Mike Foltynewicz is heating up at an opportune time for the Atlanta Braves.
Collectively spelling, the 2019 Major League Baseball season has been cruel to Foltynewicz, beginning with him missing the first month due to an elbow injury. From his April 27 season debut, he struggled with his command, got hit hard, and forced Braves manager Brian Snitker to go to his bullpen midway through games. He has surrendered a career-high 21 home runs this season and saw his ERA spike to 6.37 after surrendering eight runs in a June 22 matchup on the road against the rival Washington Nationals.
After that nightmare outing in the nation’s capital, Foltynewicz was placed on the injured list and didn’t make a return to the hill for the Braves until early August; he came back a changed pitcher.
In his nine starts off the injured list, Foltynewicz has recorded an astonishing 2.35 ERA, totaled 50 strikeouts, lowered his WHIP from 1.42 to 1.26, and provided length. He has pitched through six innings in five starts and seven innings in three starts. In the 11 starts he made before going on the injured list, Foltynewicz never pitched through the seventh inning.
He’s keeping hitters guessing, limiting the long ball, and having success by means of a consistent five-pitch arsenal (slider, sinker, four seamer, curveball, and changeup). This is the pitcher the Braves are in awe of. Foltynewicz looks like the ace they leaned on last season when he recorded a 2.85 ERA and 1.08 WHIP while totaling 202 strikeouts. He’s a strikeout pitcher who works out of trouble and answers the call in pivotal games.
Now, he did implode in Game 1 of the Braves’ National League Division Series matchup with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, where he surrendered four runs and two home runs through just two innings. But he bounced back, surrendering just one run through four innings in Game 4.
A year later Foltynewicz has postseason experience under his belt, knows he can’t fool around with his pitch selection in big games, and is on one of, if not the best streak of his big-league career. His success rounds out what has become a deep Braves starting rotation.
Mike Soroka has been deceptive, is averaging slightly above six innings per start, and owns a remarkable 2.60 ERA; Julio Teheran is a proven commodity who continues to evade trouble and pitch well in big moments; Dallas Keuchel brings a great deal of postseason experience to the table; Max Fried has kept the Braves in games; Sean Newcomb could be a versatile postseason threat, as he’s adept at starting and coming out of the bullpen.
With all that said, there’s a red flag or something working against all of Atlanta’s starters. Soroka is a rookie meaning he has never pitched in the postseason; Teheran doesn’t provide length and hasn’t made a postseason start since 2013; Keuchel’s command has been spotty, and he has been inconsistent this season; Fried and Newcomb put a lot of runners on base.
Right now Foltynewicz is the Braves best starting pitcher. Whenever he has taken the hill the last two months, he has performed at a high level and given the Braves a chance to win; when you have a lineup that features the likes of Ronald Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson, and Ozzie Albies, that’s all you need.
There’s a chance that Soroka fares the same way Foltynewicz did in the postseason, but this time around the Braves have starters with postseason experience, and those same individuals are pitching well. Foltynewicz turning a corner was an essential trade deadline acquisition for the Braves.
They looked poised to win the NL East and be a pennant threat back in July, but their rotation was an area of concern for when October came, and Foltynewicz was generally viewed as an afterthought at that time. His presence has given the Braves another reliable starter and, bigger than that, has alleviated some pressure off their rattly bullpen.
For Foltynewicz to turn the tide and be the Braves best pitcher since returning to the hill is remarkable. It also couldn’t have come at a better time, as he could ride his high-level performance into the NLDS — where he’s likely going to face an accomplished St. Louis Cardinals lineup which features Paul Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna, Matt Carpenter, and others.
The Braves have won the NL East for the second consecutive season and own the second-best record in the NL at 96-61. Sure, they have their potential kryptonite — like every other World Series contender — but they have the roster to go on a deep postseason run. It’s a matter of not being fazed by the postseason and playing to their strengths.
The Braves need an ace, and their 2018 lead dog is pitching like his old self. This is just what they needed.