Michael Cunningham: Braves need more success from pitching pipeline


Since last season’s trade deadline, the Indians have sent away pitchers Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger. From 2016-19 their combined Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement (43) for Cleveland was better than any other starting trio in the American League. The Indians still may have MLB’s best starting staff because they are stacked with homegrown arms.

The Braves were in desperate need of a starting pitcher by Monday’s deadline. They ended up acquiring lefty Tommy Milone, who has pitched more games from the bullpen during a 10-year career. The Braves may still have the worst rotation in the National League because not enough of their homegrown arms are ready to help now.

The Indians are what the Braves hope to become. Cleveland is so loaded with proven young arms that it can afford to trade valuable pitchers away when team needs (or the money counters) demand it. Meanwhile, the Braves saw young pitchers Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson and Touki Toussaint flame out when given a chance during the past two seasons.

That’s not a knock on the Braves. They’ve won two consecutive NL East titles and are favored to make it three in a row. As noted previously in this space, it wouldn’t be a bad return if Mike Soroka and Max Fried are the only stars to emerge from the wave of young pitchers they’ve acquired. The Braves’ current No. 1 pitching prospect, Ian Anderson, is getting his MLB turn now, and Kyle Muller is on hold at the Gwinnett camp.

But the Braves need more of their young pitchers to develop in order to fulfill the vision of pitching depth. Soroka and Fried are well on their way. There are big question marks about the others. Wright, a former No. 5 overall draft pick has a 7.52 ERA in 40 2/3 MLB innings, Wilson has posted a 7.22 ERA over 28 2/3 innings in the majors and Toussaint has compiled a 5.65 ERA in 92 1/3 innings.

Given the state of the Braves’ pitching, we may see those three on the Braves’ active roster again in 2020. General manager Alex Anthopoulos said Wilson has been “throwing better” at Gwinnett and Wright has “gotten himself straightened out.” The problem is that too many young Braves pitchers haven’t shown it in the bright lights.

The pitch control that Wilson and Wright showed in the minors abandoned them during their big-league stints. After each poor outing by Wilson and Wright, Braves manager Brian Snitker hits on the same theme: They’ve got good stuff, so they just need to throw strikes.

It seems simple enough. But when I see young pitchers struggle to do it, I think back to something former Braves pitcher Eric O’Flaherty posted on Twitter when a user asked him if it’s really so difficult to throw strikes.

“Not if you’re willing to go down in flames,” O’Flaherty responded. “At some point you just aim right down the middle and see what happens. Either your stuff is good enough to pitch in the league or it isn’t. Walks are usually a result of a pitcher subconsciously not wanting an answer to that question.”

O’Flaherty’s view ties in with Cleveland’s success developing its young pitchers. The Indians favor prospects who have good pitch control and then work with them on velocity and movement. It’s paid off, especially with three pitchers Cleveland selected in the 2016 June draft: Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale.

Bieber (third round) was the highest pick. The combined signing bonus of the three pitchers: about $1.1 million. They’ve become so good that, after Clevinger left, Cleveland still had the highest combined b-WAR (4.9) of three pitchers on staff entering Tuesday. And that’s with Plesac limited to three starts because he was quarantined after breaking COVID-19 protocols.

Five Thirty Eight’s Travis Sawchik found that the Cleveland trio has produced two of the best seasons for pitchers drafted in the same class and on the same MLB staff.

“They could have been somewhat undervalued by the industry because they didn’t throw as hard, they didn’t have that scout-type stuff you are looking for,” Indians VP Brad Grant told Sawchik. “But what they did have is that they all were extremely good athletes. All of them had very good control. All of them had very good deliveries. If you have that side already, it’s easier to add to the fastball or develop pitches.”

Cleveland struck gold in the draft by going all-in on one side of the stuff vs. control matrix. Soroka fit a similar mold as a prospect when the Braves took him with the No. 25 overall pick in the 2016 draft. Most of the organization’s other top young pitchers were touted more for the quality of their pitches than precise control.

That includes Fried, whose big curveball was his best pitch as a prep prospect. The Padres drafted Fried No. 7 overall in 2012, but he struggled with his command early in his pro career. The Braves acquired Fried in the 2014 Justin Upton trade with the belief that Fried could get back on track after elbow surgery. Fried got healthy, made a rapid rise through the minors and this year is a candidate for the NL Cy Young Award.

When the Braves drafted Wilson in 2016, he was known for a hard, sharp fastball. He hasn’t thrown it often this year (maybe because, according to tracking data, it’s not moving much). Wright was a hard thrower in college whose command continued to develop as a pro until going missing in MLB (maybe because hitters have teed off on his strikes).

Toussaint, once a raw high school prospect with a live arm, has long struggled with control. Anderson’s pitch quality was well ahead of his control when the Braves drafted him No. 3 overall in 2016 he still has work to do to close that gap.

The Braves’ 2020 outlook becomes much sunnier if at least one pitcher from among Anderson, Wright, Wilson and Touissant can be an average starter. That’s what Anthopoulos is banking on after failing to acquire Clevinger, whom he considered to be the only top starter to switch teams at the deadline. Veterans Cole Hamels, Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb also are at the alternate training site in Gwinnett, but chances are, one of the young pitchers will be needed.

The Braves may not be as short on pitching for 2021. The rotation will be strong at the top with Soroka (whenever he’s recovered from Achilles surgery) and Fried at the top. Anderson might be part of it. Anthopoulos can fill one spot by taking a one-year shot on a pricey veteran. That worked in 2019 with Dallas Keuchel, but hasn’t worked with Hamels in 2020.

If enough things go right for the Braves, soon Anthopoulos won’t have to rely on such deals to fill out his rotation because his organization, like the Indians, will be deep in good, young pitchers.


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