Monday, May 16, 2016

Foltynewicz giving the Braves a Lift

By EricEnfermero (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
How good was Mike Foltynewicz on Saturday?

His second-best four-seam fastball in velocity came in the 8th inning (97.28 mph). His sinker never wavered in movement throughout the night. He had confidence in all five of his pitches, using each over the final two innings. And while it deserves to be said that the Royals offense is not that good right now, Foltynewicz made them look stupid throughout the entire evening.

Which begs a second question - has he turned the corner?

When the Braves acquired Foltynewicz in a deal for Evan Gattis, he immediately jumped to the front-of-the-line as far as top Braves prospects go with only Max Fried and Lucas Sims around to challenge that title. Subsequent additions of Matt Wisler, Touki Toussaint, Kolby Allard, Sean Newcomb, and Aaron Blair have dropped Foltynewicz (side-note - that's a ridiculous amount of pitching) in prospect rankings, but Foltynewicz still had a number of things going in his favor. First - unlike all of the other arms I just mentioned, Foltynewicz had already appeared in the majors by the time the Braves acquired him. Second - his easy delivery masked the fact that he had such high-end velocity. For example, he hit 101.17 mph against the Rangers on August 9, 2014. Third - with his fastball/slider combination, he had the makings of a high-value reliever even if he failed as a starter.

That was what the Braves acquired and in 2015, they saw glimpses of all of that. They also saw a raw pitcher who despite some of the best stuff of the entire system, was simply not getting enough outs. Foltynewicz was hurt by a few things. He depended entirely too much on his fourseamer to get him ahead on batters because his other pitches simply were not getting by hitters - especially his changeup. What's that old saying that major league hitters can time a freight train if they know it's coming? Hitters laid off his slider and keyed on his fastball. The results were not advantageous for Foltynewicz. Some of that was due to luck (67.7 LOB% stands out) but a large part of it was that, and I hate to use this cliche, Foltynewicz was a thrower and not a pitcher.

A case of pneumonia and the development of blood clots in his right arm ended his season prematurely last September. He would need offseason surgery and had a belated time table this spring because of it. Foltynewicz would have a late run for a rotation spot, but ultimately headed to Gwinnett to begin the year. He struggled with his control over four starts in the minors, walking at least four batters three times. However, he also showed some of the nastiness the Braves wanted to see. Over his final three starts, he averaged 16 strikes looking and 14 strikes swinging. It was a short sample size, but other than the control bugaboos, he looked like a pitcher who was progressing.

That brought Foltynewicz to the majors. For Folty, it was a big opportunity. Unlike a lot of Atlanta's young arms, he does not have time on his side. While he's still young (won't turn 25 this October), Foltynewicz was at risk of being passed over as a starting option by those on his heels. Again, many felt his ultimate landing spot would be the bullpen. It was vital for Foltynewicz to come up and throw strikes and impress.

His first 30 pitches...could have gone better.

After a strikeout, Foltynewicz would give up homers to 3-of-the-next-4 batters he faced and was in a 4-0 hole quickly. With this offense, that was a death sentence. Foltynewicz did limit the Mets from there (though he still got hit hard) before being replaced with two outs and two on in the fourth. Six days later, Folynewicz got a shot to show his 2016 could be different from his 2015 and excelled against the Diamondbacks. Over seven quality innings, he walked none and struck out eight. Of his 68 strikes, 22 were looking. He gave up just two line drives and a homer on the day. Limit the amount of line drives, limit the damage done. The Braves ultimately lost in extras, but it was a sign that Foltynewicz could be better. He highlighted that latter fact six days later against the Royals on Saturday. Over eight dominant innings, he struck out four and didn't walk a batter. His last two starts are the first two times he has not walked a better when starting a game.

One of the big differences so far this season comes in his pitch selection. He's throwing his four-seamer less and his breaking balls more. He's also spotting them a hell of a lot better. 6% of all pitches thrown by Foltynewicz came right through the middle of the zone last year. Hitters are going to murder badly spotted balls at this level no matter how hard they are thrown. The 2016 season has seen him keep the ball more on the corners and when he attempts to bust a batter inside, he's actually getting the ball inside. As a result, he's pitching ahead of batters and putting them on the defensive. He's getting more groundballs and hitters are making "softer" contact.

Sticking with pitch selection, Foltynewicz is less predictable on first pitches. Last year against right-handers, he went to his fourseamer 57% of the time on the first pitch. It gave right-handed batters an advantage because no matter how hard Foltynewicz throws that pitch, hitters knew that they could bet it was coming when they stepped in. He showed more variety against lefthanders (42% four-seam, 33% sinker), but again - batters knew the hard stuff was coming on the first pitch. That's not too unusual, but it puts the pitcher in a tough situation of only having the location as means to fool the hitter. So far in 2016, he has been more diverse on the first pitch - especially since he uses his breaking ball more often. For instance, lefties are seeing the curveball nearly a quarter of first pitches while right-handed batters are seeing his slider 31% of all first pitches. Hitters are seeing these numbers and coming to the plate with the knowledge that Foltynewicz is less predictable. Right-handers especially are in a tough spot. Foltynewicz has used his slider against them at any moment in the at-bat, which makes his fastball more dangerous because the slider also keeps batter off-balance speed-wise.

All of these are golden. All of these are also based on a very limited sample size. We'll know more about how far Foltynewicz has progressed as we reach the dog days of summer. I'd like to see him use his changeup more and show an even higher commitment to his sinker. I'm also a little concerned about his number of swinging strikes. I expect more with his stuff. But those "complaints" are minor compared to the things that are trending in the right direction for the right-hander.

With so many young arms already in the fold and developing in the minors, the time is now for Foltynewicz to stake his claim to a spot in the rotation. So far - so good.

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