm swing on his secondary pitches and really rearing back on the fastball. Perhaps perceptive hitters have again diagnosed a tell.

A more likely explanation is that these pitches aren’t always working as they should. At its best, Foltynewicz’s slider has pronounced sweeping action with a bit of depth. It looks something like this:

He didn’t get that get kind of break against Colin Moran:

Foltynewicz hasn’t consistently executed his curve either. It’s never been a big bat-misser, but when it’s working, he steals a lot of strikes with a spinny 12-6 or 11-5 breaker. Again, it’s not his best pitch, but for it to be effective, it can’t limp over the heart of the plate like this:

Statcast keeps track of pitchers who are prone to grooving fastballs or hanging breaking balls. In a metric amusingly called “meatballs,” Statcast monitors how often pitchers leave something in the most dangerous part of the plate, as well as how frequently hitters take a hack at them.

As you might expect from a guy without pinpoint command, Foltynewicz has always thrown more meatballs than your average bear. He’s serving more of them than usual this season and, critically, hitters are hitting them a lot more often than usual. Given that his hard hit percentage is up and that, well, the rest of his numbers are too, it seems fair to say that the meatballs are at the very least not helping matters.

This type of post is supposed to end with a prediction, or at least some kind of “if/then” statement. In Foltynewicz’s case, it’s a bit more nuanced. The good news here is that his arm strength and stuff seem mostly fine. In recent starts, he’s thrown as hard as ever. That’s important to everyone, but Foltynewicz in particular needs his high-octane stuff. His middling command won’t carry the profile if the gas goes, but the gas is still here.

He’s also retained the ability to miss bats with his secondaries, too. His best sliders are still generating whiffs and his changeup has never been more effective. You don’t see as many pitchers working with sinkers anymore, but it’s hard to argue that the pitch is responsible for his struggles.

In a day and age when we have more tools than ever to diagnose how and why players are performing as they are, it feels a bit unsatisfying to conclude “he’s just been lousy lately.” It seems simplistic and reductive — as Warden Norton said, “I can see that, Haig!”

And yet, that appears to be the case here. Foltynewicz has periodically lost the shape on his breaking balls this season, and he’s been punished ruthlessly. This is a terrible era to throw cement-mixing sliders or hanging curves, and he’s been making a lot of mistakes. The hitters deserve credit here too: pitchers may screw up, but hitters still have a job to do. Foltynewicz presumably feels hitters are getting their job done awfully well lately.

Still, Foltynewicz looks mostly fine. Consistency has proven elusive for him throughout his career, and he may always be a little harder to predict than your typical good starter. That’s part of his charm, frankly: It’s fun to watch a guy and know he can show up with a new slider or a different arm swing on any given day.

Ultimately, you can’t look at his numbers and argue that he’s been unlucky this year; he’s deserved his lousy numbers. Still, nothing looks irreparably wrong. Foltynewicz’s command bears watching, and so does the bite on his breaking balls. But so long as he’s still throwing hard and missing bats with his secondaries, expect him to pitch better over the rest of the year than he has thus far.

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4 years ago

Part of what Allowed Folty to be so effective in 2018 was the fact that he finally managed to get his emotions a little bit better under control. At times, Folty reminded me of Nuke Laloosh. Calls wouldn’t go his way, or he would miss his spot on a pitch, or give up a tough luck hit and just start to unravel on the mound. In 2018, he did a much better job of keeping his emotions under control which allowed him to better work his way out of situations when runners got on base. While not completely regressing, his recent start against the Phillies reminded me a little of classic Folty. He was cruising the first 2 and 2/3rds innings. Then, gave up a walk to the pitcher, then before you know it, the bases were loaded and Folty started air-mailing fastballs to the backstop. Random variance favored him this time and he managed to get out of his self-inflicted tangles relatively unscathed. But, if he wants to return to his 2018 form, in addition to rediscovering his fastball, he needs to rediscover his zen.

4 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

This is a stupid and yet pervasive narrative about what ails Folty.

He’s not a headcase. He’s just a pitcher who has inconsistent command. He had a great feel for everything in 2018 and it had nothing to do with his emotional development.

4 years ago
Reply to  Bronnt

Well, to be precise, it’s an unfalsifiable statement. Even Folty himself can’t say that it’s true or not. We can’t measure Folty’s agitation at any particular point in time, and even if we could we can’t reliably predict the effect of his emotional state on his control. For every pitcher who loses control when in the grip of his emotions, there’s another who gets extra zip on his fastball when he’s more fired up.

4 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

The narrative with Folty used to be that he’d get mad about some borderline call and then he’d fall apart. I’ve spent enough time on Braves boards to have seen that one dozens of times. But there was almost no correlation between seeing him visibly react to a call he didn’t like and his performance for the rest of the game.

It’s tiresome debunking this narrative when there’s almost no thought put into it other than confirmation bias.

4 years ago
Reply to  Bronnt

And as with most cancers that infect Braves fandom, the narrative began with Chip Caray and Joe Simpson pushing it in nearly every start he has ever made prior to 2019. Every time he didn’t like a call and then later struggled, that was the reason. Every team he didn’t like a call and then didn’t struggle later, he was learning to harness his emotions.

4 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

HFB: I love the fact that you’re using Popper, but the correct descriptive Popper phrase is “unfalsifiable hypothesis.”