The Braves are tied with the Nationals for first place in the National League East. Whether or not you think that's "ahead of schedule" is up to you, but there's no shortage of reasons why Atlanta is there, most prominently on the offensive side. There's the NL MVP Award-caliber season of Freddie Freeman, the stunning age-34 breakout from Nick Markakis and the contributions from the young trio of Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Dansby Swanson. In the bullpen, few outside of Georgia realize what Dan Winkler and Shane Carle have done. You don't get to first place in June without contributions from a variety of sources.
Those, and others, are all valid and important factors, but allow us today to shine a light on the two former first-round picks in the rotation, both of whom were acquired via trade in the midst of Atlanta's 2014-15 teardown, and who have evolved into front-line starters so far this year. You might consider Sean Newcomb among the top 30 starters in the game right now. You might also say the same of Mike Foltynewicz. On the list of reasons why the Braves are succeeding, these two ought to be at or near the top.
How did we get here? And are they really that good?
Yes, they've been that good
How do you define a "Top 30" starter? There's not really one single way. You might use ERA or strikeouts or even something more advanced like FIP. Other than using "wins," there's not a wrong way to do this.
Around the Statcast™ lab, we like to look at pitching in two, ways. The first is wOBA, or Weighted On-Base Average, which is just like OBP, except it gives more weight to extra-base hits than singles or walks.
There have been 117 starters to face at least 200 batters this year, from Justin Verlander (.210 wOBA) to Matt Moore (.418), and the names work exactly like you'd think they would. Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom and Corey Kluber are in the Top 10. Homer Bailey, Andrew Cashner and Alex Cobb are at the bottom. You can't get a low wOBA by accident, and look where our two Braves rank:
That's a good start, but we can go deeper.
Outcomes, whether ERA or wOBA or anything else, can be affected by ballpark or defense, and Atlanta's defense is a generally strong unit. For that reason, we also like to look at Expected wOBA, which is the same idea, except it gives the pitcher credit based on the amount of contact and quality of contact. That is, if a pitcher induces a weak fly that a poor defender turns into an RBI double, we give him credit only for inducing that weak contact.
If we look at DRA, an advanced metric from Baseball Prospectus, they're ranled 22nd (Foltynewicz) and 28th (Newcomb) among pitchers who worked at least 50 innings. If we look at FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement, they're tied for 12th (Foltynewicz) and 26th (Newcomb). How about traditional ERA? Foltynewicz is 10th, at 2.31. Newcomb is 18th, at 2.92. No matter how you choose to view it, you can make a pretty strong argument for either one as Top 30 pitchers, and All-Stars.
They weren't that last year, of course. What changed?
Foltynewicz found a strikeout mix
Foltynewicz had a 4.85 ERA in parts of his first three seasons with the Atlanta, bouncing back and forth between the Braves, Triple-A and the disabled list. In 2016-17, he was about as average as you could be, hovering at or near the league rates for strikeouts, walks and home runs. That was OK, but somewhat disappointing for a pitcher with a four-seamer that averaged 95.6 mph, one of the best for any regular starter in those seasons.
This year, Foltynewicz hasn't lowered his walk rate; it's actually gone up. But his strikeout rate has jumped considerably (from 21 percent to 29 percent), and his home run rate has fallen drastically (from 1.17 per nine innings to just 0.61).
Let's oversimplify some reasons why that might be:
1. Foltynewicz is throwing harder. His four-seamer has jumped from 95.2 mph last year to 96.3 this year.
2. Foltynewicz is using his slider more, and it's better. He rarely used his slider when he entered the big leagues, and now it's his primary non-fastball pitch, up to 27 percent of the time. That makes sense, given that Foltynewicz has allowed just a .209 average on it over his career, and only .116 this year.
There's also evidence that Foltynewicz has sharpened his pitches this year, making the slider a more distinct pitch from his fastball, as opposed to last year, when they may have overlapped too much. We're entering the pure speculation zone here, but it was noted this spring that he was quieting his windup. "In the past, I had too many unnecessary moving parts," he said.
Newcomb found ground balls
The 6-foot-5 lefty, who made his debut a year ago Sunday, is celebrating his 25th birthday day. Newcomb came up through the Minors with a reputation for having top-shelf talent that may never manifest fully due to his issues throwing strikes, and so far that's been true in the big leagues. In both of his seasons, he's struck out hitters about two percentage points more than average. In both of Newcomb's seasons, he's walked batters at a rate of about four percent more than average.
Neither mark has really changed from 2017 to '18. Newcomb is not throwing more strikes. His velocity isn't really different -- it is actually slightly down. So what is the difference?
Newcomb has changed his pitch mixture, too, but in a different way from Foltynewicz. He's more than doubled his changeup usage, from 10 percent to 21 percent. He's throwing his curve a lot less. This is all on purpose, with the intent of adding an addition look beyond just fastball and curveball.
"I definitely had a glimpse of [the changeup] being good and down [in the zone] with some good movement [during Spring Training]," Newcomb said after pitching six shutout innings against the Rays last month. "I knew it was in there. It's just something I worked on this offseason and focused on this spring. It's definitely been a big pitch for me."
This new version of Newcomb has upped his ground-ball rate, from 43 percent to 49 percent. It's put him just outside the Top 10 for lowest hard-hit rate among starters. But while the change is a good pitch, it's almost as if the curve is playing up now -- it's induced a 77 percent grounder rate and a .108 average this year.
While the Braves envision a near-term rotation fronted by the 25-year-old Newcomb, 26-year-old Foltynewicz, 27-year-old veteran Julio Teheran (somehow already in his eighth season in Atlanta), 21-year-old Luiz Gohara, and 20-year-old Mike Soroka, it's worth remembering how some of this talent got to the Braves in the first place. Four of the five pitchers we just listed weren't Atlanta draft picks. They were trade acquisitions -- in often-unpopular deals -- which are finally paying off.
Tearing down to build back up
Back in 2014, the Braves were coming off of five straight winning seasons. They led the NL East until July that season, and they had a share of an NL Wild Card spot as late as Sept. 6. But the team was considered to have overperformed in the first half, and it collapsed in the second half, going 27-40 and finishing 17 games behind the Nationals.
While Markakis was added via free agency that winter, Atlanta kicked off a rebuild. Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Tommy La Stella and Evan Gattis were all dealt that offseason, with Shelby Miller, Arodys Vizcaino and Foltynewicz part of the return. ("As painful as it may be for Braves fans to see Gattis go, this is a deal that makes sense for their team," wrote MLB.com's Richard Justice at the time.) Ervin Santana was allowed to leave via free agency, returning a compensation pick that was used to select Soroka in the 2015 Draft. Highly regarded infield prospect Austin Riley was acquired in that Draft as well, a pick acquired in the Kimbrel trade.
After 2015, Miller was flipped to Arizona for Ender Inciarte, Aaron Blair, and Swanson, regarded then as now as one of the biggest heists in baseball trade history, while Newcomb arrived in the Andrelton Simmons deal.
That all led to three straight 90-loss seasons, and the moves didn't all work. Some trades mainly returned salary relief, not talent. The 2015 three-way deal that sent Alex Wood, Luis Avilan, Jose Peraza and others to the Dodgers for a deal centered around Hector Olivera now looks like a huge mistake, given Olivera's off-field behavior. (He was later traded for Matt Kemp, who became Brandon McCarthy and Charlie Culberson.) And no matter how good Newcomb becomes, Atlanta has to live with the fact that Simmons is on a Hall of Fame trajectory with the Angels.
While it's hard to say what might have happened if that 2014-15 team had added instead of rebuilding, there's a lot of present-day talent that came from it. You're seeing it in action now. You may be for a while.