After breakout '20, Fried seeks more success

February 20th, 2021

Max Fried established himself as a legitimate Major League starter as he developed a slider during the 2019 season. His continued improvement of the pitch took him to another level last year, when he proved to be one of the game’s toughest pitchers to hit.

“Max is going to be a guy that is going to put himself in Cy Young conversations probably for the rest of his career,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s come a long way. He’s a very disciplined and dedicated young man.”

This year, Fried has come to Spring Training confident in his ability to build off his 2020 success. The 27-year-old left-hander went 7-0 with a 2.25 ERA over 11 regular-season starts and finished fifth in National League Cy Young Award voting. He limited opponents to a .211 batting average and a .332 slugging percentage.

In other words, Fried was much more effective than he was in 2019, when he posted a 4.02 ERA while allowing opponents to hit .270 with a .419 slugging percentage.

“As far as numbers, the one I was more or less happy with was the one that showed when I took the mound, we were in a really good position to win,” Fried said. “I knew when I took the ball, we had to go out and win that day.”

While Freddie Freeman might have been last year’s NL MVP Award winner, it can be argued the Braves wouldn’t have won a third straight NL East title or advanced to Game 7 of the NL Championship Series without Fried's contributions, especially after ace Mike Soroka sustained a season-ending right Achilles tendon tear on Aug. 3.

The Braves won 10 of Fried's 11 regular-season starts and three of his four postseason outings. His lone postseason loss came in Game 6 of the NLCS. He gave up solo home runs to Corey Seager and Justin Turner during a three-run first inning, then held the Dodgers scoreless over the remainder of his 6 2/3-inning effort.

“Any time you can kind of get experience and learn from it and see what you did well and what you need to work on, it’s only going to make things better in the long run,” Fried said.

Through the early stages of Fried’s career, he has proven willing and capable of making the changes necessary to progress on an annual basis. The development of his slider from the 2019 season has enriched his impressive curveball and provided him a weapon that frequently frustrates hitters.

Fried’s strikeout rate dropped slightly (from 24.6 percent to 22.3) in 2020, and his walk rate went up a tick (from 6.7 percent to 8.5). But opponents struggled to square up many of his pitches.

According to Statcast, Fried ranked second among all qualified pitchers with 3.3 percent barrels per batted-ball event, recording an 83.4 mph average exit velocity. Of the 151 balls put in play against him, only 37 were hit at 95 mph or harder. That equated to an MLB-best 24.5 percent hard-hit rate.

This wasn’t completely uncharted waters for Fried, who tied new teammate Charlie Morton, Jacob deGrom and Marcus Stroman with an MLB-best 3.0 barrels per plate appearance in 2019.

But during the shortened 60-game 2020 season, Fried made fewer big mistakes than he had the previous year.

While giving up a career-high 21 homers in 165 2/3 innings in 2019, Fried allowed a home run on 20.2 percent of fly balls hit against him. He gave up only two home runs over 56 regular-season innings last year, with only 4.9 percent of fly balls hit against him leaving the yard.

Fried posted a 1.60 ERA through his first eight starts, then tweaked his lower back while allowing a season-high three runs over five innings against the Nationals on Sept. 5. He missed nearly two weeks before returning to throw five strong innings against the Mets on Sept. 18.

Unfortunately for Fried, his last postseason tune-up proved to be short. He turned his right ankle while fielding a bunt to record the game’s second out against the Marlins on Sept. 23. But before exiting after one inning, he gave up back-to-back solo homers, the only home runs he allowed all season.

Of course, the back-to-back homers Seager and Turner hit off Fried during the NLCS proved to be much more damaging. But they didn’t completely damper a season that proved the southpaw is capable of ranking among the game’s elite pitchers for many years to come.

“I still think I need to get way more consistent with executing pitches,” Fried said. “I feel like I got a lot better last year. It’s just getting back to attacking hitters, staying ahead and being more aggressive. If I can execute my pitches, I know I’ll have way more success than when I don’t.”