In July 2019, Atlanta Braves pitching coach Rick Kranitz opined during an interview that Max Fried was “on the cusp” of becoming a great pitcher. At the time of that statement, Fried was a top-50 starter in baseball by a decent margin. Now, he’s no longer on the cusp, and all it took was a few minor adjustments to his approach and pitch usage. Fried isn’t going to post a sub-2 ERA over a full season every year (nobody is), but he is transforming into an ace.
How you define an ace is obviously subjective. Is an ace a top 20 pitcher? Top 15? That’s up to you to decide. Regardless, Fried is very good at baseball, and why he’s becoming so good is more important than exactly how good you or I think he is compared to other high-end starters. Before we get into the details, bear in mind that any pitches thrown in Fried’s injury-hampered start against the Washington Nationals on September 5 are not included in this piece. We’re already dealing with a small sample in 2020, and using data from a start in which he lost about 4mph on his fastball and was obviously not able to perform to his true ability would be counterproductive.
Fried finished the 2019 season with a 4.02 ERA/3.72 FIP/3.32 xFIP line. That large gap between his FIP and xFIP tells you that a high percentage of his fly balls turned into home runs – Fried’s 20.2% HR/FB rate was the second-highest among all pitchers who threw at least 150 innings last year, right behind Yu Darvish. Whether or not you believe HR/FB rates are mostly random is up to you, but Fried has given up exactly zero homers this season while Darvish is a frontrunner for the NL Cy Young award, so take from that what you will. One sure way to keep fly balls from turning into homers is to simply not give up fly balls, and Fried has been exceptionally good at that from day one; his 55.9% career ground ball rate is one of the highest in baseball, and even higher than that of Mike Soroka (52.4%).
Fried has had a successful career so far, but how he achieves his success is quite interesting. High ground ball rates are generally associated with sinker-heavy pitchers, and though Fried does have a sinker in his arsenal, he rarely throws it, yet he gets a ton of ground balls while also managing an above-average strikeout rate and a better-than-average walk rate. How rare is that combination? The only other starter in 2019 (min. 120 innings) who had a ground ball rate of more than 50% while carrying an above-average strikeout rate and below-average walk rate was Stephen Strasburg, who had a monster season and just earned himself a massive contract.
You already know about Max Fried’s curveball, but it has to be mentioned here: his curveball is absolutely disgusting. At 95.6% active spin, it is among the most efficient curveballs in 2020, and the movement… Well, this chart should tell you everything you need to know.
That brings us to 2020, where Fried has been phenomenal thus far in a shortened season thanks to a few adjustments and better luck on fly balls. Fried hasn’t pitched quite as well as his 1.60 ERA, and he’s definitely outperforming his peripheral numbers by a reasonable margin with a 2.29 FIP/3.55xFIP, but that still doesn’t tell us the whole story. Fielding independent metrics are fantastic, but they don’t do a great job of capturing the impact of a high ground ball rate (it’s fielding independent, duh), and more importantly, Fried has a slightly different approach that should make his success fairly sustainable.
Fried has gotten much better results with all of his pitches this season, but the biggest improvement, by far, has been his fastball. He’s not throwing any harder than he did in 2019, but he’s started throwing it up in the zone a lot more, and it’s gotten him a lot more whiffs. Check out his average fastball height in 2020 vs 2019:
Last season, Fried threw approximately 47% of his fastballs above the middle third of the strike zone (Gameday zones 4-6). This year, he’s thrown about 61% of his fastballs above the middle third of the zone. When you’re one of the hardest-throwing left-handed starters in baseball, throwing your fastball up in the zone is what’s going to get you whiffs. On 1,418 fastballs thrown last season, Fried had a 10.6% swinging strike rate on fastballs above the middle third of the zone, compared to a 6.7% swinging strike rate on fastballs thrown elsewhere. But that’s not the only reason for his improved success in 2020.
Fried isn’t just throwing his fastball higher, he’s throwing it less often; He’s decreased his fastball usage from 53.1% in 2019 to 43.7% in 2020, while increasing his slider usage by from 15.9% to 22.6%. Fried’s slider isn’t quite as good as his curveball, but it gets a ton of lateral movement and he throws it just a tick over 84mph – 10mph harder than his curveball – giving him a nice in-between offering since there’s a huge gap in velocity between his fastball and curveball. Time for a Rob Friedman GIF:
Throwing the slider more often won’t do anything but help Fried’s fastball and curveball; after allowing a .363 xwOBA on his fastball last year, opponents have posted a measly .266 xwOBA against Fried’s fastball in 2020 (excluding Saturday’s injury-shortened start). Although xwOBA is not very “sticky” from year-to-year for pitchers, a drop of nearly 100 points (and more than 8mph of average exit velocity) is definitely worth getting excited about. Fried is pitching to his strengths and he’s getting more whiffs, weaker contact, and ridiculously good results. Whether that’s due to pitching coach Rick Kranitz, the Braves’ analytical staff, or something else is unclear, but Max Fried is finally reaching his ceiling and it is a thing of beauty. Now, he simply has to get healthy and lead an injury-riddled pitching staff full of castoffs and untested prospects to the franchise’s first postseason series win in two decades. No pressure, kid.