The Braves’ Rotation Has Been Completely Dismantled

Entering the season, the Braves looked to have a solid rotation. Mike Soroka was returning after a very good rookie season. Max Fried’s first year as a full-time starter showed promise. Mike Foltynewicz seemed to have discovered his old form in the second half of the season after a disastrous first half. Veteran lefty Cole Hamels was added to the group to provide solid innings. Kyle Wright was going to get a shot at the fifth spot with Sean Newcomb, Touki Toussaint, and Bryse Wilson potentially in the mix. Here’s the current status of those eight pitchers, projected to start this season for the Braves:

Results From Braves Projected Starters
Name SP IP SP WAR Current Status
Mike Soroka 13.2 0.3 Out for the Year
Max Fried 50 1.8 10-Day IL
Mike Foltynewicz 3.1 -0.3 DFA, Cleared Waivers
Cole Hamels 0 0 45-Day IL
Kyle Wright 19 -0.4 In Rotation
Sean Newcomb 13.2 -0.2 Alternate Site
Bryse Wilson 0 0 Bullpen
Touki Toussaint 17.2 0 Alternate Site
Total 117.1 1.2 Yikes

Fried was having a fantastic breakout season before an alarming drop in velocity resulted in a stay on the Injured List for a lumbar strain. The hope is that he will return from the IL when eligible a week from today, though at that point, there will be just 10 games left in the season. It might come as a surprise to look at the above table and discover that the Braves are in first place with a 24-18 record. Based on that, you might think the substitutions beyond the group listed above stepped up and had great seasons. But while prospect Ian Anderson has been good, great starts haven’t been coming out of the woodwork. Here’s the set of staring pitchers not listed above:

Results From Braves Fill-In Starters
Name IP WAR Status
Ian Anderson 15 0.4 Rotation
Josh Tomlin 17.1 0 Rotation
Tommy Milone 6.1 0 Rotation
Robbie Erlin 16 0 Bullpen
Huscar Ynoa 5.2 -0.2 Alternate Site
Total 60.1 0.2 Yeesh

Fried has pitched 50 innings, put up a 2.48 FIP, a 1.98 ERA and 1.8 WAR on the season. The team’s other starters have combined for 127.2 innings (under four innings per start) with a 7.05 ERA, a 6.27 FIP, and -0.4 WAR. Those numbers probably speak for themselves, but since I’m writing, I’ll just note that the Braves’ starting pitching performances this season outside of Fried is astonishingly bad. Will it get better? Our projections, even with Fried and Hamels returning, aren’t very optimistic:

Braves Starting Pitching Projections ROS
Name IP ERA FIP WAR
Josh Tomlin 18 5.14 5.09 0.1
Ian Anderson 18 4.48 4.65 0.2
Tommy Milone 18 4.83 4.93 0.1
Max Fried 13 3.49 3.54 0.3
Kyle Wright 14 5.03 5 0.1
Cole Hamels 9 4.47 4.5 0.1
Robbie Erlin 8 4.89 4.93 0.1
Sean Newcomb 5 4.73 4.85 0
Tucker Davidson 2 4.76 5.02 0
Total 105 4.65 4.71 0.9

With Fried coming back for a few starts, Atlanta’s rotation projects as the fifth-worst in baseball. Without Fried, it would be all the way at the bottom. If the playoffs started today, we might see Game 1 started by the 22-year-old Anderson and his 15 career innings. Anderson was the 44th-ranked prospect in all of baseball entering the season, so it isn’t like the talent isn’t there, but he didn’t end his 2019 season well in Triple-A, posts double-digit walk rates, and is coming off his first rough start of his career against Miami.

After Anderson would likely be Tommy Milone, who Atlanta just acquired in trade from Baltimore; when the trade happened, our headline read: “Braves Acquire Pitching Depth.” Milone is having a decent season based on his peripherals, but the 33-year-old lefty has given up a .302/.337/.544 slash line with a 5.40 FIP against righties since 2016. For Game 3 of the opening round of the playoffs, the Braves’ best option at the moment appears to be Josh Tomlin, who hasn’t started regularly since the 2017 season. Maybe Fried and Hamels come back and, along with Anderson, pose a decent threat in the playoffs. But it’s also possible that the Braves are simply going to be stuck with a huge deficiency in the rotation and will have to win games another way. Fortunately, they do have some strengths in that regard.

The Braves offense is thriving; their 114 wRC+ ranks sixth in baseball despite getting almost no contributions from Ozzie Albies (19 wRC+ in 46 PA), Ender Inciarte (48 wRC+ in 104 PA), and Johan Camargo (58 wRC+ in 127 PA). Marcell Ozuna (164 wRC+) has added a potent bat to a lineup with Freddie Freeman (168 wRC+) and Ronald Acuña Jr. (164 wRC+), as Dansby Swanson, Adam Duvall, and the catching combo of Tyler Flowers and Travis d’Arnaud put up solid offensive seasons as well. In their last 10 games, Braves starting pitchers have an ERA over seven, with the team giving up 5.8 runs per game, but the team is 6-4 thanks in part to scoring 69 runs during that stretch, including scoring seven runs or more six times.

And the offense isn’t doing this alone, either. Perhaps the most underrated and unheralded part of the team has been the performance of the bullpen. The Braves’ relief corps leads the National League in innings (183) and WAR (2.5) on the season. The discrepancy in performance between the rotation and the bullpen is the biggest in the NL and second only to the Blue Jays in all of baseball. The graph below shows starter and reliever WAR by team this season:

There are a bunch of teams succeeding despite mediocre bullpens, but very few teams have .500 records with poor starting pitching. The Blue Jays’ and Braves’ bullpens have helped carry rotations that haven’t been up to the mark. Only the Cardinals (1.8 SP WAR, 0.5 RP WAR) have failed to produce at least decent numbers in both, but that’s partly a function of having many fewer games than the rest of the league, as well as a very good defense. Tyler Matzek, Shane Greene, A.J. Minter, and Darren O’Day have all been excellent. Josh Tomlin has been very good when allowed to pitch out of the ‘pen. Chris Martin, Luke Jackson, Mark Melancon, and Grant Dayton have all pitched well, too. The Braves have 10 relievers with at least five appearances in relief this season and all but Will Smith have been at least 10% better than league average (FIP- of 90 or lower). The Braves rotation is currently a disaster, and the lack of arms at the start of games could come back to cost them, but the bulk of arms at the end of games, coupled with a potent offense, could help to nullify the Braves’ big weakness.





Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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vslyke
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The Braves also seemed likely to give Felix Hernandez a rotation spot before he opted out of the season. He looked pretty good prior to opting out, although that’s obviously not a super reliable assessment of how he would have done this year.