After years of hype about the former top pitching prospect for Atlanta, Max Fried finally delivered in 2020. With the injury to Mike Soroka, Fried stepped up as the staff ace. He finished the year with a 2.25 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 56 innings across 11 starts. That was good enough to earn him the fifth spot in Cy Young voting and the final spot on the All MLB First-Team rotation.
He had impressive results during the regular season and kept it going into the postseason. Now with Charlie Morton in the fold, Mike Soroka returning, and Ian Anderson rising, what is next for Max Fried?
What is Luck
There is a lot of variability in baseball. I don’t think I’m saying anything too revolutionary; but if I am, call me a revolutionary. There are a lot of ERA estimators out there with the central focus is trying to determine what pitchers can truly control. This idea helped me create my statistic, kWAR/gWAR. Max Fried had a great ERA, but it would appear on the surface that there was quite a bit of luck involved.
|Statistic||Value||Differential to ERA|
All of his estimators are significantly higher than his ERA. That causes some concern about how well Fried will project moving forward, but it doesn’t mean Fried will be bad. He still was above average in most of his peripherals. The better question is: why was Fried so lucky in 2020 compared to previous years?
The biggest reason was Fried had an unusual home run suppression ability. After his first 225 innings for Atlanta, Fried had a whopping 20% HR/FB ratio. That is high and approaches the point of seeming unsustainable.
In 2020, Fried had an HR/FB ratio of just under 5%. That is a massive swing in the opposite direction. He gave up just two home runs all year in the regular season after allowing 21 home runs in the previous season.
One of the biggest surprises was that Fried gave up one home run on his fastball. He threw the pitch in the zone about 50% of the time and gave up one home run on the pitch. In a significantly smaller sample size, this just shouts fluke — but I don’t think it is that simple, though. Fried is good at limiting hard contact.
Perhaps, Fried was getting a little lucky with his ability to limit home runs, but it doesn’t seem like Fried will see that luck run out to the point he becomes a significantly worse pitcher in 2021. He has a good ability to limit hard contact and keep the ball on the ground. What’s going to be a key moving forward is his ability to continue to limit that hard contact. The biggest question for me for Fried is: what is happening with his fastball?
An Unusual Fastball
As I mentioned, earlier Fried gave up just one home run on his fastball despite throwing it in the strike zone close to 50% of the time. That wasn’t the only unusual thing about Fried’s fastball that I noticed. His fastball was well below average in both vertical and horizontal movement. It has a 70% spin efficiency on it and doesn’t appear to be trying to create an intentional cut on the ball. So how did the pitch register an RV of -8 during 2020? The first step is that Fried had a plan with the fastball and he executed it.
With a spin efficiency of 70%, normally one wouldn’t throw a fastball up in the zone. The pitch is more likely to drop into the zone more because the Magnus force that is creating the “rise” on the ball isn’t as strong compared to a pitch with high spin efficiency. However, Fried wanted to throw his fastball up in the zone and throw it up in the zone a lot. Almost 50% of his fastballs were located in the top part of the zone or above. When we look at his heat map from 2019 to 2020, it was a very clear shift in the game plan for Fried.
That is a large difference in the approach with the fastball for Fried. This could help explain the reduction in home runs in 2020. He threw 52% of his fastballs in the strike zone in 2019 and dropped by a little under three points in 2020. It wasn’t just throwing less of them in the zone, it was living more towards the edges of the zone. Fried appeared to be okay with a few more walks if that meant he would be able to locate his fastball out of and up in the zone more. His walk rate went up by almost two points.
I’d like to see Fried increase his efficiency on his fastball to help give him more ability to continue to work up in the zone, but he may not have to. The second step for Fried is how well do his other pitches play off of each other.
The more I learn about pitch design and other metrics for evaluating singular pitches, the more I understand that if a pitch may appear to have below-average raw numbers, there is still a chance the pitch can be effective if it works well with other pitches. Fried’s fastball on paper would look like a below-average pitch, and as mentioned, it could be improved. However, his fastball appears to play well off of his breaking pitches. Let’s turn to everyone’s favorite pitching wizard for an example.
Max Fried, 93mph Fastball (called strike) and 76mph Curveball (Swinging K), Overlay.
Good luck pic.twitter.com/AvgY3cHSw1
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 27, 2020
Every time I see one of those overlays, I am reminded of why I am sitting here writing this article because I cannot do that.
Anyway, being able to make your pitches come close together is important. If a player can pick it up out of the hand, it’ll certainly be a lot harder to get guys out. For Fried, his off-speed is effective. Each one of his offspeed pitches had an xwOBA below .230. He doesn’t throw his changeup a lot, but his curveball and slider are roughly the same pitch in terms of results.
|Statistic||Curveball Value||Slider Value|
Remarkably similar results. The only real difference is that Fried throws his curveball more and gets more swings and misses on it, but he limits hard contact more with his slider. However, each pitch moves in different ways.
Fried’s slider seems to be what we would consider a true slider. It has a spin direction close to 3:15 observed direction and then has a 4:00 inferred direction. It has an active spin rate of around 44% which makes it mostly gyro spin, which again is common in sliders. It does offer a good deal of sidespin and that helps create the well above average horizontal movement for the pitch. It moves 116% more than the average slider type that Fried has. That makes it an effective weapon for him.
Moving to the curveball, it is a traditional top-spin-heavy curveball. He has a 5:00 spin direction on it with 92% spin efficiency. As you can see, it looks like a traditional curveball in the gif and moves like one too. He gets about nine percent more drop on his curveball compared to the average one while being roughly average in horizontal movement. At 74 mph and moving in a different direction than his slider, it gives Fried a great breaking ball combination.
All three of those pitches working together is what makes Fried good. He has a 93 mph fastball that he can crank up to 97-98 when he needs to that he locates primarily up in the zone. Then he follows it with a curveball that drops heavy and low in the zone at 74 mph or a slider that moves sharply away from lefties and towards righties at 84 mph. When sequenced properly he doesn’t need anything other than those three pitches, and he should be relying on those pitches for the majority of his outs. He does have a sinker, but it doesn’t move a lot and he doesn’t throw it enough for me to dive too deep into it.
Taking all of the information above into consideration, I believe Max Fried is capable of great things in 2021. I understand his peripheral stats say to expect heavy regression, but I don’t think it’ll be as heavy as the numbers can indicate. He should still be around a 3.25 ERA in 2021 and could be the staff ace going into the season.
With the return of Soroka, the rise of Anderson, and the addition of Morton that last part is not clear but Fried will get plenty of starts in 2021. He averaged about 5.5 innings per start in 2020 through his first 10 starts. Atlanta had a dynamite bullpen and wasn’t afraid to use it but with some questions around the bullpen, they might ask Fried to work deeper into games.
Fried will have to continue to limit hard contact the way he has been in the past. We will also have to see if his home run suppression from 2020 was anything more than small sample size noise. I would continue to develop his fastball and focus on him getting behind the baseball more to increase his spin efficiency which will help him continue to work up in the zone more. There was a fair bit of luck that went his way in 2020, but that shouldn’t scare you for his 2021. Fried has the potential to be a front-line starter for years to come.
Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)