The Braves will have some tough decisions to make come playoff time, which as of Friday, is just over two weeks away (October 6th in Arlington, TX). Although, with MLB’s last-second changes to this year’s playoff structure, perhaps no decision will be more crucial than what the Braves choose to do with their starting rotation — more specifically, who they pencil in at the no. 4 spot.
We’re all aware of just how poor the rotation has been in 2020, and it’s obviously too late to go out and land a big arm for the playoffs (the deadline for newly-acquired or promoted players to be eligible for postseason rosters was this past Tuesday at 11:59 p.m.). However, either way, the Braves still must fill their rotation with at least four viable starters because, in 2020, teams can’t lean on their first two or three arms like in previous postseasons. With only one day off between the best-of-five NLDS and best-of-seven NLCS (if the former series goes all five games), the Braves will be forced to line their rotation up very similar to how it has during the regular season.
So with nos. 1-3 expected to consist of Max Fried, Cole Hamels, and rookie Ian Anderson, let’s look at potential no. 4 starters for the Braves, ordered by their performance as a starter (per FanGraphs WAR leaderboard) during the 2020 regular season so far…
*Remember, the stats below each player are only their numbers as a starter in 2020.
Josh Tomlin, RHP
5 starts, 21.1 IP, 6.33 ERA, 0.1 WAR
Coming off a 51-appearance season in 2019, in which he posted a solid 3.74 ERA for the Braves, the 35-year-old Tomlin has settled in as the team’s go-to spot starter this year. And despite a gaudy ERA right now (practically all Braves’ starters have poor ERAs), Tomlin leads the staff with just 1.69 walks per nine as he continues to be effective in the majors by simply throwing strikes and generating mostly-weak contact.
But is he really postseason starter material?
Ehh, yes and no. Really, Tomlin’s problem isn’t necessarily his performance on the mound; when he’s on, he is one of the better pitchers on the team. It’s the fact that he has only averaged just over four innings per outing and has made it to the 6th inning once this season — a September 6th start versus the Nationals in which he allowed one run on three hits and struck out two.
And it’s not just a matter of innings, regarding Tomlin. He has really struggled lately…
After staying unscathed and allowing zero runs in his first five outings of the season, Tomlin has posted a 6.75 ERA in his most-recent 25.1 innings (five starts / two relief appearances), thanks to the fact that opposing batters are slashing .324/.357/.514 with four home runs during that stint. And it’s not as if Tomlin is just having a run of bad luck, either. According to Statcast, his expected SLG% and AVG sit at .508 and .284, including a .298 wOBA and .344 xwOBA. Many of Tomlin’s issues in 2020 have stemmed from batters simply barreling up his pitches more as his current 12.1% barrel-rate is the highest of his career. And Tomlin has never been a pitcher that can blow away guys (high-80s mph four-seamer), so he doesn’t have much room for error when it comes to getting opposing batters out.
In a scheduled bullpen game, Tomlin could be solid as just a one or two-inning starter before giving way to someone like Kyle Wright or Sean Newcomb, causing the opposing lineup to adjust from soft-tosser to flamethrower (Tomlin sports a 4.84 ERA in 2020, in outings in which he pitched less than three innings). However, if the featured starter comes in and gets rocked, the Braves’ bullpen will quickly be depleted (though, that’ll be the case either way if a starter has a bad game). So the Braves can start Tomlin in a playoff game, but just be sure there’s a plan in place to give him the hook after 20-30 pitches.
Huascar Ynoa, RHP
4 starts, 9.2 IP, 8.38 ERA, -0.1 WAR
Ynoa is really only listed here simply because he happens to be second (behind Tomlin above) on the Braves’ FanGraphs WAR leaderboard for starters behind Mike Soroka, Fried, Hamels, and Anderson. Yes, the 22-year-old looked much better his last time out, striking out five Orioles in four innings this past Tuesday (no walks, no runs, and just two hits allowed). Still, I just don’t see manager Brian Snitker choosing Ynoa over someone else, given how obvious his current issues are.
Just consider how different of a pitcher Ynoa is in 2020 when comparing his splits as both a starter and reliever…
- Ynoa as SP — 9.2 IP, .308 AVG, 8.38 ERA
- Ynoa as RP — 9 IP, .194 AVG, 2.00 ERA
Admittedly, the sample size is very small, but isn’t everyone’s this season? And not just that, believe it or not, Ynoa has actually benefited from some pretty solid luck in 2020 as Statcast has his overall expected ERA at almost an entire run higher than his actual ERA (6.22 xERA / 5.30 ERA).
Ynoa has had a bad season, and he wasn’t very good in the majors with the Braves in 2019 either. The kid has a sharp slider (allowing .182 AVG with the offering this season), and his mid-90s mph fastball could be elite if he ever learns to command it, but I’d be shocked to see him start a postseason game for the Braves.
Tommy Milone, LHP would be listed here if not for him currently being on the ten-day IL (elbow inflammation).
Sean Newcomb, LHP
4 starts, 13.2 IP, 11.20 ERA, -0.2 WAR
Boy, do these ERAs look bad; however, perhaps as a surprise, Newk’s 11.20 mark as a starter is only the third-worst ERA for a Braves’ starting pitcher (don’t worry, we’ll cover the other two in a minute).
If you didn’t think Newcomb’s career as a starter could get any worse than 2019, think again, because that’s exactly what has happened this season; and this time, he doesn’t have a reliable performance in the bullpen to help cover it up.
It’s just all bad. Newcomb isn’t throwing his fastball as much in 2020, replacing his usually-effective four-seamer with his usually-dominant curveball, but the strategy hasn’t worked. So far, batters are slugging .759 versus the heater and .583 against the breaking ball, resulting in a .328 AVG overall (seventh-worst AVG in the majors, among starters with at least ten innings pitched).
And even worse than being ineffective this season is that Newcomb hasn’t been pitching. His last outing was over a month ago when he started against the Phillies on August 10th — an appearance in which he allowed eight runs (two HR) in just 1.1 innings, resulting in a demotion to the team’s alternate site in Gwinnett.
Put much more simply, this was a lost year for the 27-year-old out of Boston, and I’m not sure how much longer the Braves are willing to put up with his inconsistency. So no… I highly doubt Newcomb takes the bump as a starter (or at all) during the playoffs, which is really sad given how much hype surrounded him just a few seasons ago.
Touki Toussaint, RHP
5 starts, 20.1 IP, 7.52 ERA, -0.3 WAR
After promising signs during his debut year in 2018 — in which he posted a 4.03 ERA across 29 innings, both as a starter and reliever — Touki has continued to regress the last couple of seasons to what now appears to be rock bottom as a major league starting pitcher.
And sort of like Newcomb last season, Touki at least has always been able to point to his numbers out of the bullpen to help prop up his value as a player. However, not in 2020. So far, the 24-year-old righty has a 15.75 ERA as a Braves’ reliever, and as you can see above, his performance as a starter has been abysmal as well.
After pitching decently in a relief appearance back on August 23rd versus the Phillies, Touki was rocked in his most recent start against the Orioles this past Monday (2.2 IP, 5 ER, 3 BB), leaving very little excitement for whenever his next turn comes back around in the rotation. As a strikeout-pitcher, Touki’s current 12.5% barrel-rate — 16th-worst in MLB — is very bad, and his newly-developed slider has been an absolute disaster this year as opposing batters are slugging 1.600 against the pitch (and he’s throwing his slider almost 10% of the time!).
Unless he just happens to one day have his curveball and split-finger on point (two offerings that have done well in 2020), starting Touki in a playoff game seems like a horrible idea.
Mike Foltynewicz, RHP
1 start, 3.1 IP, 16.20 ERA, -0.3 WAR
Currently sporting the Braves’ worst ERA among 2020 starters, Foltynewicz has had one helluva season this year… and not in a good way. Right now, the righty is in Gwinnett, reportedly ramping up his fastball velocity and adding on some weight, and there has been some mention of him potentially making a comeback just in time to help the Braves in the postseason. But until that day comes, the 28-year-old’s lone start against the Rays back on July 27th will be the last memory we have of Folty from 2020 — an outing in which he allowed six runs and three homers in just 3.1 innings. Maybe he returns, and perhaps Foltynewicz was saving his best for last this year. But I wouldn’t count on it.
Kyle Wright, RHP
6 starts, 25 IP, 7.20 ERA, -0.4 WAR
The fact that Wright has been worth almost minus-0.5 WAR as a starter in 2020, despite being 100% healthy and ranking second in the rotation in starts, is very disappointing. Why isn’t he a great major league pitcher yet?
Well, he showed a small glimpse of hope last week when he notched his very first win in the big leagues, pitching six innings and striking out four against the Nationals. But even his first W was a struggle, and there needs to be more consistency before we can truly appreciate it, as in the outing just before his victory over Washington, Wright surrendered five runs (three HR) in a loss to the Marlins.
Wright’s fastball looks strong in 2020, but everything else has been very hittable, as other than that heater, his entire repertoire is allowing a .330+ AVG by opposing batters (save for his curveball, of which he has thrown just over 10% of the time). Honestly, I’m surprised Wright has managed two six-inning starts so far this season, and despite still averaging only roughly four innings per outing in 2020, the 24-year-old really hasn’t received much run support from the Braves lineup as the offense has averaged just 2.72 runs per game in his starts.
Wright is slated to start the final game of the Mets series this weekend — a day game at Citi Field. He walked four in his last outing versus the Mets (August 2nd) but managed to strike out five in 3.1 scoreless frames — per Game Score (51), that’s Wright’s best start of the 2020 season. I need to see at least one more respectable outing from Wright. Maybe it’ll happen on Sunday.
My pick for no. 4 starter — Josh Tomlin
I know he isn’t exciting in terms of style and pitch-mix, but at this point, I’m far less concerned about how it’s done and more interested in consistent quality pitching. Of the five other pitchers listed above, Tomlin leads in FIP (5.20), home runs per nine (1.69), walks per nine (1.69), and WHIP (1.45) — all decent indicators of a guy much more capable of containing an opposing lineup during a postseason outing.