The Braves' X-factor is back just in time

October 8th, 2023

Ronald Acuña Jr. led MLB in stolen bases. Matt Olson led MLB in home runs. Spencer Strider led the Majors in strikeouts. The Braves led MLB in wins. What more could Atlanta add to the juggernaut it created?

Oh, right, its World Series-winning ace.

is back and was great down the stretch. He just got buried under the Braves' mountain of 2023 star power.

Assuming Fried has put his finger blister issue behind him entering his showdown with Phillies ace Zack Wheeler in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, he can be the X-factor for Atlanta this postseason -- or, at least, the Braves' stopper, after they dropped Game 1 at home.

Fried, who clinched the Braves' 2021 championship with a scoreless gem against the Astros, has a fresh arm and has been in playoff form from the moment he returned to the Braves rotation in August.

"I'm feeling really good. I feel strong," Fried said at his pre-start press conference on Saturday. "Obviously don't have too many innings on my arm this year. So I'm just getting excited to get back out there and leave it all out there and just go to battle with my guys."

Fried went 6-0 with a 2.79 ERA and 55 strikeouts in his nine starts over the final two months of the regular season. He doesn't post his co-ace Strider's otherworldly strikeout numbers, but Fried is a master at inducing poor contact.

Fried's quality of contact allowed, coupled with his excellent strikeout and walk rates (25.7% strikeout rate vs. a 5.8% walk rate), gave him an expected ERA of 2.75, according to Statcast. That was the lowest among National League starters.

Lowest expected ERA, NL SP, 2023

  1. Max Fried: 2.75
  2. Brandon Woodruff: 2.86
  3. Spencer Strider: 3.04
  4. Joe Musgrove: 3.16
  5. Zack Wheeler: 3.21

Fried's strikeout numbers are still quite good. Better than usual, in fact -- he struck out over a batter per inning for the first time since 2019. But his real strength is that 1) He doesn't give up hard contact, and 2) He doesn't give up air contact. So his opponents can't do damage against him.

Let's break down four standout numbers for Fried.

  • Average exit velocity allowed: 86.5 mph (91st percentile of MLB)

Fried generated the fourth-lowest exit velocity among starters this year. Only soft-contact maestro Kyle Hendricks and aces Shohei Ohtani and Corbin Burnes were ahead of him.

Fried has ranked among the top 10% of pitchers league wide in exit velocity allowed for four straight seasons. He's not the easiest pitcher to make contact against to begin with, and he's superbly consistent at inducing soft contact when hitters do put the ball in play.

  • Hard-hit rate allowed: 32.7% (88th percentile of MLB)

Fried's hard-hit rate allowed is the corollary to his exit velo. Less than a third of the batted balls Fried allowed in the regular season were hit 95 mph or harder, Statcast's threshold for hard contact. In his last four seasons going back to 2020, he's ranked in the 82nd percentile of MLB pitchers or better in hard-hit rate.

  • Barrel rate allowed: 3.8% (95th percentile of MLB)

The worst type of contact a pitcher can allow is a barrel, which is a ball hit with both optimal exit velocity and launch angle; barrels are what turn into home runs and extra-base hits. Fried is among the best at preventing hitters from barreling the ball.

In fact, he was the best starting pitcher at preventing barrels this season, with just eight barrels allowed on the 211 total batted balls against him. And since Fried became a full-time starter in 2019, this is his fourth season in the 92nd percentile or better of Major League pitches in barrel rate allowed.

SP with lowest barrel rate allowed, 2023 

  1. Max Fried: 3.8%
  2. Tarik Skubal: 4.2%
  3. Steven Matz: 4.7%
  4. Marcus Stroman: 5.0%
  5. Zack Wheeler / Joe Musgrove / José Quintana: 5.1%
  • Ground-ball rate induced: 59.2% (97th percentile of MLB)

This is a big one for Fried in 2023. He induced the highest ground-ball rate of his career as a starting pitcher. That was coupled with a career-low 19.0% line-drive rate allowed, and of course, the fewer line drives a pitcher allows, the better.

Fried's ground-ball rate was the second-highest among starting pitchers, and he's surrounded by noted ground-ball specialists on that leaderboard.

SP with highest ground-ball rate, 2023

  1. Logan Webb: 62.7%
  2. Max Fried: 59.2%
  3. Alex Cobb: 57.8%
  4. Cristopher Sánchez: 57.7%
  5. Marcus Stroman: 57.4%

Fried's changeup, which he threw a career-high 16.5% of the time in the regular season, was particularly effective as a ground-ball pitch. More than two-thirds of the contact against his changeup stayed on the ground. Fried's new sweeper was also excellent at forcing grounders in a small sample.

Fried will need to have all his weapons working against a Phillies team that beat him in the playoffs last year. But if he does, he's the type of pitcher who can put the World Series favorites back in the driver's seat.

"There are no secrets. I think I've faced this Phillies team just about more than anyone in my career," Fried said. "They know what I have. I know what they have. There's no secrets. It's just toeing the rubber and executing and throwing the pitches that I need to."