Iâ€™m here to write about the Bravesâ€™ starting pitchers for next year. And Iâ€™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, baseballâ€™s past isnâ€™t dead; itâ€™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 1950â€™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, â€¦ 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 didnâ€™t score many runs, and the team finished 14 games behind the Dodgers.
As you are no doubt aware, the Atlanta Bravesâ€™ 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 3.8â€”TOTAL 23.0). With the addition of Greg Maddux in 1993, the rotation WAR totals got even better. The Braves rotations of the 1990â€™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 1.5â€”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 1.6â€”TOTAL 23.3
1997: Maddux 7.7; Glavine 6.5.; Smoltz 5.4; Neagle 4.7â€”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.
Iâ€™m afraid some of us may have been spoiled by those nineties rotations.
Letâ€™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 1.6â€”TOTAL 14.8.
That doesnâ€™t look so great compared to the glory days of the nineties, but actually, itâ€™s really good. Letâ€™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 1.4â€”TOTAL 14.7.
2022 Dodgers: Urias 4.9; Gonsolin 4.6; Anderson 4.3; Kershaw 3.8â€”TOTAL 17.6.
The Braves have one of the best rotations in baseball. Itâ€™s probably the best group of Braves starters overall since the 1990â€™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 heâ€™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 thatâ€™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 whatâ€™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 Maxâ€™s K rate is not elite, he walks very few batters, gets a lot of ground balls, and surrenders few hard hit balls. Heâ€™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 itâ€™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? Spencerâ€™s record-breaking season was one of the most delightful surprises of 2022.He set the all time record for getting to 200 Kâ€™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. Heâ€™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 â€œriseâ€ 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 Iâ€™ve seen. Iâ€™m running out of space to discuss it, but I highly recommend this profile in the Athletic: How the Bravesâ€™ Spencer Strider became 2022â€™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 Bravesâ€™ brain trust are convinced heâ€™s the real deal. They know more about this than I do.
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 itâ€™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.
Butâ€¦Charlieâ€™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 itâ€™s highly unlikely they will be in the Jacob deGrom sweepstakes)
But letâ€™s focus on the in house candidates. Iâ€™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 worldâ€™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. Iâ€™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 Sorokaâ€™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. Iâ€™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. Heâ€™s going to need to have Maddux-like command to excel, and as much as I like Elder heâ€™s no Greg Maddux. Heâ€™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. Heâ€™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, Iâ€™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.
Great profile! I don’t really have much to add. So let me just ask a completely insane question, possibly for JonathanF to throw some math at:
What’s the likelihood that Fried catches Koufax in career WAR? I’m not expecting him to throw up any 10-WAR seasons, but given the shortness of Sandy’s peak, it’s maybe not completely impossible. Varsity has 17.1 career fWAR, exactly 36 rWAR behind Sandy. If he remains productive through 2030 (when he’ll be 36), he could get very close. So, how likely is that? Ten percent? More? Less?
Nice riff on Faulkner!
Thank you, tfloyd.
I hope, despite Mac’s warning. I am a Mike Soroka fan. I want him to earn the last starter job. I hope he does.
For a brief moment, I put up another piece, on the infield. I removed it and will post this weekend. Also, for another brief moment, the post went nuts and lots of npsbs popped up. That’s also fixed.
Thanks for kicking off a new thread, TFloyd!
45 retired pitchers had between 16 and 18 WAR after their age 28 season. Three of them, Kevin Brown(16.6 through age 28/68.7 for career) Jerry Koosman(17.1/57.0) and Larry Jackson(16.7/52.6) created more than 35.9 WAR in the rest of their career. Jim Kaat(17.8/45.2) who created another 28 WAR was in the ballpark. Nobody else was close: the next highest were Slim Sallee(17.8/35.0) and Rube Marquard(16.4/34.7).
So, roughly (and adjusting for nothing but age and success through age 28) about 3.5/45, or about 8 percent.
Thank you so much for thinking about a methodology for this question! Taking a deeper look, I see that interestingly enough, if you expand the search criteria a bit, you find some more names:
Gaylord Perry posted 15.3 WAR through age 28, and 77.8 after.
Max Scherzer posted 18.2 WAR through age 28, and, to date, 52.6 after.
Bob Gibson posted 19.2 WAR through age 28, and 62.5 after.
Whitey Ford, Burleigh Grimes, and Jim Bunning all posted 19.5 WAR through age 28, and proceeded to a Hall of Fame career.
And then, there were the late bloomers, including Knucksie, Dazzy Vance, Early Wynn, Randy Johnson, Three-Finger Brown, and Iron Joe McGinnity, who posted fewer than 10.0 WAR through age 28 and whose Hall of Fame careers almost entirely occurred in their 30s.
Every great pitcher is either an early bloomer or a late bloomer, coz you gotta bloom sometime to be great. My reason for the narrow window through 28 is you want to subset to pitchers who, looked out without hindsight, seem to be as good as Fried. Otherwise, you find yourself thinking that every average pitcher might one day become Phil Niekro. Thus, I don’t want to take the window much below Fried’s 17 WAR.
The case on the other end is not quite as clear, so Scherzer and Gibson are probably fair comps. But you still have to subtract out the Seavers, Clemenses and Madduxes who already had over 40 WAR before they were 29. But for every Bob Gibson, there are a few dozen Russ Fords, Rick Wises and Sid Fernandezes, though I sincerely doubt Fried, despite his surname, will eat himself to Sid-like levels. So I’m not sure the percentage changes that much.
[By the way, this may be a classic of the “in the best shape of his life” genre: https://apnews.com/article/1e41f87fef338d3bba362a7ba3e75d3b
Sid would go on to post another 2.7 WAR for his career.]
Yup, outside of Wright, a tough NLDS for Fried, Strider & Morton… but I feel confident we’ll be fine next year in the starting-rotation dept. Very much looking forward to seeing who will round it out. There are definitely guys to root for.
Doesn’t quite fit the criteria, but Warren Spahn (who was in the service for 3 years after his rookie year) had some pretty crazy numbers after he was 28… roughly 20.3 before, 72.5 after.
Also, Ken Holtzman’s mentioned above & I always loved to watch him pitch. Holtzman had this somewhat deceptive delivery, an easy, peek-a-boo motion where he seemed to have his back turned to you & he’d just whip the ball at the hitter. He got traded to Oakland from the Cubs, just in time to join Catfish Hunter & Vida Blue to help form a rotation that won 3 straight WS titles.
And, like other crafty lefties (a Mike Cuellar, say), he wasn’t a huge strikeout guy either. With the Cubs, he had 2 no-hitters in 3 years, and in one of them (against the ’69 Braves in Wrigley) he had zero strikeouts. Got Henry Aaron for the last out, too.
Let the automated-ump debate continue…
You Be the Ump – The New York Times (nytimes.com):
@8: Spahn is an interesting case as well. The big salient fact about Max is that he had TJ surgery that delayed him for about two years, roughly comparable to Spahn’s time in the service. If you were really trying to make a careful prediction, you might adjust for the number of active years before 28. I started to do that, but it got complicated pretty fast.
Spahn is one guy with a slow start and a great career, but on the other side you have Orel Hershiser. Rookie of the Year at Age 25, third in the Cy Young voting at 26, 18.7 WAR through age 28 and the Cy Young Award at 29. He finished with a respectable 51.4 WAR, but nowhere near Koufax.
@9, I got 7/7! Phew.
sandy Koufax wore number 32 for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers
Hershiser was a guy you kinda forgot about after he hurt his arm, but he did have an admirable career afterwards. In fact, he was in the rotations for 2 teams that were defeated in the post-season by the Braves in memorable fashion — ’95 Indians & ’99 Mets.
He’s also part of an answer to a relatively tough trivia question: Who are the only 2 players to win 3 post-season MVP awards? The other guy played for the Rangers, Blue Jays, A’s, Phillies & Dodgers.
Heard a rumor today from a fellow Braves die hard (but he doesn’t post here, so how die-hard could he really be ?!), that we tried to trade Ozuna for Corbin.
Interesting. One big bad contract for another. Corbin owed $59m over next two years. Ozuna owed $32m over next two years. Braves probably just wanted Ozuna gone and felt like they could get more out of Corbin. Nats don’t care that much about dumping Corbin’s money is my guess. They won’t be competitive anyway.
Braves can fix anybody. I’m going to start referring to it as the Jesse Chavez Rule.
@3 I will be so happy if Soroka wins the job and holds it down.
@12–right, as did Fried in high school. My mistake there.
‘Tis true. Bowman reported it.
@17 maybe shows the depths to which Braves are trying desperately to go to rid themselves of Ozuna, and still can’t offload him.
Maybe some in the league still have some scruples.
The pearl clutching about Ozuna’s off-field adventures is fairly ridiculous. Let’s keep it focused on the fact that he’s not good enough anymore to play major league baseball. He should’ve been DFA’d this year just from the eye-test of some of his “at-bats”.
Nah. He and his wife hit each other in front of their children. I’ll be keeping my pearls clutched tight.
To be clear, bc I was super confused: Bowman reported that we tried unsuccessfully to swap Ozuna for Corbin. Beats the hell out of me, honestly. Why would we dump bad money for more bad money? That’s like the Shel Silverstein poem about swapping a dollar for two quarters cuz two is more than one.
For now, sadly, he is still a Brave.
I wondered that myself, but the only thing I could come up with is that the Braves thought they could fix Corbin and/or the Nats thought they could fix Ozuna. Neither hypothesis makes a ton of sense to me, but I’m just a guy on the Internet.
As awful as Ozuna has been (as a player, not referring to the off field stuff), Corbin over the last two years has been worse. And he’s owed a good bit more money. The Braves may think they can fix Corbin, but there is a long way to go to get him to where he has any value at all.
AA should shop Ozuna’s contract to a KBO team.
At this point, I’m not sure it makes sense to trade Ozuna for anything. I think we’d end up with a better deal just by eating his salary.
I’m just not sure we need 9-10 starting pitchers at AAA. I wrote it a week back, but $ is more important than logjammed pitching prospects.
Trading bad contracts is a good deal if the players are a better fit on the other team. I don’t know about Corbin and I think he’s too expensive, but I would be for trading Ozuna for Bumgarner and including a pitching prospect. If Ozuna is a black hole in our lineup, getting a “lefty Tomlin” and signing a high-OBP OF would be a big improvement. The DBacks would certainly benefit from pitching help (prospect) and the “Kemp potential” that Ozuna may have for them.
Some great Jerry Lee Lewis stories. RIP, Killer…
I doubt anybody, least of all him, expected he’d live to be 87.
And Vince Dooley today, too. RIP, coach.
If you ever get a chance, check out “Hellfire,” a book about Jerry Lee by Nick Tosches. It’s terrific.
@27 I don’t think the Snakes will take him. As bad as they are, they have some good young outfielders who need to play and they have a DH prospect who should be playing and platooning with a lefty. Ozuna simply doesn’t fit.
The Rockies have Blackmon. They’re not replacing him with Ozuna.
I read the other day that Skip Schumaker was named the Marlins’ new manager. I think he’ll do a good job.
The Astros are a trash franchise.
I hate the Phillies. But really not the team. I like Rob Thomson. I can’t love Bryce for some reason, can’t put my finger on it. But I like JT. Nothing against the other players.
I think it’s their fans. In general, Philly sports fans are just the WORST. Just classless. So I simply cannot root alongside them. I’m a transplant from the South. People here are rude and classless. I’m stuck here for life, and this will probably never feel like home. Ugh.
What are you in for, Josh?
Man, if the Phillies go up 2-0 when it gets to Philly, oh man, its gonna be bad for the Astros. I was hoping for Yanks Phills once Braves were toast, figured that would be a fun/insane event.
I thought I had a slight preference for the Phillies heading into game 1, but watching the game I just couldn’t bring myself to root for them, and at this point I think I’m rooting mostly for Dusty to get his first ring as coach.
@35 – in-laws!
@47 – exactly the same for me. I told people I disliked Phils less because of the cheating. But there’s very little left in the Astros org from all that. Pretty sure Altuve, Bregman and Gurriel are only ones left from the 2017 team that cheated. Different GM, different manager, different coaching staff. Same bullpen catcher and 3B coach. Some key pieces but LOTS of turnover since then.
Once the game started, just couldn’t bring myself to pull for Phils, even a little. I just know too many of their fans.
@34: I’m right there with you. I grew up on southwest Virginia, got my graduate education in Tennessee and South Carolina, my first job (briefly) in Alabama, and then moved to the Philly area for work in 1999. Anytime the Phillies have been good, but the Braves not so good, it’s been painful. But there haven’t been many such occasions. This year has been a special kind of hell.
Back in the early 2000s, I had this oaf come up to me in one the suburban train stations, observe me wearing a Gamecocks hat, and ask if I was a Braves fan. Sensing danger, I said, “No.” He said he could tolerate a SC fan, but he’d beat the shit out of me if I were a Braves fan. He was most certainly not joking.
Now, that’s an extreme example, I know. But, still . . . .
How bout ’em?
That was not nearly as easy as I wanted.
Smitty, are you still wearing that hideous color?
My sense is this game let the wind out of the Phillies’ sails. I will be surprised if they win more than 1 more game.
Which team is the bigger dumpster fire, Auburn at 3-5 and a 4 game losing streak, or Texas A&M, soon to be 3-5, with a 4 game losing streak? Auburn was expected after the summer drama with Harsin, but Texas A&M started the year at #7 and Fisher has an $85 million buyout. It’s a sad situation for both teams.
I’ll take A&M. Jimbo is washed up and they’re absolutely stuck with him until that buyout gets more reasonable.
The Astros should crush Syndergaard.
This is where the difference between Astros and Phillies becomes most vast and noticeable: after the first two starters for each team. The Phillies HAD to get at least a split to stay close, but they are still going to have to be some kind of lucky to win this thing. And if Altuve just woke up…heck, it’s already over.