Braves: The NL Cy Young award is Max Fried’s to lose right now

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With each passing start, that 2014 trade that moved outfielder Justin Upton to the Padres continues to pay off for the Braves. Part of a five-player deal during the winter of 2014 (which also included infielder Jace Peterson, third baseman Dustin Peterson and outfielder Mallex Smith going to Atlanta, in exchange for Upton), 20-year-old Fried was still recovering from Tommy John surgery. Although the California native was labeled by most as the top left-handed pitching prospect in baseball before going down with an elbow injury. 

Even so, the trade was far from a sure thing. The Braves were about to enter their rebuild, and losing Upton’s production in the lineup — a .270 AVG with 29 HR and 102 RBI, for a 3.1-WAR season in 2014 — was certainly going to hurt the team’s offense. 

However, as we’ve seen over the last season and a half, acquiring Fried (now 26-years-old) was an absolute haul for the Braves. His contributions alone have provided an incredible return in value. In fact, Fried has a solid shot at topping rotation-mate Mike Soroka’s epic 2019 season, and on Friday, that possibility was made clear thanks to ESPN’s first 2020 MLB Awards Watch column.

According to ESPN’s baseball insiders and the site’s AXE system (a metric built just for projecting MLB’s regular season award winners), Fried is currently the frontrunner for this year’s National League Cy Young award — an accolade Soroka came so close to winning last year. 


2020 NL Cy Young Leaders (ESPN)

PLAYER AXE SCORE (2020) ERA / WAR
Max Fried, ATL 146 1.60 ERA / 2.7 WAR
Yu Darvish, CHC 142 1.47 ERA / 2.1 WAR
Aaron Nola, PHI 134 2.45 ERA / 2.2 WAR
Jacob deGrom, NYM 133 1.76 ERA / 1.4 WAR
Zac Gallen, ARI 130 1.80 ERA / 2.7 WAR

*WAR totals derived from Baseball Reference WAR (through Thursday’s games)


As you can see, entering Friday’s slate of games Fried and Gallen’s 2.7 WAR was tops among MLB pitchers — and second only to outfielder Mookie Betts (2.8) overall. With 22 games remaining, and Fried slated to take the mound on Saturday against the Nationals, it’s probably fair to assume he’ll finish the regular season with 12 or 13 starts altogether (depending on the Braves’ division lead and whether or not he’s rested towards the end of the month). With him currently averaging 0.338 WAR per start, that puts Fried on pace to finish 2020 with 4-4.5 WAR overall — a pretty incredible season, given the campaign, is less than 40% it’s normal size (hell, Soroka’s breakout 2019 — which included 29 starts — featured 5.6 WAR… in a full season!). 

And though Fried isn’t a power-pitcher like some of the other names on the list above (his 8.6 K/9 this season ranks just 13th-highest in the NL), he does have a few things going for him as the season begins to wind down. 

For one, the toughest part of the Braves’ schedule is over with (as written about here a while back by our own Chase Irle), given they’ve already finished their series this year against the Yankees and Rays, and their final AL East opponents feature the Orioles in mid-September (Sept. 14-16) and a three-game set with Boston to conclude the year (Sept. 25-27). Everything else is strictly NL East matchups, including seven games against the Marlins and six more versus the last-place Nationals (counting Saturday’s contest). That’s a fairly weak schedule, primarily made up of lineups Fried should have a relatively easy time against (he went 6.1 scoreless innings and struck out seven in his lone start versus the Marlins this season, though Saturday’s start will be his first against the Nats). 

There’s also an attractive narrative regarding Fried’s success in 2020. With the staff-ace (Soroka) going down after making just three starts this season, the Braves have been dealing with one of the thinnest starting rotations in MLB. Meanwhile, Fried has essentially put the team on his back and carried them through big wins versus the aforementioned Rays and Yankees, as well as two victories against the rival Phillies. Just consider Fried’s contributions, when held in comparison to the rest of the Braves’ rotation this season:

  • Fried — 8 starts / 1.60 ERA
  • Rest of staff — 28 starts / 9.12 ERA

 

Who knows what the all-time record is for the largest ERA difference between a single starter and his rotation, but I guarantee Fried’s gap of 7.52 is on up there near the top. To be over 7.5 runs better than your entire staff put together is pretty crazy, and Cy Young voters will definitely take into account just how much Fried has had to help prop up the Braves’ rotation. 

Then again, there’s also the fact that Fried has yet to allow a home run (the only MLB starter that can claim such a thing). In fact, of the 174 batters he has faced, only 14 have managed an extra-base hit against him — good for a SLG%-allowed of just .328. And so far, Fried’s changeup, thrown 31 times so far this season, hasn’t even allowed a single hit altogether — with his curveball nearly just as filthy, having allowed a pitiful .176 AVG (6 hits in 34 AB). 

So at the moment, everything’s going just right for Fried, and the only question is whether or not he can keep it up. He definitely has some dominant pitchers to contend with for this season’s NL Cy Young award, but so far, that hasn’t seemed to faze him; just like being forced to literally carry a starting rotation hasn’t either. 

The guys at ESPN seem to think this is Fried’s award to lose… and I agree, though let’s just hope the Braves can also find the lefty some help between now and the postseason. Either way, as Fried continues to pitch himself into MLB’s most prestigious group of starters, I’d say that the 2014 trade mentioned above is looking pretty solid right about now.

 

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