The arsenals that are giving batters fits and the part of Michael Harris II’s game he knows will never slump
ATLANTA — Pitch envy is real. The first step in dealing with it is acknowledging not only its existence, but that everyone is battling it.
It’s no different within the Braves clubhouse and a pitching staff that is seventh in fWAR (7.2) behind the top-ranked bullpen (3.5), two of the top 11 starters in Kyle Wright and Max Fried — both at 1.7 fWAR — and two relievers in the top eight with A.J. Minter (1.2) and Kenley Jansen (0.8).
“Everybody has some tool that they are very good and sharp with, but everybody wishes they had a pitch that somebody else has,” said right-handed reliever Jackson Stephens.
That makes it that much more of a chore to pick someone else’s weapon that Stephens would add repertoire.
“Oh,” he said, letting out a breath. “Everybody’s so different. A lot of guys on this team have good changeups. (A.J. Minter) has a very good cutter. Everybody wishes they had Kenley (Jansen)’s cutter. Will (Smith)’s slider. I wish I could drop down like Darren (O’Day). (Tyler) Matzek’s four-seam is pretty good too.”
Amid all that nastiness, what follows are the most unhittable pitches on the Braves staff, with some unexpected omissions from Ian Anderson, Tyler Matzek and Charlie Morton.
Let’s start with, Anderson, who hasn’t been nearly as effective with his vaunted changeup, which has gone from a .104 average and .146 slugging against in 2020 to .197/370 last season and .243/459 this year. It still has plenty of swing-and-miss in it, ranking 10th in whiff rate (37.6 percent) and his .751 OPS allowed is 13th highest among all qualified pitchers and an 83-point increase year over year.
Meanwhile, no one has thrown more curveballs than Morton (352) and after allowing a .127 average on the pitch last season, that figure has jumped to .292. That’s his highest since 2008 and the third worst of any starter.
A year ago, there wasn’t a more effective four-seam fastball on the Braves’ staff, with Matzek generating a team-best .303 xWOBA with a minus-14 run value. Before he landed on the injured list with shoulder inflammation, his xWOBA had jumped nearly 100 points.
Those three could well find their way back on to this list by season’s end with those historically strong pitches, but as it stands, these are the pitches causing batters the most fits.
1. Jackson Stephens’ four-seamer
The journeyman has pitched to a 1.89 ERA through 13 appearances, and his ability to balance this pitch with his two-seam fastball has been the biggest reason why he’s been a surprising contributor to baseball’s best bullpen.
“I think by using it in the right situations and sequencing it make it be successful,” Stephens said. “Me having two different fastballs, with like a four-seamer and a two-seamer, having that pitch be different than another pitch is helping me out tremendously.”
Through 26 plate appearances ending with the pitch, Stephens is generating a .083 average against. That’s the best of any pitch by a Brave, and sixth among all four-seamers. It also tops the team with a 46.2 percent whiff rate, a mark that is second across baseball, behind only the Mariners’ Erik Swanson (50 percent).
“I always had the two-seamer, always had the four-seamer, but just didn’t use it the right way,” Stephens said. “Now trying to use it in the right scenarios and the right way to make it be successful.
Throwing the four-seamer at a 31.8 percent rate, Stephens has a 50 percent whiff rate and .148 wOBA average when batters are behind in the count and has allowed one hit on the pitch since May 1.
2. A.J. Minter’s changeup
Minter’s arsenal has evolved. He came in exclusively throwing a fastball and cutter, with usage rates of 51.4 percent and 48.6 percent, respectively, during his first season. He’s still heavily reliant on those pitches, which he’s thrown at rates of 47.6 (four-seam) and 36.4 (cutter) this season, but sprinkling in the changeup has been, well, a game-changer for the lefty.
The .063 average he’s yielded on the pitch — which he’s thrown 16 percent of the time — is a career-best, as is the 42.9 percent whiff rate he’s racked up. Minter’s .056 wOBA is the second-best in the league behind the Yankees’ Michael King (.000) and Minter has yet to allow a hard-hit ball on the pitch, making him one of only two pitchers to do so with at least 16 plate appearances ending on the pitch.
“Just keeping the changeup honest on a lot of hitters I feel like helped me a lot,” Minter said. “I feel like a lot of people just sit cutter off of me (but) I feel like my changeup now is one of my best pitches,” he said. “I almost feel more comfortable throwing that as a strikeout pitch than anything. It’s kind of weird, because I’ve come a long way with it.”
How does anyone get a hit against Spencer Strider?@PeterMoylan breaks down the difference in Strider’s fastball and slider … even though @TwoSportman thinks he’d have a chance pic.twitter.com/girD2TgAxW
— Bally Sports South (@BallySportsSO) May 26, 2022
3. Spencer Strider’s slider
When Strider got to Double-A last season, he realized the triple-digit fastball alone wasn’t enough. He started developing the slider, and the results that came in the minors are translating to the bigs, where he’s throwing the pitch 24.1 percent of the time with a .174 average against and a 50 percent whiff rate.
That whiff rate is sixth among all sliders in a group led by the Brewers’ Corbin Burnes at 54.7 percent.
“I was able to develop my offspeed a lot more to get better reads on the fastball so the offspeed was playing more accurately,” Strider said. “Closer to how it’s played at this level. Pretty much everything I worked on at Double-A, which was my biggest adjustment period, has stuck here.”
Since he was tagged for a home run on a slider on April 2 by the Yankees’ Anthony Rizzo — the only homer Strider has allowed — he’s retired 22 of 30 batters on PAs ending on the pitch, including 14 strikeouts.
This Kyle Wright curveball pic.twitter.com/0hj9sSpt29
— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) May 4, 2022
4. Kyle Wright’s curveball
This is the pitch that has made Wright look every bit the top-five pick that the Braves took him with in 2017 and catapulted him to the 11th best ERA (2.39) among all qualified batters.
Last season, Wright was throwing his four-seam more than any other pitch at 34.6 percent, but he’s flipped that script in 2022, with a 31.7 percent curveball rate, with his four-seam (23.5 percent) and sinker (22.1) getting almost equal usage split across righties (higher sinker) and lefties (higher four-seam).
Batters are hitting .188 vs. Wright’s curve with a 36.7 whiff rate and 26.4 percent put away percentage. That latter figure ranks fifth among all curveballs and only teammate Charlie Morton (352) has thrown more than Wright’s 322. He’s the only pitcher with at least 300 thrown to yield an average under .200.
“That’s been my focus, is using that pitch,” Wright said. “Out of college, my pitches were fastball/curveball, and early in my pro career (I threw a slider) and I had some success with that. We started using that a lot, and it just wasn’t my best pitch, I don’t think. I just didn’t have the best feel of it. It’s still a good pitch, but just didn’t have great command of it.
Max Fried, Pretty 75mph Curveball. pic.twitter.com/q5KTy5vXtF
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 29, 2022
5. Max Fried’s curveball
No surprise here. While Fried has been growing in confidence with the sinker — which is his best pitch in terms of wOBA (.150), which is 178 points lower than in 2021 — the curveball continues to be the lefty’s trademark and his best swing-and-miss pitch.
The 40.7 whiff rate is third among all pitches by Braves thrown with at least 25 plate appearances and is generating a .190 average against, and so is the 31.6 percent put away rate.
He’s retired batters on 15 of the last 16 PAs ending on the curveball, with the only hit in that span coming with a Kyle Schwarber single on a May 24 game against the Phillies.
Kenley Jansen, Wicked Cutter movement.
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 28, 2022
6. Kenley Jansen’s cutter
In the Statcast era, Jansen has four of top 10 seasons with the highest percentage of cutters thrown, including this season with 65.1. His 2016 xWOBA of .189 with the pitch is the second best of any completed season and he has another top 10 season with 2017 (.203 wOBA).
He’s at it again, allowing the league’s best wOBA (.181), the second-best average (.128) hard-hit rate (24.2 percent) and a top-five strikeout rate (28.3).
“Kenley, he locates it all four quadrants,” said Minter, who ranks in the top 25 in cutter usage this season at 36.4 percent. “For me, it’s kind of more bottom of the strike zone is where my mentality was. Just watching him has been unbelievable.”
A.J. Minter strikeout highlighted by fan reactions. pic.twitter.com/SO0H4xvObG
— Baseball GIFs (@gifs_baseball) April 16, 2022
7. A.J. Minter’s four-seamer
A byproduct of Minter’s effectiveness with his confidence-boosting changeup, is that it has helped to make his four-seam fastball that much more effective.
“My fastball has a little bit of cut to it … as a right-hander, for example, they would kind of just sit inside more than anything. But now I have that changeup, where locating my fastball away to righties has been super helpful this year.”
The left-hander’s four-seamer is resulting in a .122 average and .174 wOBA with a 41.3 percent strikeout rate and minus-6 run value. It has become his most effective pitch vs. right-handed batters, who have a .185 xBA vs. the pitch.
Two years ago, Minter was getting pummeled on the four-seam with a .368 average and .481 wOBA.
8. Darren O’Day’s four-seamer
The understanding of seam shifted wake has provided further clarity for O’Day as to why the four-seam fastball that saved his career — “If I hadn’t found that four-seamer, I would have been done a while ago,” he said — has been so effective, including this season when he’s allowing a .130 average that’s the best of any Brave (with a minimum of 24 PAs ending on the pitch).
“I’ve known for a while it is a good pitch, a lot of swing-and-miss at the top of the zone,” O’Day said. “Only recently did the phenomenon of seam-shifted wake become a thing and apparently, it’s a seam-shifted fastball. The way I spin it off my hand, it resists sinking more than it should.”
This Driveline Baseball piece further breaks down seam-shifted wake, but at its core, the seams on the ball create turbulence on one side that leads to movement. Add that to the arm angle O’Day throws from, and you have a pitch that since 2008, has yielded a batting average over .195 just once and been under .100 five time.
“It’s a good pitch because a lot of hitters now have steep swings,” O’Day said. If the ball is coming in low and staying straight, there’s only one spot in time where it can match up. It’s just harder for guys to square it up.”
Elsewhere around the clubhouse …
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) June 8, 2022
9. Michael Harris II, defense never slumps
Now 11 games into his major-league career, Michael Harris II says it still feels different each time the Stockbridge (Ga.), product and top-ranked prospect puts on a Braves uniform — both literally and figuratively.
“It feels different material-wise than the minor league jersey and mentally,” he said. “It gives me a lot of confidence every time I put it on.”
So does performances like he had Wednesday against the A’s, when Harris went 2-for-4 with a two-run, go-ahead triple. That snapped a 0-for-7 skid over his two previous games, and Harris is now hitting .268/.286/.415 with five extra-base hits in his first 42 plate appearances.
As he continues to find his footing offensively, with a strikeout rate (23.8 percent) that is higher than he had at any level in the minors, Harris knows he can rely on his defense regardless of what’s happening at the plate.
He already has three four-star catches, which is fourth among all outfielders, and has three Outs Above Average (15th) in just over 100 innings.
“I feel like defense is so easy because you do it more than you do hitting; you do it for nine innings,” he said. “It’s just the repetition and just getting the work in when nobody’s looking, in (batting practice) you get your good reads. It’s really just you do it more than hitting and it comes natural to me.”