This past Saturday, the Braves defeated the Phillies by a score of 5-3, earning their 87th win on the season and clinching the National League East title. Needless to say, this was unexpected back in March, when the Braves entered the year with a 3.2% chance of reaching the playoffs. Then again, there were a lot of unexpected developments in Atlanta this year. It was clear entering the season, for example, that Ronald Acuna possessed considerable talent; it was less obvious, however, that he’d become one of baseball’s best so soon. It was perhaps even more unlikely that a 34-year-old Nick Markakis would earn his first All-Star selection, although that happened as well. The list of surprises goes on. Johan Camargo, Mike Foltynewicz, and Anibal Sanchez: each of these actors played an important role in the Braves’ early arrival on the national stage.
Now the minds of both fans and the players themselves turn to October baseball. While there are some legitimate reasons to regard the Braves as a long shot — the Astros, the Dodgers, the Indians, the Red Sox, you get the idea — they do still have a 2.9% chance of winning the World Series. Throw in the fact that playoff baseball can be especially random, and we could be sitting here in a month lauding World Series MVP Kevin Gausman.
The Braves do enter October with questions beyond their youth. Most of these questions relate to their pitching, especially their bullpen. In terms of both run prevention (19th in adjusted ERA) and peripherals (18th in adjusted FIP), the relief corps has been middling. The midseason acquisitions of Brad Brach and Jonny Venters for international bonus money have yielded some returns, as the two veterans have put up a combined 0.8 WAR. However, if the Braves hope to slow down baseball’s best offenses in the late innings, they’ll be relying on two rookies with very similar arsenals.
Neither A.J. Minter nor Dan Winkler showed up in a Braves top-10 prospect list in the 2018 preseason. That’s not particularly strange: how often does an established relief pitcher show up as a top prospect? That’s not to say they were completely overlooked, especially Minter. Jonathan Sickels at Minor League Ball ranked Minter 13th in the system, admitting that he was unsure how to rank relievers, and Scott Delp over at Baseball Prospectus took an in-depth look at Minter in March. Baseball America said Minter had the best slider of Braves farmhands, while Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel here at FanGraphs placed Minter 16th with a Future value of 45 while including Winkler among the “Other Prospects of Note.” Both pitchers were noted for their four-seam fastballs and hard-breaking sliders/cutters.
Minter and Winkler have both taken advantage of their opportunities. The pair were the Braves’ leading relievers on the year, putting up 1.4 (24th in baseball) and 1.2 WAR (36th), respectively. Their ERAs and xFIPs don’t keep up with their FIPs, but there is no denying their stuff and strikeout ability.
The two have gotten there in different ways. Minter tore his UCL early in his junior season at Texas A&M, but the Braves saw enough in him to draft him 75th overall in 2015. After his recovery, the Braves development staff brought him along slowly, with Minter recording 34.2 innings in 2016 and 39.1 innings in 2017. He rolled through all levels of the minors, and his 2017 debut was equally impressive, as he struck out 43.3% of batters in 15 innings to put up a 0.96 FIP and 0.6 WAR.
Winkler took a slightly more circuitous route to the majors. He started at Parkland College in 2009 before being drafted by the Rockies in the 20th round out of Central Florida in 2011. He mostly floundered in the Rockies system for four seasons until the Braves picked him in the 2014 Rule 5 draft. He proceeded to pitch a combined four innings over the next two years, suffering a torn UCL in 2015 and a gruesome fractured elbow in 2016. Last year saw a return to effectiveness, and Winkler’s 60 innings in 2018 represent his most in a season since he was a starter at Double-A Tulsa.
Both pitchers feature a similar arsenal, throwing over 90% fastballs and hard cutters. Those offerings — Minter’s is more of a cutter/slider — have been among the top cutters by run value in 2018. Winkler’s (8.4 runs) ranks seventh among relievers while Minter’s (6.2 runs) would rank eighth if it were classified as a cutter proper.
Minter, who detailed his cutter-slider to David Laurila back in June, uses the four-seam/cutter pair to great effectiveness, especially when ahead in the count. His low slot allows him to back-foot his 91.8-mph cutter/slider to right-handed batters while keeping it sufficiently away from lefties. Meanwhile, Minter is able to effectively place his 97.1 mph up in the zone, making it incredibly difficult for batters to make contact (25% whiffs per swing.)
Winkler’s arsenal isn’t quite as power-oriented, starting with his fastball. It also comes out of a low three-quarter slot, but it comes in at 93.8 mph. Kiley and Eric note that, despite a lack of elite velocity, the pitch does have good deception and life, allowing it to play up. His slider — possibly closer to a curveball — comes in at 82.8 mph with more horizontal movement (5.1 inches) than vertical (-1.6 inches). While he uses both of these pitches effectively, the main pitch in Winkler’s arsenal is his cutter, thrown over 50% of the time. Featuring 90.7 mph and nearly two inches of cut, the pitch is used by Winkler mostly up in the zone, but he can drive it low and in to lefties.
While both rookies have been excellent this year and seem to have good futures going forward, they both have experienced a downturn in the past month. In 12.2 innings combined in September, the two have put up an 8.52 ERA, a 5.05 FIP, and have seen their control deteriorate as both their walk rates spiked. Winkler especially has struggled, walking five batters, allowing 17 batters to reach base and eight earned runs in only 4.1 innings this month. Minter has dealt with back issues since August and admitted that he is struggling to find his release point since the injury. Despite their great seasons, both rookies picked the worst time to begin to struggle and will have to find their form in very short order.
Maybe they’ll get some help in next week’s Division Series — likely against the National League West winner. The shortening playoff rotations may let Max Fried work out of the pen and allow his fastball and curveball to play up. Arodys Vizcaino’s recent return certainly helps, as does the presence of the veterans Brach and Venters. But when they’re on, Minter and Winkler give the Braves their best options late in the game. While the Braves’ impressive offense led by Acuna, Ozzie Albies, and Freddie Freeman will be driving the team forward, the effectiveness of A.J. Minter and Dan Winkler will go a long way to determining how far the team will foray into October.
Stephen Loftus is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. In his spare time he usually can be found playing the pipe organ or working on his rambling sabermetric thoughts.