Throughout the winter months of the offseason, the Pitcher List staff will be creating profiles for every fantasy-relevant player for 2020. Players will be broken up by team and role through starting pitchers, bullpen, lineup, and prospects. You can access every article as it comes out in our Player Profiles 2020 hub here.
These profiles will also be featured as an eBook exclusively for those signed up for PL+.
Braves At A Glance
I won’t lie, this is kind of an underwhelming group! Thanks to the divisive Mike Soroka and Max Fried, they should be somewhere around league average. After that, Cole Hamel and his changeup will continue to age gracefully. Mike Foltynewicz may never get back to his 2018 success, but he doesn’t need to be the disaster he was in 2019. The Braves apparently couldn’t do better than Sean Newcomb, so he’ll get a chance to start some games. He probably shouldn’t start as many as he will.
After that, it’s a group of intriguing prospects in Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright, and Ian Anderson, and then my sweet prince (or king, rather!) Felix Hernandez.
Mike Soroka – Locked Starter
Nickname: The Knack
2019 In Review
On one hand, Soroka underwhelmed with a 20.3% strikeout rate and a 5.9% walk rate, good for a 14.4% strikeout minus walk rate. However, he shined basically everywhere else. His 2.68 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and 0.72 HR/9 were all spectacular. Of course, FIP, xFIP, and SIERA all expect significant regression, but it all depends on how legitimate Soroka’s contact management skills are.
Fastball (63% usage)
While his sinker has a career swinging-strike percentage of 6.0%, his four-seamer doesn’t do much better, with 7.2%. If we are to believe in Soroka’s ability to consistently suppress contact as a pitcher, then that probably means that his fastballs are the most important pitches to look at. After all, he throws his sinker and four-seamer 44.6% and 18.7% of the time, respectively.
Since he throws it more, let’s start with his sinker. With a .336 wOBAcon (and .352 xwOBAcon), it falls far below the league average .370 wOBAcon, and (lesser so) .363 xwOBAcon. In terms of pitch specs, the closest comp to Soroka’s sinker is Ivan Nova’s sinker. While he has a significantly worse repertoire, he, too, has a .358 xwOBAcon. So while I think Soroka can maintain his current .352 xwOBAcon, I think it’s likely to see his wOBAcon regress toward his xwOBAcon. In taking defense into account, his outfield isn’t especially good, and Soroka (specifically!) was neither helped nor hurt by his infield defense. As an important note, Soroka does an incredible job of keeping his sinker down, which means more ground balls. In a sample I pulled, he ranked in the 10th percentile in average vertical sinker location.
And then there’s his four-seamer. By pitch specs, his four-seamer looks a lot like that of Joe Musgrove’s, and their results are similar too. However, while Musgrove’s fastball looks like a pitch that can be a legitimate contact suppressor (.345 wOBAcon, .376 xwOBAcon, and .283 BABIP from 2018 to 2019), Soroka’s looks even more extreme. His fastball’s .333 wOBAcon and .320 xwOBAcon fall considerably short of the league average .408 wOBAcon and .402 xwOBAcon. Although, I will say his .297 BABIP falls only 10 points short of league average.
Thus, I think it’s fair to say that it’s possible there we may see regression with both of these pitches, but they both appear to be legitimate due to the fact that they both get more sink than is typical.
Slider (24% usage)
I like (but do not love) Soroka’s slider. There are a lot of good qualities that it has. With a 15.9% swinging-strike percentage, it misses quite a few bats, but it also gets a lot of called strikes. For this reason, his slider put up a 34.4% CSW (83rd percentile), which is in part because it misses bats, but also because of his ability to get called strikes with his slider ranks in the 87th percentile. If this is a sustainable skill, this is nice, because an easy rule of thumb is to trust a player’s ability to repeat missing bats than getting hitters to not swing at strikes. If we are to assume that his ability to get called strikes with his slider is not sustainable, then he’s going to need to do better than a 34.7% O-Swing rate, since his slider doesn’t miss bats in the zone.
So there’s that. But then, his .251 xwOBA seems pretty low, considering it’s not an amazing swing and miss pitch — and its .195 wOBA is even better.
I telegraphed one part. His slider’s wOBAcon (.291) outperformed his xwOBAcon (.393) vastly. Since his slider doesn’t miss bats in the zone — and he throws his slider in the zone a fair amount — perhaps it is not surprising that it gets hurt hard. But also, its .393 xwOBAcon and significantly higher than the .353 league average. So, there are two things going on here. His wOBAcon should regress toward his xwOBAcon, but his xwOBAcon should also regress toward his wOBAcon.
His .273 BABIP isn’t crazy, we can be sure that his .291 wOBAcon will not be this much better than the league average .365 wOBAcon.
Changeup (12% usage)
Aside from CSW, Soroka’s changeup was better than his slider in almost every way in 2019. With a 37.8% O-Swing rate, 39.9% zone rate, and 22.4% swinging-strike percentage, it was a quasi-Money Pitch. And then there’s…this: a .214 wOBAcon, .276 xwOBAcon, and .133 BABIP. Not sustainable!
Regardless, this may be a good pitch to expand upon. As it pertains to CSW, its 29.4% ranks well — right below Blake Snell, so he should be able to throw it more and convert it into strikes.
Before I looked into Soroka, I understood the hesitance in trusting him. After looking into him, I understand the hesitancy in trusting him. In any case, he’s likely to always be held back by his inability to miss bats with his fastballs, but he also appears to have a legitimate, repeatable ability to induce weak contact. It’s not the sexiest profile, but he looks like Kyle Hendricks with more walks. He should throw his slider-changeup combination more than 37% of the time, but if he doesn’t, a 3.70 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and 20 K% all seem realistic.
Realistic worst-case projection: 3.80 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 20% K rate in 140 IP
Realistic best-case projection: 3.00 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 25% K rate in 180 IP
Nick’s reluctant Mike Soroka 2020 projection:
3.40 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 22% K rate in 175 IP
Cole Hamels – Locked Starter
Nickname: Former Diamond
2019 In Review
It’s not like his fastball has ever been amazing, but now Hamels’ heater is becoming more of a detriment than ever. Despite this, Hamels still has a plus-plus changeup, that he throws for strike better than almost anybody. At 36 years old, Hamels is trending downwards, but he has only had an ERA higher than 4.00 once since 2009 (in 2017), and only three times over his 14 season career.
Fastball (58% usage)
For the first half of his career, his four-seamer and changeup account for the vast majority of Hamels’ pitches. Then, in 2015, Hamel started throwing a more even four-seam/sinker split. In 2018, Hamels went to his older ratio — albeit with a sinker still hanging around — and in 2019 he has gone back to his four-seamer even more. His fastball was quite awful in 2018, with a .431 xwOBA and .473 xwOBAcon. By xwOBAcon, his fastball didn’t get that much better in 2019, with a .458, but its xwOBA improved to .391 because Hamels saw a huge uptick in whiffs.
What? A career-high 9.0% swinging-strike percentage at the age of 35? Yup! Hamels, for the first time ever, started elevating his fastball. So, though it still gets hit hard, Hamels’ fastball also actually misses bats now, which could lessen the pace in which his fastball declines.
As for his sinker, it has a .378 xwOBAcon in the past three years, and 4.3% swinging-strike percentage. Even given its current usage, it’s not very good, considering it doesn’t convert itself to strikes — although it does do a better job of limiting hitter-friendly contact than his fastball.
Changeup (21% usage)
Hamels’ changeup is so good — it’s a shame he can’t throw it any more than he does now. In the pitching tracking era, Hamels has the highest changeup CSW of any pitcher, with a 37.7%. It’s an incredible offering.
The 13.8 pVAL Hamels earned on his changeup may be a little rich, considering his .294 wOBAcon and .350 xwOBAcon in 2019. However, its 48.1% O-Swing rate, 32.4% zone rate, and 24.9% swinging-strike percentage are fantastic. Because he doesn’t throw his changeup in the zone all that much, you may think that Hamels wouldn’t have a strong CSW, but because of the sheer amount of whiffs he induces with it, its 33.1% CSW ranks in the 96th percentile for starting pitchers.
Cutter (19% usage)
Over his career, Hamels has three pitches that grade out as positive. Far and away, his changeup’s 180.5 pVAL outpaces the rest of his pitches, followed by his fastball’s 27.8. After that is his cutter, which has a meek 8.8 career pVAL. By both wOBAcon (.260) and xwOBAcon (.311), Hamels was rather fortunate with his cutter in 2019. Over the last three years, it hasn’t been a good pitch in terms of contact suppression or whiffs. Rather, it has just overperformed, from a .309 wOBAcon to a .382 xwOBAcon. It’s doubtful he can repeat its 7.5 pVAL.
Curveball (13% usage)
His curveball has a few redeeming qualities. It limits hard contact, and had a higher swinging-strike percentage in 2019 than all of his pitches, aside from his changeup. It’s a pretty neutral pitch. Not bad, but it would be if he threw it more.
He’s not amazing, but Hamels still has something left in the tank. I expect that this is the year that we see Hamels continue to regress as his velocity continues to decline and his injuries start to add up. I wouldn’t be too terribly surprised to see him put up an ERA below 4.00, but I’m not going to count on it. I foresee a 4.05 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and 23 K%.
Realistic worst case projection: 4.60 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 20% K rate in 140 IP
Realistic best-case projection: 3.60 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 24% K rate in 200 IP
Nick’s reluctant Cole Hamels 2020 projection:
4.00ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 22% K rate in 180 IP
Mike Foltynewicz – Locked Starter
2019 In Review
While no one expected Foltynewicz to put up a 2.85 ERA in 2019, I don’t think anyone could foresee him imploding either. Over 117.0 innings, Foltynewicz saw a drop in strikeouts (and walks), but he also saw a dramatic increase in ERA, FIP, xFIP, SIERA, and HR/9. He had Lady Luck on his side in 2018, but the pendulum swung too far in 2019.
Fastball (52% usage)
Just…take a look at his rolling chart, where I’ve graphed Foltynewicz’s fastball velocity and strikeout percentage.
Of course, correlation isn’t causation. What isn’t shown in this chart is that Foltynewicz’s fastball usage trended along with his fastball velocity. It probably went something like Folty seeing that his fastball velocity wasn’t going to be where he wanted it to be — after all, he saw an increase in velocity pretty quickly in 2018 — and so he started scaling it back in favor of his other pitches. His slider got a lot of play — it was his most-thrown pitch type — but Foltynewicz was leaning on his sinker at the end of the year more than his fastball. That’s likely because his velocity was down one to two ticks, depending on the game.
Overall, Folty saw the xwOBAcon on his fastball rise from .358 (good) to .427 (bad!). This wasn’t just a statistical variation; his fastball swinging-strike percentage also decrease from 7.2% to 5.6%. It comes as no surprise, then, that his fastball pVAL fell from 7.6 to -2.3.
Foltynewicz’s sinker was actually great in 2019. So good that it’s a little suspicious, given it hasn’t been that good in the past. Given the fact that his sinker had a .366 xwOBAcon in 2017 and 2018, it seems safe to say that his 2019’s .332 xwOBAcon is not the new norm.
If Foltynewicz’s fastball velocity doesn’t come back, I see no reason to think he’ll be effective.
Slider (29% usage)
This, despite its 2019 shellacking, is a Money Pitch! Okay, technically his O-Swing rate fell 1.4% short of qualifying, but it’s close enough. (It met the criteria in 2019.)
Let’s do this: you tell me where his slider went wrong in 2019:
2018: 40.1% O-Swing rate, 45.8% zone rate, 17.9% swinging-strike percentage, .259 xwOBAcon.
2019: 38.6% O-Swing rate, 43.3% zone rate, 17.9% swinging-strike percentage, .409 xwOBAcon.
Everything is almost identical. In fact, his swinging-strike percentage is. The hangup is that his slider overperformed the league average xwOBAcon for sliders by nearly 100 points in 2018. And then, per usual, the pendulum swung back the other way and he underperformed the league average xwOBAcon by more than 50 points.
It’s still a good pitch. By velocity and shape, the changes are mostly negligible. I think this has a lot more to do with his fastball. Not only did its effectiveness decrease because of his fastball velocity, but he also compensated by throwing his slider more.
So, yeah, his slider isn’t 23.8 pVAL good…but it’s not -2.3 pVAL bad.
Curveball (10% usage)
It’s sort of the same story with his curveball. Now, I want to say that his curveball “overperformed” in 2018, but its .303 xwOBAcon then wasn’t much different than his .313 xwOBAcon from the year before. So perhaps it’s a good contact suppressing pitch.
What we can say is that it’s not a great swing and miss pitch. He only threw it 183 times in 2019, but it got lit up with a .445 xwOBAcon and -1.6 pVAL.
Changeup (10% usage)
Folty threw his changeup six fewer times than his curveball, but it actually netted good results, with an 18.1% swinging-strike percentage and 2.2 pVAL. Nothing is changed here.
It seems like a lot of pitchers “broke out” in 2018 with years that were reliant on faulty contact suppression skills. Even with his 2018 velocity, Foltynewicz walks a lot of hitters and really only has a good fastball and slider. (Stop throwing the sinker!) Assuming he does not regain his velocity, I think we can file 2018 under “career year” and slap a 4.30 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and 22 K% on him.
Realistic worst-case projection: 4.60 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 21% K rate in 140 IP
Realistic best-case projection: 3.10 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 26% K rate in 200 IP
Nick’s reluctant Mike Foltynewicz 2020 projection:
3.90 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 23% K rate in 180 IP
Max Fried – Locked Starter
Nickname: The Bird
2019 In Review
Max Fried is a bit of a divisive name. As I see it, that’s because Fried added a slider in 2019. He didn’t use it a ton in the first half of the year, but by the end, he was throwing it about as much as his curveball (and sometimes more!). As he used his slider more, it helped make his other pitches better too.
So who is he? The 4.29 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 22.8 K% guy from the first half? Or the 3.63 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 27.4 K% from the second half?
Fastball (57% usage)
Fried’s fastball shouldn’t really be good. He throws pretty hard — especially for a lefty — but by active spin, he ranks in the fourth percentile, which means that his fastball gets a lot more sink than is typical, and also less arm-side run.
Regardless, his fastball has an 8.7% swinging-strike percentage, which is pretty solid given it gets more sink than rise, as well as a career 5.2 pVAL.
At times, he’ll break out the Blake Snell Blueprint, but he doesn’t elevate his fastball terribly often. Despite its sink and lack of arm-side run, his fastball actually garners whiffs when up and out of the zone.
Curveball (25% usage)
Fried has one of the more aesthetically pleasing curveballs in the league. By spin rate, it ranks in the 92nd percentile, which gives it a lot of late break where it looks hittable, but then drops off a table. Although in part conjecture, I do wonder if it’s the future-70 grade pitch that FanGraphs says it is. There isn’t a huge sample, but of pitchers who throw a curveball even vaguely resembling Fried’s, his has the highest swinging-strike percentage (15.3%).
In terms of speed and movement, Clayton Kershaw’s curveball isn’t the worst comp — this is the pitch I thought of the first time I saw a Max Fried curveball — In the first few years of his career, Kershaw went to his curveball as his main secondary offering. It was (arguably) not until he started throwing his slider more that he flourished.
In this way, I see the same route for Fried. They have different fastballs, and their sliders are incredibly disparate, but the general thought applies. In the way that I’ve written about Shane Bieber getting better by reducing the “hump” of his curveball, I wonder if Fried would benefit from a similar change.
At the very least, I’m sure both Fried’s fastball and curveball would benefit from him elevating his fastball to better tunnel his pitches. It should be noted that Fried’s .408 wOBAcon should fall back toward his .332 xwOBAcon to some extent.
Slider (16% usage)
There aren’t a lot of pitchers that throw a slider like Fried. As unique as his curveball is vertically, his slider is similarly so horizontally (although to a lesser extent). In terms of horizontal movement, it breaks an awful lot and gives hitters a different look from his curveball.
Again, I think his slider gives us reason to think that he can take a step forward. Although virtually tied with his curveball with a 15.3% swinging-strike percentage, it bests his curveball in both O-Swing rate with a 40.9%, meaning he gets hitters to chase more, and he throws it in the zone a touch more too. I should caution, though, that his curveball gets more called strikes. In any case, Fried’s slider 6.4 pVAL bested his curveball’s 2.1, too.
In terms of batted ball quality, so far so good. His .341 wOBAcon and .323 xwOBAcon are nothing out of the ordinary.
I like Fried! I wish he had a more of a new-age high spin fastball, but he doesn’t, and that’s fine. I think his fastball is going to leave him susceptible to a lower strikeout rate because more balls are being put into play (even if they’re favorable), but his fastball misses enough bats, and he’s got two strong secondary offerings.
Although rather aggressive, a 3.75 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, and 25 K% feel like the right mix of newfound optimism derived from his slider, as opposed to slider-induced delusion.
Realistic worst-case projection: 4.10 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 22% K rate in 120 IP
Realistic best-case projection: 3.40 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 27% K rate in 190 IP
Nick’s reluctant Max Fried 2020 projection:
3.75 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 25% K rate in 180 IP
Sean Newcomb – Locked Starter
Nickname: The Irish Panda
2019 In Review
After two straight years of issues throwing strikes, Newcomb was relegated to the bullpen, where he didn’t fare much better. He actually saw a small decrease in strikeout rate, although he shaved his walk rate by 1.7% to 9.9%. His peripherals still aren’t good, and the eye test isn’t really either. Newcomb has gone through phases of throwing strikes and dominating, but so have a lot of mediocre pitchers.
Fastball (65% usage)
Of a 244 pitcher sample, Newcomb ranks 239th in pitches thrown in what Baseball Savant calls the “shadow” zone, at 10.0%. He’s like the anti-Kyle Hendricks and Noah Syndergaard. If we go back as far as 2017, it gets a little better. Newcomb improves to 34.8%, but he still ranks in the 33rd percentile of pitches in the shadow zone. That means that his pitches are either going to the heart of the plate, or off the plate, which isn’t ideal.
His issue has always been command, and it really affects his ability to throw strikes. (Obviously!) Since we’re talking about him in the context of a starting pitcher, I’ll pull fastball CSW dating back to 2017. What does it return? A 24.4% fastball CSW. That’s not good unless you find Dylan Bundy and Bartolo Colon’s fastballs good, but it’s not awful either — it ranks him in the 51st percentile. Essentially average.
The issue is, good pitchers who don’t get strikes with their fastballs get strikes with their other pitches. Think Patrick Corbin, for instance. As you’ll see, Newcomb doesn’t do that.
Curveball (20% usage)
By CSW, Newcomb has one of the worst curveballs in baseball. His 27.5% curveball CSW ranks 142nd of 150 pitchers who qualify. While getting strikes is important, the other important aspect is inducing weak, pitcher-friendly contact. Newcomb seems to have done that, as his career .191 wOBA and 23 wRC+ with his curveball are quite solid. It legitimately induces weak contact, with a spectacular .248 wOBAcon and .302 xwOBAcon.
Given his career zone rate with his curveball is 29.8% — paired with a 33.9% swing rate — it’s no wonder Newcomb’s curveball has a career 0.5 pVAL and 0.0 pVAL/C. It just doesn’t do much for him.
Slider (8% usage)
He hasn’t thrown it a ton over his career, but with a career 35.8% O-Swing rate, 39.7% zone rate, and 13.8% swinging-strike percentage, Newcomb’s slider seems like a decent enough pitch.
Changeup (7% usage)
It grades out poorly via FanGraphs’ scouting grades, and it’s gotten beat up at times, but Newcomb’s changeup has flashed the ability to be decent. Its career 40.7% O-Swing rate, 34.1% zone rate and 14.7% swinging-strike percentage are good, but its -5.7 pVAL and .347 wOBA are not.
I don’t know, maybe I’m alone, but I don’t see anything to like here. Unless he makes a significant tweak, Newcomb makes much more sense in the bullpen than in the starting rotation. He’s going to get the opportunity to compete for a spot, but his walk issues are too significant to work out in the rotation — especially given the fact that his strikeout percentage isn’t great. I guess he can eat some innings with a decent ERA? Whatever. A 4.15 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, and 23 K% seem about right.
Realistic worst-case projection: 4.75 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 20% K rate in 60 IP
Realistic best-case projection: 3.60 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 25% K rate in 150 IP
Nick’s reluctant Sean Newcomb 2020 projection:
4.10 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 23% K rate in 110 IP
Felix Hernandez – Fringe Starter
Nickname: Prince Felix
I refuse to say anything bad about King Felix. He just doesn’t have the fastball he needs anymore to be successful, which means his best pitch (his changeup) is no longer effective either. I hope for the best, but it’s hard to be optimistic.
Kyle Wright – Fringe Starter
Nickname: The Right Wright
At this point, I think we can consider Wright something of a post-hype prospect. People are down on him because his MLB cup of coffee was bad, but he put up good strikeout and home run rates in Triple-A, and he paired it with a manageable walk percentage. He has the third-worst active spin rate of all pitchers, so he’s probably never going to miss a lot of bats, despite his fastball velocity and workable secondary pitches. So yeah, his four-seam fastball is basically a sinker, but he still throws it hard.
Bryse Wilson – Fringe Starter
Nickname: With An S
Wilson didn’t flash anything more than a solid fastball in 2020. I’ve seen him described as a bulldog by several sites, and scouts apparently love him, but it seems like he’s going to end up in the bullpen due to a dearth of options in his arsenal.
Ian Anderson – Fringe Starter
Anderson has struck out a ton of hitters in the minor leagues, but he’s walked an awful lot too. There’s a reason he was taken third overall in 2016, and he should be the best of Atlanta’s young pitchers. The walks worry me, but he does everything fairly well.
Mike Soroka: The Knack. The band’s famous song is “My Sharona”, which we all like singing as “Mike Soroka”
Cole Hamels: Former Diamond. He was a gem, now he’s just Cole.
Mike Foltynewicz: Folty. Because we don’t like spelling that last name.
Max Fried: Double Deep. It’s the extreme of frying something, aka. Fried to the Max.
Sean Newcomb: Fresh Hair. He’s got a new comb, his hair is always fresh.
Felix Fernandez: Prince Felix. He’s no longer King Felix. It’s sad.
Kyle Wright: The Right Wright. Steven and Mike tried to be the right Wright’s, but this looks like the one that is actually going to properly relevant.
Bryse Wilson: With an S. As opposed to Bryce Harper with a C.
Ian Anderson: Ianderson. It’s just easier to combine his first and last names.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)
Sparkman has Bryse Wilson projected out to over 6 WAR. Yet everything I’m seeing has him playing a bullpen role. What am I missing about his skill set that they would project him so highly?
I don’t understand why everyone is immediately buying into Soroka’s contact suppression skills. Especially after reading your article and seeing his wOBAcon vastly exceed his xwOBAcon on every pitching with the exception of his 4 seamer. I generally feel that contact supression is underrated but I understand as the all noise makes it difficult to pinpoint those that have it. So why has Soroka been immediately crowned with this skill after only a single season over say Anibal Sanchez who everyone expects to regress despite posting a better xwOBAcon and AVG Exit Velocity over the past 2 seasons? PS, I love all these SP breakdown articles. Keep it up!