The Braves Back-End Starter: The Case for Everybody

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The Braves rotation is stacked 1-4, barring injury or setback. Those four starting pitchers (once Soroka returns) are: Soroka, Fried, Morton, & Anderson; in whatever order Snitker decides. That’s not what this is about, we can cover that some other time.

Today is about that 5th starter. The role that seems to be the choke point for multiple guys, the “no” they’ll hear that means they’ll either make their money out of the bullpen or down a level until called upon.

This is each one of those pitchers that I see having a legitimate chance, however small that chance may be, and their case for that role.

Drew Smyly

“Smiles” is coming into his 9th MLB season. He’s posted a career 35-35 record, he is exactly average. He’s pitched for the Tigers, Rays, Rangers, Phillies, & Giants.

His average 4-seam fastball velocity has increased from 90.9 mph in 2015 to 93.8 in 2020. While his cutter has flattened in that same timespan from 30 inches of drop in 2015 to 23.7 inches in 2020. His curveball has also flattened from 49.3 inches of drop in 2019 to 46 inches in 2020.

2020 was his best season in terms of being in the zone & also the lowest percentage of contact made on pitches in the zone. 2020 was also the lowest percentage of his career in batters making contact on pitches outside of the zone, at 32.8% chase contact.

His batted ball profile suggests that the 2020 Smyly is someone who has figured out how to use his defense & not trying to chase strikeouts. 41.7% of balls put in play against him were groundballs, only 21.7% were fly balls, 33.3% were line-drives, & 3.3% were pop-ups. If those batted ball trends continue in 2021 with Atlanta’s defense compared to the Giants’ 2020 defense, 73.4% of batted balls have a solid chance of being converted to outs with Pache & Acuña in the outfield & Ozzie, Dansby, & Freddie manning 3/4 of the infield.

Translation: the Braves bullpen could have a short workday on Smyly’s days due to the simple fact that his pitch count would stay relatively low by using his defense & not chasing strikeouts. He’s 31 years old, conventional wisdom & his advanced analytics both suggest that he’s gotten better as a pitcher as he’s gained more experience. He knows what he is, what he has, & how to navigate a big league lineup with a minimum amount of high-leverage situations.

Kyle Wright

Wright is highly debated among Braves fans. And each side of the aisle has justifiable arguments. At his best, he’s been lights out. At his worst, he’s been solid until all of a sudden the bases were walked full & home plate turns into a tee box.

Baseball Savant does not like Kyle Wright. His only MLB-relative percentile rankings to lean on for the young enigma is exit velocity (71st percentile) & Curve Spin (78th percentile). The only conundrum with that is his best pitch (curveball) is also his least thrown (13.1%).

His batted ball launch angle has lowered each year that he’s logged MLB innings, that’s a good thing. It’s lowered from 12.3 to 10.9 in 2020, a full degree lower than the MLB average.

Guess what’s really funny about Kyle Wright’s batted ball profile? His 2020 batted ball profile is “most similar” according to Baseball Savant to five pitchers; one of those pitchers is….2020 Huascar Ynoa.

If we were to lump Wright, Wilson, & Ynoa together; Wright would have the strongest case for the 5th starter spot out of all of them if we were going solely off what we’ve seen from each of them leading up to 2021. Wright & Wilson are really similar, they’re either really good or really bad; there’s no in-between. The dominant starts by both can be counted on one hand. Wright’s dominant performances came in last year’s postseason leading up to the NLCS; Wilson’s dominant performance came in last year’s NLCS. Wright & Ynoa have similar advance analytics profiles, but Wright has the clear advantage in MLB experience & experience as a starter; and add in postseason success to Wright’s side of the scale.

Bryse Wilson

The man who made the Dodgers lineup look pedestrian. The Durham native shoved fastball after fastball down their throats, and they had no answer for it.

Bryse has shown the best command out of the three young guys in this article. He also had the worst fastball spin (21%), curve spin (11%), & fastball velocity (62%) out of the three young guys.

He throws his fastball 46% of the time, which is fine, but he needs a consistent pitch to throw off of his heater. He only throws his changeup 11.5% of the time, and more than half of those pitches were thrown for balls; largely way out of the zone.

One interesting trend is he tends to throw way more junk to left-handed batters than he does to righties. Out of the 144 fastballs he threw last year, only 42 of them were to lefties.

His sinker drops off the table, it breaks over a foot & a half; and it’s coming at batters at 93 mph. That’s a problem for anybody holding a bat, especially since it’s only one mph different than his 4-seam. It basically looks like the same exact pitch to the batter, their only defense for it is to study pitch sequence trends.

Wilson has the best win percentage out of all four of these guys, with a career win-loss of 3-1. Wilson has just the right amount of success, success in the postseason, & lack of MLB experience to pick apart, to make him a dark horse for that 5th starter spot.

Huascar Ynoa

Huascar, the man who’s last name gives fans plenty of puns to tweet out for the world to see. He’s also quickly becoming a fan favorite on this Braves staff. He’s made spot starts. He’s made postseason long-relief appearances. And most recently, a quick Spring Training start against the Red Sox.

He notched four strikeouts in his short Spring Training start. It is Spring Training, but it is also the best recent appearance by any of these four pitchers.

He’s only 22, the youngest out of all these pitchers. Seemingly, with the most distance to travel from now to his ceiling. And his right now isn’t anything to shake a stick at.

He’s another guy that isn’t getting much love from Baseball Savant, his only MLB percentile ranking worthy of a starter spot is his fastball velocity (80th percentile). Every other measurable is in the 63rd percentile or worse.

He officially has four pitches in his arsenal: 4-Seam, slider, changeup, & sinker. Although he’s only logged one official sinker out of his 461 career MLB pitches. So, more than likely that sinker was just a changeup that didn’t quite put the brakes on hard enough. Which makes sense, because his changeup is by far his worst pitch. Batters are slugging 1.200 off his changeup, more than double any other pitch.

The biggest case for Ynoa to start out in that 5th starter spot is that he’s already what Kyle Wright is, on average, according to advanced analytics. Conventional wisdom suggests that Wright should be closer to reaching his potential enough to be a starter than Ynoa; but in that same breath, Ynoa is young enough & inexperienced enough (on top of his similarity with Wright) to where he might come out of nowhere & be serviceable enough to hold down that 5th spot; all the while improving faster than before by learning against MLB players.

His flexibility may hinder his chances at the 5th spot. He’s definitely good enough right now to make the team as a reliever. Which would also make him more valuable than if he were to start, just by the sheer number of games he would pitch in compared to pitching every 5th game.

Whoever it is, they’ll be better than Tommy Milone.


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