The Braves Sign Two Pitchers and Father Time
by Jim Silva
Wow! The 2016 baseball season sure ended in spectacular fashion with two teams who hadn’t seen a World Series victory for either 70 or 108 years, depending on your choice of poison. So I would like to welcome you to the 2017 baseball season as one of my favorite parts of the year is Hot Stove League season, when everyone is tied for first place and the pain of the last season fades into glorious optimism. The Atlanta Braves had jumped quickly into the fray signing two starting pitchers to bolster their rotation of the future as they continue their rebuilding process. But wait! Did they find two youngsters to match their baby-faced starters? They finished the season with five hurlers in the rotation who were between the ages of 23 and 25 – you know – like a rebuilding team usually would. So you would think they would grab more youth to continue their move toward Cubs-like youthful fervor, but no. Not only did they sign two veterans, they signed two veterans of the Revolutionary War! Ok, not really (French-Indian War?), but they are long in the tooth for professional athletes unless you are one of those people who think of chess as a sport. Let’s take a look at what the Braves just did with $20 million – a question I ask about my checking account on a weekly basis (uh huh) and what it means for their rotation moving forward.
Like a lot of other teams over the last decade and more, the Atlanta Braves chose to tank in order to rebuild for the future. You know the story. So the Braves got really young by dumping their older players and picked up young prospects that they could build around for the future. In that vein, last year, they made a huge trade with the Diamondbacks when they sent their ace, Shelby Miller, to pick up a treasure trove of prospects that included the first pick of the draft, Dansby Swanson, starting pitcher Aaron Blair, and center fielder Ender Inciarte. While Miller pitched so poorly for the Diamondbacks that he was sent down for a stretch, Inciarte and Swanson showed that they were both well suited to start, while Blair, as do many young pitchers, struggled in his first exposure to major league hitters. At the time of the trade, many analysts thought Blair was ready to jump into the rotation now, which would have meant that the Braves had picked up 20% of a starting rotation and a stellar glove man (Inciarte) to be their starting center fielder, plus their shortstop of the future (Swanson) for a starting pitcher with one good season under his belt. As it turned out, Inciarte had another great year after a horrendous first half. The future came much sooner than expected for the shortstop as Swanson came up for the final 38 games of the season (in his second season as a professional) and put up a wRC+ of 107, meaning he created 7% more runs than the leaguers average player did in the same number of plate appearances after adjusting for the park and the league. And Blair proved that he needed more time cooking in the oven of triple-A putting up an xFIP (a measure similar to ERA that measures a pitcher’s expected runs allowed based on what they actually gave up that was under their control) of 5.66 – again, think ERA for scale. His actual ERA was 7.59. So enough about the trade – back to the Braves options for the rotation for 2017.
Aside from Blair, who many think has top half of the rotation potential, the Braves two signings have, uh, a lot of experience at the major league level. It is an interesting gambit signing two pitchers who have already passed their 42nd birthday, but with only one year of commitment, it’s really just money and the possibility of holding one of their youngsters back for one more season – unless this is a Billy Beane type of move and the plan is to trade them both by the deadline. In Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey, the Braves have added 85 years of life experience (they are 43 and 42 years old respectively) and $20.5 million worth of contract of the 2017 season. Colon had a very good 2016 and on the surface appears to be getting better as he ages. But there are a couple of red flags that indicate the possibility of troubled waters ahead for the stocky Colon. His home runs per fly ball rate has increased from 6.0% in 2013 with the A’s to 11.5% last season with the Mets. His walks per nine (1.50) and strikeouts per nine (6.01) both went in the wrong direction last season, and his xFIP increased to 4.17. On a more positive note, Colon has registered at least 190 innings pitched in each of the last four seasons. If he can maintain last season’s numbers, the Braves will benefit greatly from the stability that Colon would provide in the middle of the rotation.
R.A. Dickey has declined since signing a huge contract to pitch for the Blue Jays for the 2013 season. As a knuckleball pitcher who stays fit, there is no reason to believe that he can’t at least be a solid back end of the rotation innings eater with the possibility of being somewhat more as he has now escaped the power packed AL East for the friendlier pitching atmosphere of the NL East. Dickey’s xFIP has been over 4.00 ever since he left the Mets for that big contract. In 2015 and 2016 he tallied xFIPs of 4.72 and 4.76 respectively. His home run per fly ball rate spiked to 14.7% last season as his walk rate also increased (to 3.34) – a bad combination – leading to his ugly xFIP. Last year was clearly a down season for Dickey. Prior to 2016 he hadn’t failed to work fewer than 208 innings since 2010, and even with that his 169.66 innings pitched would have ranked second to ace Julio Teheran’s 188. If Dickey can rebound even part way, he will be a valuable addition, taking a huge burden off the bullpen. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about improvement for Dickey including the fact that his xFIP was under four for all three seasons that he was in the National League and his home runs per nine rate was under one. The AL East is full of launching pad parks so expect Dickey to look like he has discovered the fountain of youth upon his return to the NL.
The ace of the Braves has to be Julio Teheran who at the age of 25 has 47 wins and a career ERA of 3.39. He has been the target of trade rumors now for a couple of seasons, but the Braves wisely held onto him, even while they cleaned house. In 2016 Teheran’s walks per nine dropped under two (to 1.96) for the first time in a full season in the majors, while his strikeout rate inched up to 7.99 per nine, and his home run per fly ball percentage dropped back to his career rate of around 10. It was a good comeback season for Teheran who has notched between 185 and 220 innings in each of his four full seasons in the majors. The Braves hope he has another gear left because he is the closest thing they have to a true ace at the major league level, but has looked more like a second or third starter so far. Think back to what you were good at when you were 25 and you can see that the Braves hopes might have some chance of coming true.
I am struggling to understand why the Diamondbacks chose to release Josh Collmenter in the middle of their collapse last season. Obviously there is a lot I wasn’t privy to, but with a pitching staff struggling to survive, having a pitcher who had succeeded as a starter and reliever would warrant some patience. It isn’t surprising that the Cubs who claimed him didn’t hang onto him considering how deep they were. So the Braves took a chance, and in a small sample size of starts – three – Collmenter delivered big time with three solid starts covering 19 innings. There is a prejudice against pitchers who don’t throw hard – Collmenter’s fastball averages around 88 – so it’s possible that he fell victim to the fear that the soft tossing guy had finally lost his ability to fool hitters when he struggled out of the pen. Whatever it was, the Braves took a gamble and won, and having re-signed Collmenter for a year, they aren’t committing too much money to see how their gamble pays off. With two starting pitchers joining the team, once again Collmenter’s versatility might be a blessing and a curse. Since he CAN pitch out of the pen, he probably WILL pitch out of the pen until inevitably someone gets hurt or repeatedly bombed and Josh gets to grab a rotation spot until the next shiny thing (young, hard-thrower) appears. No matter what the Braves choose to do with Collmenter, he is a valuable arm out of the pen and in the rotation who is a cheap tool to have on your team. It would be interesting to see what Collmenter would do with 32 starts after that tantalizing three start audition, but I would bet money that it doesn’t go that way because soft-tossers get no love.
Mike Foltynewicz finished his second season with the Braves after coming over from Houston in the Gattis trade, and if you look at the entirety of the year, it looked like he made some solid gains. What “Folty” managed to achieve in his second turn with the Braves was an excellent first half where it looked like he finally had learned to command his hard stuff and a second half that has to have the Braves worried that he is still a work in progress. Dude throws hard, and while there is some comfort in that, unless he knows roughly where it is going, throwing hard just isn’t that useful in and of itself. With a first half ERA of 3.67 and a strikeout to walks ratio of 4.09, Foltynewicz looked like a number two or three starter. While his strikeout rate didn’t drop significantly in the second half, he looked more like a fourth or fifth starter as his ERA jumped to 4.72, driven in part by his strikeout to walk ratio dropping to 2.75. And while he gave up four fewer home runs in the second half in more innings, his lack of command just put more guys on base for free. You can’t do that and expect to be near the top of the rotation for long. His control issues may have come in response to his higher home run rate from the first half or just a return to old habits as Folty had seen walk rates in the mid-fours in the minors. Whatever it was, if the Braves can figure it out and address it this spring, the Braves have their number two behind Teheran for years to come as the 6’4 righty from Minooka, Illinois is only 25 and under team control until 2022 when he can try free agency.
At 24, Matt Wisler already has 45 major league starts – a bit surprising from a 7th round pick especially when you consider that he has a career xFIP of 4.87, a WHIP of 1.38, and a home runs per nine rate of 1.42 in the majors. Usually guys who get this kind of leash (long) throw really hard or project to throw really hard, but while Wisler’s fastball is good, he doesn’t possess the kind of arm that makes batters quiver as they stand in the on-deck circle. His heater tops out at 96 – good stuff – and he also possesses a slider, change, and a curve so he’s got the full arsenal. It’s just that Wisler hasn’t found a pitch that he can get hitters to regularly miss. He fills the strike zone, only walking 2.8 batters per nine last year, but he only fanned 6.6 per nine. What is really causing him trouble is that he leaves his hittable stuff where batters can pound it to the tune of 9.1 hits per nine with 1.5 home runs per nine. Interestingly, many of Wisler’s peripherals improved from 2015 to 2016. He gave up fewer fly balls (although more of them left the yard), struck out more batters while walking fewer, and reduced his xFIP. Unfortunately – and this probably has the Braves a bit worried – his hard contact rate went up from 28.2% to 37.6% which means batters are figuring him out and squaring him up. It’s hard to say what the Braves will get from Wisler in 2017, but he will almost certainly be the fourth or fifth starter, so the Braves will be praying for some development.
The Braves have a slew of pitching prospects in their top ten prospect list, but only two, ok, maybe three are close to being ready. Tyrell Jenkins actually made eight starts in the majors last season at the age of 23. They were mostly awful starts, but still, they were eight major league starts. Looking at his minor league numbers it doesn’t look like he really dominated anywhere, so one would have not looked at his numbers and said, “Oh yeah, he’s ready”. Sean Newcomb did a little dominating at double-A but still walked over four batters per nine so he needs to figure that out before being turned loose in the bigs. Lucas Sims pitched at triple-A Gwinnett to start the season but got axe murdered so was sent back to double-A where he got his act together. Touki Toussaint is only 20 and pitching in full season A ball and looking like he belongs so he is probably two to three years away.
What it all amounts to is that the Braves have young quality pitching coming but not in 2017. Signing two geriatrics like Colon and Dickey means they can let Blair, Jenkins, Newcomb, and Sims figure it out at a more reasonable pace instead of having to cover innings and get hammered for a year hoping that they don’t lose all their confidence. The Braves rotation will be better in 2017 than it was in 2016 and they will likely win more games, but signing the two veterans wasn’t a sign that the Braves think they are ready to compete for a division title next season as much as it was a statement acknowledging that they are at least a season away from fielding a starting rotation that they can move forward with. Colon will not be on the roster when the Braves next make the playoffs, and while Dickey could be because he throws his knuckleball 85% of the time so he could be pitching with his AARP card in his back pocket, that’s not why the Braves signed those two pitchers. It was a smart move designed to protect their valuable young arms. Look for the Braves to improve every year as they move into their new stadium and start making the playoffs around 2019 or 2020. Buy your rubber tomahawks now – beat the rush!