With Cole Hamels beginning the season on the Injured List, Felix Hernandez opting-up due to COVID-19 concerns, Mike Foltynewicz being optioned to the Alternative site and Mike Soroka out for the year, the Atlanta Braves rotation unraveled early. The preseason favorites to win the NL East were suddenly struggling to have a pitching rotation go deep into games. But Max Fried, the 26-year-old pitcher, has helped hold the young team together with his dominant pitching.
At the start of the season, Fried wasn’t expected to be the ace of the rotation. The Braves were hoping that Soroka would put together the same type of campaign he had when he was the runner-up for NL Rookie of the Year. But with Soroka suffering a terrifying achilles heel tear against the Mets early on in the season, Fried was pushed into the spotlight to help out the depleting Atlanta pitching depth.
This season it’s clear things have changed, most notably with his pitch usage. Fried, who went to the same high school, Harvard-Westlake, as Chicago White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito and St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty, began to cut down on his four-seam fastball usage and turned to his slider more. In an interview with Gabriel Burns for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Fried said he worked on his change-up in the offseason.
“It was obviously a pitch I threw less of (change up), with the slider coming into play last year (2019),” Fried said. “I just want to keep having that fourth pitch to keep hitters off balance. Coming into the offseason, that’s something I wanted to improve on. I definitely worked really hard with that.”
His increased slider usage has helped cut down his home run rate. In nine starts this season, Fried has yet to give up a home run, whereas in 2019 he had a HR/FB rate of 20.2%.The pitch that led a high HR/9 last year (1.14) was his four seam fastball. His fastball this season is his second lowest whiff rate and lowest put out rate. The graphs below show his pitch distribution in 2018 and in 2020.
2018 Pitch Distribution 2020 Pitch Distribution
Instead of relying on his fastball to put batters away and to continue his current successful HR/9 rate, he can use the slider, curve or change up. By increasing the usage of his secondary pitches he doesn’t have to rely on his fastball as often to get swing and misses, as he generates a higher swing and miss rate with his slider and curve. In the 2019 season, Fried threw his fastball at a rate of 54.0%. Now, he’s throwing it 41.9%, a 12.1% decrease. Obviously his 0 HR/9 rate this season is not going to continue, but relying on his secondary pitches will make it more difficult for batters to take him deep.
Fried using his slider and curve more also explains the above average K/9. His K/9, a career 9.31 in the majors, ranks 31st among qualified starters. These two pitches also explains his ability to induce ground balls. According to Fangraphs, the graph below shows his ground ball rate is 53.5%, about the same as last year.
Ground Ball % Slider location Curve location
Fried primarily pitches his slider and curve in the lower and outside part of the zone, and his ground ball rate stems from where he locates his slider and curve.
Being a ground ball pitcher helps when you have a strong middle infield of second baseman Ozzie Albies and shortstop Dansby Swanson, and a gold-glove winner at first base, Freddie Freeman. In 2019 (the 2020 numbers are not accessible yet), Albies, Swanson and Freeman had a combined outs above average of -1. Freeman had two, Albies negative four and Swanson with one. This year, the three infielders collectively have eight defensive runs saved: Freeman with zero, Albies with one and Swanson with seven. Though it is a small sample size from this season, Fried is saved by the good middle infield and first base side because of the infield depth.
His success this year has also stemmed from his ability to limit the amount of walks he gives up. His walk rate saw a drop from his 2018 season (14.1%) to the 2019 (6.7%) season, and has consistently decreased for the current year. The explanation behind why Fried has decreased his walk percentage over the past three seasons is that ability to rely on his secondary pitches. This season, he throws his curveball 22.7% of the time and his slider 21.8%, whereas in the 2019 season he only threw his curve 9% and slider 26.4%. The graph below shows where he primarily throws his slider, curve and four seam fastball.
Slider location Curve location Four-seam fastball location
Out of all his pitches, the slider and the curve are thrown outside of the zone the most. A higher O-swing% shows a strong correlation to a lower BB%. As his O-swing% increased, this season it’s 31.9%, his BB% decreased. He generates a higher swing and miss rate (SwSrt%) with those two pitches, more so than his four seamer and change-up: 32.9% with the curve and 28.9% with the slider. Fried’s change in approach in the way he attacks hitters, relying on the curveball and slider more has led to his consistent, dominant performance.
His 2020 stats have been nothing short of spectacular. Through his nine starts he has a 1.98 ERA while holding batters to a .203 average and a 1.06 WHIP. When Fried is on the mound, the Braves are 6-0 and this was during the short absence of outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr.. His worst start? He gave up two runs over five innings. His clear success has made him a front runner for the NL Cy Young award as his two biggest competitors are Jacob DeGrom, Yu Darvish and Trevor Bauer. It’ll be an interesting finish as the season comes to a close and the extended playoff picture becomes more clear.
(Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire)