It was a bit of an unexpected move when the Braves decided to trade Evan Gattis to the Astros for Mike Foltynewicz. But fast forward three years, and it looks like both sides got exactly what they wanted. Gattis has been a key cog to the Astros success over the last few seasons, including a World Series title, and Folty finally pieced it together at the major league level, earning his first All-Star nomination and finishing eighth in the National League Cy Young race.
The lingering question for Folty in 2019 will be if he can sustain that success. He has not been the most consistent pitcher over his brief career. Even in 2018, it was tough to gauge what to expect from him each time he toed the rubber. Not to mention – the way the Braves rotation looks today – Foltynewicz will be heavily relied on as the ace of the staff, meaning they are hoping for him to not only sustain his success but build off of it as well.
So what can we expect out of Folty? Was 2018 a fluke year, or is it the beginning of an illustrious career for one of the hardest throwers in all of baseball? Braves fans are hoping for the latter, but the numbers may suggest tempering your expectations a bit.
A critical reason for Folty’s emergence was the development of his slider, which became his go-to pitch in 2018. According to FanGraphs.com, 27.1% of Foltynewicz’s pitches thrown were sliders, up from 21.2% in 2017. It was evident that he became more comfortable throwing his slider no matter what the count was. He would start batters off with it, find the zone with it when he was having trouble throwing strikes, and most importantly, force a lot of swings and misses when ahead in the count.
The pitch became a perfect complement to his blazing high-90s fastball that by itself isn’t so intimidating to a major league hitter, but with a confident slider, can be extremely uncomfortable in the batter’s box. This led to a rise in Foltynewicz’s strikeout numbers, as he struck out an astounding 27.2% of the batters he faced – an average of 9.9 K/9 innings – easily the best mark of his career while holding hitters to a combined average under .200.
The development of his slider is a strong indication that he will be able to continue pitching at a high-level moving forward. Whether he can improve in this next area will determine just how high his ceiling is.
Without a doubt, the most frustrating part about watching Foltynewicz pitch last season was his inability to control the game. His 3.3 BB/9 innings was close to being a career-worst for him, but his walk percentage of 9.1% was indeed the highest of his career. Beyond that, his first-pitch strike percentage of 61.4% was the lowest to date, meaning not only is he walking hitters, but he’s spending way too much time in hitter’s counts and throwing too many pitches per batter. It’s the main reason that despite him having a 2.85 ERA, a .194 batting average against, and a remarkable 1.082 WHIP, he managed to average less than six innings per start.
That’s not acceptable out of the ace of a staff.
Foltynewicz benefited from having by far his lowest batting average on balls in play (.251). His previous career-best in that category came in 2016 with the Braves (.301). There is no arguing part of that had to do with his newfound ability to keep hitters off balance with better secondary pitches, but it’s still not a number he should be expecting on a yearly basis. There’s an extremely high probability that his batting average on balls in play is much closer, if not over, the .300 mark in 2019.
If Folty wants to take the next step into the real Cy Young contenders of the National League, he’s going to have to come out with a more attack-minded approach in 2019. One thing that might help him do that is confidence. Last year was Foltynewicz’s breaking out party. He should not only feel like he belongs in the major leagues but that he can be one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. There’s no reason he should be tip-toeing around batters and throwing 100 pitches in less than six innings. If he’s unable to improve in that area, there’s a strong possibility he will regress towards the pedestrian numbers he put up in 2017 rather than repeat his success from 2018.