Braves: Max Fried’s breaking ball combo has helped solidify his place among MLB’s best starters

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As if there wasn’t enough evidence already, this past Saturday Max Fried showed us how far he’s come since his most-recent Division Series start with the Braves. Against the Brewers in Game 2, the 27-year-old lefty cruised to a win, striking out nine in an outing in which he lasted six innings and allowed just three hits. Coming just a day after veteran Charlie Morton set the pace for the series with a similar start, Fried took his performance a step further, putting together the best postseason outing of his young MLB career so far.

https://twitter.com/KevinKeneely1/status/1447001492997787650?s=20

Speaking of taking things a step further, Fried has done exactly that for the last three seasons now. Since the start of 2019, the former first-rounder has been worth a combined 8.2 fWAR as a starting pitcher (a 2.7-WAR average per season), posting a 3.39 ERA / 3.46 FIP in 69 starts during that span (spanning 382 innings). In fact, following a 2018 campaign in which he pitched primarily out of the Atlanta bullpen, Fried has been one of the better starters in baseball since the beginning of the 2019 campaign.

 

MAX FRIED’S LAST THREE SEASONS
2019-21 fWARNL rankMLB rank
8.212th18th

 

For perspective, Fried’s 8.2 WAR as a starter in that span ranks just behind the likes of Clayton Kershaw (8.3) and Yu Darvish (8.4) — two obviously well-known pitchers who, at times, have been among the best in the sport.

Even more impressive, especially concerning the Braves payroll, is how affordable Fried has been during this recent stretch. Staying with his most-comparable colleagues from above, check out just how drastic the difference has been in regards to the cost of the value Fried has provided.

 

THE COST OF PRODUCTION
Player2019-21 WAR2019-21 combined salaries
Fried8.2$4.6 MM
Kershaw8.3$70 MM
Darvish8.4$64 MM

 

So what more could you possibly want in a starting pitcher? Fried has not only been one of the twenty best starters in the sport for the last three seasons, but in the meantime, he’s cost Atlanta less than $5 million during that span, which is a far cry from the tens of millions of dollars both Kershaw and Darvish have each cost respectively. Even better, Fried is under team control for three more seasons as 2021 was his first decent pay day (in which he earned a $3.4-million salary). He’ll make more money each season, but the Braves still have Fried locked up until at least 2025, when he’s set to reach free agency.

So how has he done it? What has made Fried such a dominant force with the Braves since the 2019 season?

For starters, Fried’s repertoire has simply developed, allowing him to evolve from essentially a two-pitch pitcher to now a guy with four solid offerings. Logically, the added options have helped Fried. He’s become less dependent on his fastball, and instead of turning to only one type of breaking ball to keep opposing batters guessing, Fried is now utilizing both a curveball and a slider.

No pitch thrown by Fried deserves more credit for his ascent than the curve, which, for three consecutive seasons now, has been one of the better breaking balls in the sport, ranking ninth among all MLB starters since 2019, according to FanGraphs Pitch Value.

I mean, it was always known that Fried could throw a damn good bender. As a prospect, the kid received outstanding reviews by evaluators when it came to his curve, and pretty much any prospect site you visited claimed that it was far and away the best tool in his tool bag. But Fried has taken his curveball to another level over these last several seasons; and to make things even more difficult on the opposition, he’s been implementing a wicked slider.

https://twitter.com/PitchingNinja/status/1446970873324376064?s=20

It’s pretty remarkable what Fried has been able to do with both his breaking balls as the numbers show that, since at least 2019, opposing batters very rarely ever make meaningful contact against the two pitches.

 

MAX FRIED’S BREAKING BALL DOMINANCE (CURVE + SLIDER / 2019-21)
PitchPitches thrownPASlashwRC+HRKK%/BB%GB%Avg. Velo
Curveball1,514359.183/.218/.29442414841.2 / 2.756.385.1
Slider1,170322.211/.259/.3316369930.7 / 5.242.383.5
Curve/Slider Combined2,684681.197/.238/.312521024736.2 / 3.949.384.3

 

The approach is pretty simple, and as you can tell, incredibly effective. This season, in particular, Fried has leaned on his two breaking balls even more, with the combination accounting for nearly half of his pitches (47.4%). That same strategy held true in his NLDS start versus Milwaukee back on Saturday as well, when Fried threw his curve and slider a combined 46% of the time.

Of course there has been more to Fried’s recent success than simply two pitches, for the guy has obviously matured before our eyes as a regular Braves starter. Like, for example, the lefty threw first-pitch strikes more frequently in 2021 than any other season; not to mention he’s simply staying within the strike zone more. Honestly, there’s an entire grocery list of what you might call little things that Fried has continued to improve upon, and those not-as-flashy aspects have also contributed to his evident development.

With the win on Monday against the Brewers in Game 3, the Braves would no doubt like to wrap this Division Series up with another win on Tuesday. Now that Morton, Fried and Ian Anderson have each made their turns through the rotation, Atlanta is most likely at a disadvantage if it has to piece together a game with the bullpen. Although… the Braves relievers have been pretty damn strong so far in this series.

At the time of this writing, manager Brian Snitker has yet to announce a Game 4 starter, but it appears it could go either way between giving Morton another start or opting for a bullpen game. One things for sure, though, if Atlanta were to lose on Tuesday, you have to believe Fried gets the ball in a win or go home situation in Game 5. And given how he’s thrown the rock of late, I’d feel pretty good about the Braves chances.

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