Braves: Poor command is still holding Max Fried back 

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I know it’s still April. There’s no point in obsessing over results right now, both the good and bad. But after watching Braves lefty Max Fried get shelled to the tune of eight runs (seven earned) from nine hits in Tuesday’s start against the Marlins (which comes just a week after allowing five runs to the Nationals in his previous outing), I’ve admittedly become concerned. 

Max Fried (2021 game log)

  • 4/1 @ PHI: 5 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 8 K
  • 4/7 @ WAS: 2 IP, 8 H, 5 ER, BB, 3 K, 1 HR
  • 4/14 vs. MIA: 4 IP, 9 H, 7 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 2 HR

Season total: 11 IP, 23 H, 14 ER, 5 BB, 14 K, 3 HR

 

That line above for Fried comes out to a bloated 11.45 ERA and 2.55 WHIP, which all by itself represents what’s most likely the worst three-start stretch of his pro career. Fried’s Opening Day assignment versus Philadelphia was fine, if not impressive given it was the first outing of the season, but his past two starts? Yeah… Fried’s last pair of performances are in fact the worst of his five-year MLB career. So I wanted to know why. What’s preventing him from being his usual self?

The answer isn’t really bad luck, nor is it some change in his repertoire or anything specific like fastball spin-rate or vertical/horizontal movement on his breaking balls. The answer is actually quite simple, though perhaps not so easy to just go out and fix. It may take some time.

It’s Fried’s command. 

For the last few seasons at least, Fried has depended on a mid-90s MPH four-seam fastball up in the zone to go along with two above-average breaking balls — slider and curveball — to generate whiffs. With just his talent alone, Fried’s “stuff” is great enough to rack up strikeouts, but it’s been his pinpoint accuracy that has allowed him to average 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings for his career. Unlike fellow rotation-mate Mike Soroka, Fried falls much more into the power-pitcher style of pitching, where swings and misses are his game… not pitching to weak contact.

But so far in 2021, Fried hasn’t been able to get his swings and misses, and it’s primarily because he isn’t locating his pitches. 

The game plan is pretty simple: Fried dots the zone with high heat, going with the fastball almost the half of the time… 

https://twitter.com/PitchingNinja/status/1317593434178322434?s=19

And then… with the opposing batter forced to respect his velocity, Fried pulls the string and spins his two breaking balls, which, when most effective, start in the zone but by the time it reaches the plate, ends up away from the zone (and most importantly… away from the barrel of the bat)…

 

 

 

OK one more….

 

But nearly ALL of this is very dependent on maybe less than an inch left-to-right or up-and-down. Fried must hit his spots (fastball in the zone, breaking balls ending out of the zone) almost perfectly, or too many balls wind up catching too many bats. As mentioned above, Fried is not a pitch-to-contact guy. Generating ground balls or forcing weak hits isn’t his game. He’s at his best when missing bats altogether (aren’t all pitchers!). But this season, Fried’s not hitting his normal spots. And when he catches too much of the strike zone, bad things are happening. 

Even in his strong outing against Washington on Opening Day, Fried was barely generating any whiffs, finishing with just three for the entire start. Such a small amount of swings and misses, especially from a lack of pitch execution, really increases the risk of bad results. Because Fried is trying to be extra perfect with his pitches, eventually he’s bound to make a mistake that leads to a big hit. 

In Tuesday’s outing against the Marlins, the whiffs were abundant on Fried’s slider, though a lot of the increase was due to him simply overthrowing the pitch. Those 28 sliders contributed to 33% of his total pitches, which is nearly 15% above his rate from the 2020 campaign. More doesn’t always equal better, especially if Fried doesn’t have a feel for the offering. However, it’s hard to blame him for leaning on the breaking ball against the Marlins, given how much his fastball was getting hit; Miami hit .375 versus Fried’s heater, including two home runs. Nothing seemed to work…

https://twitter.com/Marlins/status/1382133188538081284?s=19

 

But luckily all of this can be corrected. Unless Fried is pitching through some kind of undisclosed injury, it seems logical that his command will improve as the season progresses. Three starts is an incredibly small sample size, and this really could just be as simple as him not being in full-season form yet. 

My biggest worry is that while he’s figuring his command out and taking his lumps to work through all of this, Fried’s confidence winds up taking a hit. A guy can only take so much before the poor outings become a mental issue (just look at Mike Foltynewicz). However, Fried doesn’t seem like the type to get too down on himself, and he’s been through his share of adversity from back in his early MLB days, constantly dealing with those blister issues. So for now, let’s remain concerned but optimistic. There’s still a ton of the season left to play. But hopefully, the real Fried returns soon because that guy was damn good.

 

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