I’m here to write about the Braves’ starting pitchers for next year. And I’m going to do that.

But, as many of you are (painfully) aware, I tend to look back more than I look forward. For me, baseball’s past isn’t dead; it’s not even past. So first, a little history.

In the twenty years before coining to Atlanta, the Braves had a history of good rotations. The NL champion Boston Braves of 1948 had Spahn, Sain, and pray for rain; the great Milwaukee Braves teams of the late 1950’s had Spahn, Burdette, and Buhl.

For the first 25 years of the Atlanta Braves, there were no good starting rotations. Of course, Hall of Famer Phil Niekro was terrific; he will always be my favorite pitcher. But they could never find anyone else. Sure, Ron Reed, Buzz Capra, Carl Morton, Craig McMurtry, Pascual Perez each had a year or two of effective starting pitching, but none were ever stars.; For 15 years, it was Niekro, and, uh, … pray for snow?

Actually, to be fair, the rotation in 1974 was pretty strong. The top two starters, Phil Niekro and Buzz Capra, had 8.0 and 5.8 bWAR, respectively, and with Carl Morton (2.8) and Ron Reed (2.1), the four starters had a total bWAR of 16.7. That was the best total starting pitcher WAR in any season of the ATL Braves first quarter century. Although that team won 88 games, it was a rare year in which the Braves didn’t score many runs, and the team finished 14 games behind the Dodgers.

As you are no doubt aware, the Atlanta Braves’ fortunes turned in 1991, and the primary reason for the improvement was the starting rotation. The bWAR of the top four starters in 1991 easily eclipsed the mark from 1974. (Glavine 9.2; Avery 5.7; Smoltz 5.3; Leibrandt 3.8—TOTAL 23.0). With the addition of Greg Maddux in 1993, the rotation WAR totals got even better. The Braves rotations of the 1990’s were among the best of all time. In fact, there is no team in history with an 8-10 year stretch that comes close to the sustained excellence of the Braves rotation.

1994: Maddux 9.6; Glavine 5.5; Smoltz 4.0; Avery 1.5—TOTAL 20.6 (season cut short in early August; on pace to break the 1991 record).

1996: Smoltz 7.7; Maddux 7.2; Glavine 6.8; Avery 1.6—TOTAL 23.3

1997: Maddux 7.7; Glavine 6.5.; Smoltz 5.4; Neagle 4.7—TOTAL 24.3

The numbers were still very good for the remaining seasons of the 14 year division streak, but never quite reached the heights of the mid-nineties. Maddux and Glavine were not quite as dominant, and Smoltz dealt with injuries and went to the bullpen.

I’m afraid some of us may have been spoiled by those nineties rotations.

Let’s look at 2022 using that same measure (that is, cumulative bWAR of the top four starters).

2022: Fried 5.9; Strider 3.7; Wright 3.6; Morton 1.6—TOTAL 14.8.

That doesn’t look so great compared to the glory days of the nineties, but actually, it’s really good. Let’s look at the two best teams in the game in 2022, both of which have excellent rotations:

2022 Astros: Verlander 5.9; Valdez 3.7; Javier 3.7; Garcia 1.4—TOTAL 14.7.

2022 Dodgers: Urias 4.9; Gonsolin 4.6; Anderson 4.3; Kershaw 3.8—TOTAL 17.6.

The Braves have one of the best rotations in baseball.  It’s probably the best group of Braves starters overall since the 1990’s.

And they are all coming back.

Here is my idiosyncratic take on each one:

Number 1: Mighty Max Varsity Fried.

He may not be infallible, but he’s our Pontifex Maximus.  Our unquestioned Ace, Patriarch of the West.

Perhaps the papal references are not appropriate here; As you may know, as a Jewish kid growing up in LA, Max idolized Sandy Koufax. He wore number 34 in High School in honor of Koufax. Max will never be Koufax, but he does have a real shot at being the second best Jewish pitcher of all time. Max has 17.1 career bWAR so far, averaging 5.0 per 162.

Even the great Koufax only averaged 5.1 WAR per 162. But that’s misleading; after a slow start in the bigs, Koufax finished with perhaps the best five year stretch of any pitcher in history. In his final four seasons alone, he accumulated 36.4 WAR, an average of 9.1 per season. Koufax had a total of 53.1 career bWAR when he retired at age 30.

[Who is currently the second best Jewish pitcher of all time, a handful of you ask? Ken Holtzman. He won 174 games (9 more than Koufax), and he accumulated 27 bWAR in his 15 season career.  Still, even just two more solid seasons from Fried could put him past Holtzman in career WAR.]

In other words, Max is really good, and he could get even better.  He has five plus pitches: 4-seamer, curve, slider, 2-seamer, and changeup. He throws none of them over 33% of the time, and each for at least 10%. In games, he is able to mix up the frequency of each pitch depending on what’s working. The sharp breaking slow over the top curve ball is still excellent and fun to watch, but he is no longer so dependent on it. His hard, sharp breaking slider is just as effective. Although Max’s K rate is not elite, he walks very few batters, gets a lot of ground balls, and surrenders few hard hit balls. He’s tough as nails and mentally focused.

Number 2. Kyle Wright

Wright totally remade himself in 2022. He always had the stuff, although that was never obvious if you saw him pitch before 2022. His big league numbers in a handful of starts from 2018 to 2021 were abysmal.  But when he spent the entire year in AAA in 2021, he changed up his pitch mix. Like Fried, he has five pitches in his arsenal. But instead of relying on a 4-seamer and slider, he turned to his excellent curve and 2-seamer the majority of the time. He still throws the other three occasionally, but it’s the curve and sinker that made him an excellent starting pitcher. That, and throwing them for strikes. His walk rate was sky high before 2022, more than 6 BB/9. Last year he cut that to 2.6.

3. Spencer Strider, aka Aragorn II Elessar

What can we say about the mustachioed one? Spencer’s record-breaking season was one of the most delightful surprises of 2022.He set the all time record for getting to 200 K’s in the fewest innings, and he set the Braves all time single game strikeout record with 16.

Strider throws a four seamer more than anyone in baseball, and more effectively. He’s also developed a very good slider. So far, those two pitches are good enough. Other pitchers can throw in the high nineties, but no one gets the swings and misses Strider does. Through some combination of deceptive motion and arm angle and “rise” at the end, batters simply cannot pick it up. And when they gear up for the heater, as they must, the slider makes them look even more foolish.

What really impresses me about Strider is his intelligence. He knows his body and his mechanics as well as any young pitcher I’ve seen. I’m running out of space to discuss it, but I highly recommend this profile in the Athletic: How the Braves’ Spencer Strider became 2022’s premier strikeout artist – The Athletic .

Is he for real? Can he sustain and build upon this success? I was very surprised at the six year $75 million dollar extension Strider and the team agreed to. But it does tell us that AA and the Braves’ brain trust are convinced he’s the real deal. They know more about this than I do.

4. Charlie Morton

There has been a lot of grumbling about Charlie Morton on this blog and elsewhere. As you know, the Braves resigned him for 2023 for 20 million (essentially they picked up the club option for that price). Morton was disappointing in 2022, and if he repeats that performance in 2023 it’s not a good deal for the Braves. It may be that last season marked an age-related decline that will accelerate. If so, that 20 million is indeed a bad bargain.

But…Charlie’s fastball velocity was fine and the movement and spin on his curveball was as good as ever. He had a terrible start in April (perhaps attributable to the broken leg from the previous October) and a very disappointing finish to the season in September and October. But in between, he was essentially the same Charlie Morton of the past five years. Which is very good indeed, and probably worth that money. As with Strider, I assume the front office knows and sees things about Morton and his potential. I hope they are right.

5. Lots of possibilities, no obvious standouts

The most likely candidates, in no particular order, are Bryce Elder, Kyle Muller, Ian Anderson, and Mike Soroka. There is also at least an even chance AA will sign a veteran to fill the fifth starter role. (FWIW, I think it’s highly unlikely they will be in the Jacob deGrom sweepstakes)

But let’s focus on the in house candidates. I’ll take them in the order of the highest upside for the role.

Each of these four returning starters discussed above is intelligent; they understand pitching, their own stuff and mechanics, and their strengths and weaknesses. Rob Neyer used to call Greg Maddux the world’s smartest pitcher, and he was right. None of Fried, Wright, Strider, or Morton is Maddux, of course, but they all share a degree his intelligence and fierce competitiveness.

That brings me to Mike Soroka. In 2019, as a 21 year old, Soroka was a star. I’d been following him since they drafted him four years before. His style of pitching reminded many of Maddux. That can be a curse, because Mad Dog was one of a kind, but Soroka’s intelligence when he discussed pitching revealed a kid with a preternatural understanding of the art. He also had excellent command of all his pitches, especially a sinker that induced ground balls at a high rate.

Then the horrific achilles tear(s) happened, and his entire future was in grave doubt. Soroka by all accounts has worked his tail off and has kept a positive attitude throughout. His achilles tendon, not to mention his shoulder and elbow, may not permit him to return. But if all those things are healthy next spring, he could be dynamite. I’m really pulling for the guy.

Kyle Muller is the best candidate to be the next Kyle Wright. There was never much doubt about his stuff. The huge lefty has an overpowering fastball and a good slider.& His problem has always been finding the strikezone.  A strong 2022 campaign in AAA puts him solidly in the running for the 2023 rotation..

Bryce Elder has a sinker and cutter with sharp late movement. He’s going to need to have Maddux-like command to excel, and as much as I like Elder he’s no Greg Maddux. He’s not even Mike Soroka. But the way he pitched in his September call up (albeit against the Nats and Marlins) showed that he could be a more than serviceable fifth starter.

Ian Anderson is the biggest puzzle of this group. He was dominant when called up in late 2020, and his postseason record in 2020 and 2021 is historically good. But the wheels fell off for Ian in 2022. He’s got one of the best changeups in the game. He throws it from the same slot as his over the top fastball.  But as good as it is, that and the ok fastball are not enough.; If he develops a breaking ball to complement those two pitches, he may yet turn out to be a quality big league pitcher.

*&&& *

In the last couple of days, some on here have bemoaned again the teardown of the last decade and the resulting miserableness of the 2015-2017 seasons. I suffered and cursed through those years just like the rest of you. The premise of the rebuild always seemed to be that if you accumulated enough top tier pitching prospects, enough of them (even if a small percentage of the total) would pan out.

Of the starting pitchers discussed above, Fried (2015 trade), Soroka (2015 draft), Anderson (2016 draft), Muller (2016 draft), and Wright (2017 draft) were all acquired during the tear down. As miserable as those years were, I’d say that is an excellent group to build from, and the prime reason the Braves rotation is now one of the best in the game.