Unit Recap — The Staff

There is a proverb that goes like this:

Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught that every person should carry two pieces of paper, one in each pocket: in one pocket “For me the world was created.” and in the other “I am but dust and ashes.” When we have moments of self loathing take out the first; in moments of grandiosity the second. Our souls are poised between greatness and nothingness; in knowing both are we blessed.

(The story is famous; this particular paraphrase was written by Rabbi David Wolpe, but there are many similar variants.)

As baseball fans who follow a team chock full of players who are barely old enough to drink, we should probably keep two quotes in our pockets. First, fantasy guru Ron Shandler’s famous line, “Once a player displays a skill, he owns it.” And second, Gary Huckabay’s even more famous line, “TINSTAAPP: There is No Such Thing as a Pitching Prospect.”

So, who were the 2018 Braves starters? No, really: who were they?

The Adults

  1. First: Foltzie. What with luck and everything, it’s possible that 2018 could turn out to be a career year for him, at least in turns of ERA. But the tall northpaw took the leap forward that I think a few of us may have given up hoping for, as the man who could always throw four good innings to start a game finally figured out how to throw three more good ones after that.
  2. Second: Kevin Gausman. Look, I like him. He probably isn’t an ace and he probably doesn’t have to be, with all the twentysomething prospects we have knocking on the door. His ERA as a Brave was stellar. His K-rate as a Brave was crappy. His velocity was down a little over a mile per hour in 2018 compared with previous years, and that was all part of the plan, as he was working on improved command. Indeed, his walks did drop as a Brave, but so did his HR/FB and BABIP and strand rate and all the numbers that make you think he wasn’t nearly as good as his ERA suggested.

    All the same, for right now, I’m going to believe my lyin’ eyes. But at the end of the day, if Mike Soroka and Touki Toussaint and Bryse Wilson push Gausman out of the rotation, it’ll be for all the right reasons.

  3. Third: Sean Newcomb. And where you stand really depends on where you sit. The square-jawed sinistral sure looks like a starter, and for more than half a year, he looked like a front-end bulldog. Of course, for some of us, I think it will be impossible to ever watch a Sean Newcomb start without thinking of the Jadeite Jewel.

    For many outside analysts, he’s still a 3rd/4th starter who will never be as good as he should be because he just can’t quite command his pitches. And for some, he’s a player who had turned a Foltzie-like corner until management foolishly let him toss 134 pitches on July 29. Well, here are some numbers:

    Apr. 2-July 29: 3.23 ERA, 1.93 K/BB, .244 BABIP.
    July 30-Sept. 30: 5.68 ERA, 2.08 K/BB, .355 BABIP.
    You be the judge.

    A few years ago, Jackie Chan made a biopic about Sean Newcomb’s career. In case you didn’t see it, here it is:

  4. Fourth: Julio Teheran. At this point he’s less enigma than archetype: top prospect comes up, does quite well, loses the bloom off his fastball, and tries to remake himself as a slop-thrower, and sometimes he gets by and sometimes he gets bombed. Hey, Livan Hernandez managed to do it for a decade and a half, but not everybody is Livo.

    What happens right here is the hard part, halting the decline to stay just this side of playable. Teheran isn’t doing any present harm at the back end of the rotation, but if trends keep going the way they’re going (increasing walks, sky-high home run rate, and belt-high BP fastballs) he’ll be a Long Island Duck in three years.

  5. Fifth: Anibal Sanchez, a Leo Mazzone reclamation special nearly a decade after Leo last rocked in an Atlanta clubhouse. Anibal just put together a rejuvenation year every bit as good as Jaret Wright, John Burkett, Javier Vazquez, or Kim Jong-Il. (Or, to a lesser extent and in partial seasons, Andy Ashby in 2000 and Ben Sheets in 2012.)

    Anibal’s been making noises that he might want to retire, and why would we let him? If he can be persuaded to lace up his cleats one more summer for another $12 million — that’s what we were willing to give Bartolo — then I’d think it money well spent.

    Will he be that good again? Of course not. The nice thing about handing a one-year contract to a veteran is that he can’t truly block a deserving youngster. If one of the rookies or sophomores forces his way into the rotation, the team won’t hesitate to give him Sanchez’s spot, and Sanchez is at a position in his career to understand that.

Whether the Braves keep Sanchez or choose to bring in another veteran or two on a one-year trial, almost all of the the biggest questions from 2018 remain the biggest questions for 2019: of all of our young pitchers, which of them will grow into true rotation anchors?

Only Foltzie is a certainty. And even Newcomb’s prognosis is far more certain than that of his younger staffmates, none of whom were quite able to grab and hold a rotation spot and take it for their own.

The Kids

  1. First: Bryse Wilson showed flashes. Another 20-year-old phenom who leapt multiple levels to force his way into the majors, he didn’t take the league by storm the way Ronald Acuna did, but Wilson’s going to have several more opportunities he wants to establish himself as a 2019 rotation mainstay. He’s earned that.

    However, he’s going to have to prove that he’s more than just a babyface with two good pitches. If he wants to get past the sixth inning, he’s going to need a third pitch. (Either that, or the Braves will start bullpenning the regular season the way they did the Division Series. Well, we’ll see.)

  2. Second: Touki Toussaint looked really good at times. The book on him was always that he was raw, a live arm who still needed polishing. He’s added a lot of polish in the last couple of years, and looks very nearly ready, and that wipeout curveball is as gosh darned pretty a hook as you’ll see. But as Sean Newcomb could tell him, you cannot fake your way to fastball command. (To paraphrase Animal House: “Son, 6.52 BB/9 is no way to go through life.”)

    You can bluff your way past most minor leaguers with pure stuff, but in the majors, you’ll meet veterans who know how to spit on a curveball. The Braves staff was overly magnanimous with free passes this year, and it cost the pitching coach his job. We’ll see if Touki can get his strike percentage high enough to protect the next guy’s job.

  3. Third: Mike Soroka might have taken a rotation spot and run off and hid with it, had the injury bug not gotten in the way. But that’s a sentence conclusion you could write about any pitcher: Stan Musial might have been a damn fine hurler if he hadn’t hurt his arm, and if I took a bit more time, I might come up with the best historical metaphor that’s ever been written.

    So, all bets are off. But still, Soroka just lost a year. He’ll get another bite at the apple. He won’t turn 22 until August 4. Yes, that’s right: he was born exactly fourteen years to the day after Dave Winfield was arrested for killing a seagull with a throw.

  4. Fourth: Max Fried looked quite good at times, and he’s done that for a while. As a lefty with a fastball and a pulse, he’ll probably be drawing a major league salary for another decade, but he needs to stay healthy. He’ll turn 25 in January, and while that’s still young, he’s in danger of missing his chance.

    The Braves are certainly going to have to trade SOME depth, and for the Tommy John survivor with fewer than 60 major league innings under his belt, Max may be under the gun to persuade the Braves he’s worth building around.

  5. Fifth and
  6. Sixth: Luiz Gohara and Kolby Allard lost a year, too, and they couldn’t blame the injury bug. They’re young enough to get more chances, but they’re going to have to pitch their way off the schneid: there are too many others hungry for an opportunity.That’s all the guys who made a start in 2018. But there’s one more key member of the 40-man roster who will likely make his starting debut very soon:
  7. Seventh: Kyle Wright, who made four appearances out of the pen in September. He’s really good, according to everyone who has studied him, and really really good, according to Stu.

And then there are the rest of the guys. In addition to being a knighted Scottish flautist, Ian Anderson could be 2019’s Bryse Wilson, a helium guy who blazes through multiple levels to earn a cup of coffee, but he’s got a LOT of people to leapfrog before he becomes a difference-maker. And he’s still just 20 — he was born exactly 27 years and 364 days after the US release of Aqualung.

The Bottom Line

It’s a good thing the Braves have all these prospects, especially since the federal government appears to be investigating improprieties in human trafficking of baseball players apparently related to Hector Olivera. We are more or less barred from the Latin American market for the next few years, and, considering the federal investigation, the status quo is literally the best-case scenario for us right now.

So we’d better hope Alex Anthopoulos has a few tricks up his sleeve. One of those tricks might be a knack for sweet-talking corporate management into coughing up a little bit more dough, which is something he managed to do in Toronto even after his predecessor, J.P. Ricciardi, horrifically bungled the free-agent signing of B.J. Ryan and extension for Vernon Wells.

But even if we have money to spend, we won’t spend it on the rotation. Not with our three billion prospects. We’ll spend it on the bullpen and the starting lineup. It stands to reason that one or two or three of our precocious twirlers will actually demonstrate the ability to complete 30 starts without getting killed. Right now it’s looking like Wilson, Soroka, and Toussaint. But will they actually make the leap, like Foltzie did? Will one of the others leapfrog them?

And if they do make the leap, will they manage to stay consistently good for longer than Julio Teheran did?

26 thoughts on “Unit Recap — The Staff”

  1. krussell, JC’ed from last thread:

    “@42, there’s tons of critiques of WAR, a lot of them from total hacks like Bill James. He doesn’t like some of the shortcomings in the offensive side of the equation – thinks that things like clutch performance should factor in, stuff like that. A lot of people think that reached-on-error should factor in, since that’s correlated to speed (and you should get credited for not making an out).

    On the defensive side it’s usually about the data itself, and the way the data is applied.

    My beef is very basic – that offense should be weighted higher than defense since you have more offensive “chances” in a season than defensive ones (especially in the OF).

    Also, hitting is harder than defense. Making a routine play in the field should be a given. Hitting a routine 92 mph fastball is still really hard.”

  2. Bill James isn’t a total hack. He’s a knee-jerk contrarian whose most thoughtful work is not in the public domain because he’s employed by a major league team. For the last 40 years, he has provided incalculable value to baseball by reflexively asking whether something that most people think is true is actually demonstrably so.

    Sometimes it actually is demonstrably so, and he can look a little foolish, particularly when (as is now generally the case) he’s not investing a great deal of time in the subjects he takes on in the public domain. But you pooh-pooh him at your peril.

  3. Thank you, Alex.

    Perhaps the series will end in two days and we can get back to baseball stuff that matters.

  4. I wanna say he was being sarcastic, noting that James is an excellent, reliable voice in the critiques of WAR. Could be wrong. K-dawg, please advice.

  5. I’m not knowledgeable enough to weigh in on @1. I have feelings on it and that’s about it. I’m not going to take on the numbers as a full time job. I just know that baseball is all about outs and runs. Making outs makes the game progress. Avoiding outs leads to runs. Being good at some combination of that should make the WAR go up.

  6. Rob, I don’t think you’re giving Gausman enough credit. Getting him away from the O’s defense and the AL East HR barrage cut his hits/9 down by three and cut his HR/9 in half. He had his lowest FIP as a Brave since his second year in the league. Not to mention he is still just 27. Assuming Anibal doesn’t come back, no one on our starting staff is older than 27.

    Assuming no returns and no additions, I think you have to pencil in Folty, Gaus, and Newk and leave two spots to be decided in ST. We had three pitchers with enough starts to feel like we could comfortably give them a spot in the rotation if they show well in ST – Fried, Touki, Soroka. Both Fried and Touki need to manage the strike zone better and both Soroka and Fried need to manage their health. But they all still had FIPs well under 4.00 (Soroka under 3.00). Every one of our guys both veterans and rookies or prospects has to have a path to achieve their potential. And even the list you stated will be quickly followed by the next wave (Anderson, Muller, Wentz, Tarnok, Beck).

    We should not re-sign Anibal unless it’s strictly for MR money or even a minor league contract. We should trade Julio and see if he can help us net a star by trade (especially by us taking on a bad contract from the trade partner).

    If we sign a big lefty like Corbin then we can also trade Newk. At any rate Folty and Gaus will be the glue for the rotation even if they perform as #2/#3 types rather than #1/#2. I see all of these guys as having more upside than they’ve shown except Teheran.

    One of the best things about this team is that I don’t believe we have any but a few (excluding catchers and FAs like Markakis and Sanchez and some in the bullpen) who have yet reached their prime and doesn’t have a bigger and better year somewhere in front of them still. Even if we do nothing this offseason, this team should get better, especially in the rotation. I honestly don’t care that everyone keeps TINSTAAPP’ing because every prospect except Allard (OK, Gohara is somewhere in between) that we have brought up has shown that he belongs in the majors or nearly does.

  7. Alex was the author of the post, so your stones and spears should be hurled at him. Alex just loves the hot takes. /kidding

  8. I don’t think trading Newk is a great idea unless you think he’ll never be better than he was in 2018. There’s still plenty of reason to question his potential ace-itude and I don’t think he’d bring a king’s ransom in return.

    I’m not a big fan of treating FIP as dispositive in super small sample sizes. Soroka looked good in 25 innings, then his shoulder got hurt. That’s more salient than the 25 innings — what he did in the majors was exactly what you’d expect given the way he tore up the minors, but now he’s coming back from being shut down for much of the year. I still think the world of him but you have to apply caution.

    I’m glad they gave a lot of the guys bullpen experience and quite frankly I believe wholeheartedly in starting a pitcher in the pen then moving him to the rotation. Especially now that bullpenning seems to be a thing! If being a swingman worked for young Johan Santana, it can work for young Max Fried. It’s a good way to give them major league reps, and it’s a good way to solve a logjam (at least until injuries solve it for them).

  9. I would list Bryse behind Fried/Soroka/Touki.

    He does throw a slider and a changeup, but I don’t know if they’re good enough for him to establish himself in the rotation with the kind of competition he’ll be facing.

  10. In far too few innings to matter, the advanced stats seemed to think his slider was alright but the changeup got walloped. But he’s clearly a fastball-first pitcher, and his fastball’s a good ‘un.

    On the other hand, he’s years younger than Fried and Touki, and while he got destroyed in his two bullpen appearances, his one start went pretty okay. I think Fried’s gotta be ahead of him just because he’s both oldest and the lefthandedest, but I think spring training is going to have a lot to say about who the team gives the greatest number of April starts to.

    Also, because it didn’t fit in the above article, I’ll just leave this here: possibly because I’m a member of Generation Y, I don’t have a “love” or “hate” relationship with prog rock — I’m more just indifferent. I’ve never really listened to Yes or ELP or Gentle Giant or Marillion or any of the other bands that the ’70s coughed up — honestly, other than the flute solo I linked to, I’ve really never listened to Jethro Tull. I do really like Pink Floyd. (Are they prog? Probably, I guess.) I have one Van der Graaf Generator album and I find it impenetrable and pointless. It’s ironic but the only thing I even find remotely creditable about most album-oriented-rock is the singles, and they’re mostly banal and overplayed. (Like “Carry On My Wayward Son.”) On the other hand I dig a decent amount of progressive metal, like Opeth, Cynic, and Dream Theater. So I like prog metal but not prog rock, I guess.

    Anyway, I’m super excited about our young Mr. Anderson.

  11. Hah, I figured. That said, I stand by the other part of what I said, which is: he’s a reflexive contrarian and kind of a stopped clock on a lot of this stuff. So he raises interesting questions but you can’t point to him as proof.

  12. I agree with AAR that we aren’t going to spend money on the rotation, especially because the premise of the entire rebuild has always been about how inefficient it is to buy SP on the FA market. (Note that I don’t really think that “efficiency” is what I’m shooting for here, as a fan, but…yeah).

    Definitely curious to see how it plays out. This WS can’t end soon enough.

  13. @7 Sorry, made an assumption and didn’t read the byline.

    I still think even with SSS , you have to prioritize major league experience over minors. I think that’s why Wisler and Sims got so many chances when it was obvious they weren’t going to get much better. Going with the “known” vs. the “unknown”. That said, any of the three could be the next “Gohara” and regress. But our homegrown talent has to be good for something other than trading. Both McCarthy and Sanchez were patches to allow the young talent to be brought along at a reasonable pace, but even by late last year, there were too many guys chomping at the bit waiting at the starting gate. Time to ring the starting bell.

  14. Gohara had a tragic off season. He’s a kid who lost one parent and almost a second. I will not kick him to the curb just yet.

  15. I agree, Chief. Soroka, though, has got to figure in somehow.

    Julio seems to do fairly well with rest. #5 is a smart place to put him.

  16. Now that they will be expected to contend for the foreseeable future, it will be interesting to see if the Braves can manage to carry a guy for the 3 1/2 years it took Foltzie. They surely can’t carry 2 guys like that at a time, and contend.

    These young guns are liable to have a short leash. Mistakes may be made.

  17. We have more and better prospects than we had in the late ’80’s, early ’90’s. I don’t see how we can avoid making mistakes.

  18. The starting pitchers produced 15.0 WAR, good for 13th in MLB. Not that it matters, but I was ridiculed for saying I wouldn’t be surprised if they produced 16-20 WAR. Well, who’s laughing now, Adam?

    Anywho, tops in ball was the Astros with 30.7, who rode incredible health and talent all year. 5 WAR improvement by us still leaves us at 6th in baseball, so there’s a significant opportunity for improvement here without even shooting to be the best rotation in baseball. But with how much pitching we’ve acquired, we should be a top-5 — frankly, if not top-3 — starting staff for the next several years. It’s not just your 5 starters; it’s who you can plug in to fill DL stints or make spot starts due to doubleheaders. We should have the ability to match just about anyone even if we don’t acquire a SP this offseason.

    I would think that we will look to balance long-term potential will still trying to put the 5 best guys who have the highest probability of being elite in 2019. I don’t know who those will be, but it does make for hard decisions with Newk and Teheran. I definitely understand the sentiment to hold onto Newk considering his potential, but even moreso than this year, there may be an embarrassment of riches if we don’t gut the farm this offseason.

  19. Note that I’m not advocating trading Newk off the top but only if we get a proven top-flight lefty like Corbin which would make Newk a prime asset in a trade.

  20. Three years ago, even this Vanderbilt fanboy didn’t think Walker Buehler would be THIS good. But it still stings to know we drafted Kolby Allard 10 spots before the Dodgers took Buehler.

  21. Kolby is a huge disappointment. All the things that the Braves were high on when he was drafted, we don’t see it when he reaches major. He has turned to be a control pitcher without good control.

  22. I would try to trade Julio and Kolby this offseason when they still have value.

    I still have hope on Newk. Will give him one more year.

    If we can unload Julio, I don’t mind if we bring back Anibal for veteran leadership.

    So my rotation would be Forty, Gaus, Newk, Julio/Anibal, and the last spot will be up for competition. Considering how often we use a six-men rotation, there are plenty of innings for the kids.

  23. There is a recap just up on tonight’s wild 7 hour 20 minute WS game. It is short and to the point. There was a certain topicality I felt.

    If you choose to read it please return post haste to Alex’s massive piece of scholarship above. To him and Rob, my apologies.

  24. Well, who’s laughing now, Adam?

    Straight boomed me.

    We know Newcomb can at least throw a lot of decent innings, which is more than you can say for most of our other young guys. Something else would have to come together for the rotation for me to want to trade him.

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