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This emerging ace deserves Cy attention

@DKramer_
September 4, 2020

Max Fried has become the peskiest pitcher in the Majors. No, Atlanta’s budding ace doesn’t wow with 93 mph sliders like Jacob deGrom or rack up a 40-plus-percent strikeout rate like Shane Bieber. Nor does he have a 10-pitch mix like Yu Darvish or the high heat to waste away

Max Fried has become the peskiest pitcher in the Majors.

No, Atlanta’s budding ace doesn’t wow with 93 mph sliders like Jacob deGrom or rack up a 40-plus-percent strikeout rate like Shane Bieber. Nor does he have a 10-pitch mix like Yu Darvish or the high heat to waste away hitters like Gerrit Cole.

Yet standard and advanced metrics suggest that Fried is just as good as any ace in the game right now -- and literally no hitter can square him up.

Fried enters Saturday’s start against the Nationals having faced 174 hitters -- and zero of them have taken him deep. He’s the only pitcher among 48 qualified starters who’s yet to allow a home run.

Given the dearth of the Braves’ rotation -- which lost Mike Soroka to season-ending Achilles surgery, has yet to get a start from Cole Hamels and whose only addition at the Trade Deadline was an aging Tommy Milone (who gave up eight runs in his Atlanta debut) -- a valid case could be made that no starting pitcher has been more valuable to his team this season than Fried has been for the Braves.

Atlanta, in first place by two games over surging Philly, is undefeated when Fried takes the mound and barely over .500 behind every other starter.

“You’re just seeing the totality of a young pitcher coming together with the experience, more innings and the whole package,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.

Most Wins Above Replacement*, 2020
1-T) Mookie Betts (LAD): 2.8
2-T) Max Fried (ATL): 2.7
2-T) Zach Gallen (ARI): 2.7
4) Shane Bieber (CLE): 2.6
5) Fernando Tatis Jr. (SD): 2.3
*per Baseball-Reference

Fried has always had the lofty hype as a first-round Draft pick in 2016, and this isn’t exactly a “breakout,” given that he racked up 17 wins in ’19 and was a critical cog in the Braves’ run to their second straight National League East crown.

But in 2020, Fried has been Atlanta’s linchpin. If the Braves hope to three-peat the division title, it will hinge on Fried more than any player.

The Braves will tell you that this is the Fried they’ve long envisioned -- one who is starting to truly figure out this league and who will be a staple in their rotation for years. The eye test and analytics suggest that he’s become a complete pitcher. Here’s how and why:

He doesn’t throw hittable pitches

Fried won’t regularly overpower with high-90s velocity but he doesn’t have to, yet he's become far more than a "crafty lefty."

His Clayton Kershaw-esque curveball is enough to keep hitters honest, and he's also not had to unveil that hook until at the very earliest the second time through the lineup.

Here’s why: Improved fastball location, and the addition of a slider.

Last season, opposing hitters were teeing off on Fried’s fastball to a .316 batting average and .459 slugging percentage. His velocity hasn’t risen in 2020 -- it hovers at 93 mph but he can dial it up to 96 mph -- yet seemingly no one can hit it. This year, batters are averaging .188 and slugging .266 against it.

Why? Fried is punching his heater inside to righties with precision, especially early in counts, and he’s kept lefties honest on the outside.

“I was able to work really hard over the offseason and during the time off that we had [during quarantine] to just try and focus on the location than the actual stuff,” Fried said. “They’ve got to stay on your fastball, so the more that I’m able to locate that fastball, it’s going to play better to my advantage.”

The location improvement has set up what’s become Fried’s newest pitch: the slider that everyone in Atlanta is talking about.

Fried installed his slider in 2019 after offseason consultations with former high school teammates Jack Flaherty (who is also blossoming into one of MLB’s best pitchers) and Lucas Giolito (who just threw the first no-hitter of 2020).

“Last year, it was more just locating and trying to get comfortable with it,” Fried said. “The first year I brought it in, I really brought it in Spring Training and the more that I got throughout the year, I just got more comfortable throwing it in different spots. It’s a pitch that I know that I can go to now.”

By becoming more of a fastball-slider pitcher, Fried is keeping hitters off balance, can pitch deeper into games and wait to unveil that devastating curve his last time through before turning it over to Atlanta’s high-caliber bullpen.

Fried has 43 strikeouts this season -- 14 apiece on the fastball, slider, and curve. His pitch mix has become a diverse portfolio.

“I’m definitely feeling confident,” Fried said. “I feel like every time I go out there, I have an idea of where my pitches are going.”

Does this trajectory sound familiar? Maybe like the guy who's curveball Fried's resembles?

Like Fried, Kershaw broke into the Majors incredibly skilled but far from a finished product. He had the curve (coined by Vin Scully as "Public Enemy No. 1") and the heater, but not much else. Hitters could spit on that big hook and wait for him to throw fastballs over the plate. It wasn't until Kershaw began turning to his slider more in 2011 that he proceeded to become the greatest pitcher of his generation.

Now, we're not saying Fried is going to transform into Kershaw. But the parallels -- a lefty with good but not overwhelming velocity who locates well, has a big nasty hook and whose career took off after adding a slider -- are intriguing.

"The kid has had a big upside talent-wise with the arm, the ability to spin the ball," Snitker said. "He added the slider two springs ago. The ability to change speeds. You’re just seeing a young guy getting more experience, more confidence in himself and I think once they do that, it’s, ‘I belong here. I can pitch here.’ And then all of the sudden they start learning to play the game. He’s learning about pitching and making pitches and having confidence in his ability."

No hitter is touching him

Even when opposing hitters are making contact against Fried, it’s essentially turned into a field day for the Braves’ infield. Given the nature of his pitches and velocity, Fried induces ground balls 56.5% of the time, and thanks to Statcast, we can further illuminate just how weak that contact is.

Lowest average exit velocity allowed, SP, 2020
1) Ryan Yarbrough (TB) 82.9 mph
2) Jordan Montgomery (NYY): 83.6 mph
3) Kyle Freeland (COL): 84.3 mph
4) Max Fried (ATL): 84.4 mph
5) Luis Castillo (CIN): 84.6 mph

Taking it further, and again, with the context that he hasn’t given up a homer, Fried rarely allows a true scorcher. Statcast defines anything off the bat 95 mph as hard-hit, and only 27% of the balls in play against Fried have been classified as such, which puts him in the 94th percentile this season.

In fact, Fried ranks near the top in just about every quality of contact metric for pitchers:

His value can't be overstated

Yes, Bieber is pitching at a historic strikeout level, but the Indians were confident enough with the rest of their roster to trade ace-level starter Mike Clevinger. Darvish is dazzling in a way the Cubs had always hoped, and deGrom is well in the mix to win his third straight Cy Young Award.

But with just three weeks left in the regular season, Fried deserves as much of a seat at the table when discussing awards hardware.

Fried's stats | MLB ranks
WAR: 2.6 (1st-tied)
Wins: 6 (1st-tied)
Win %: 1.000 (1st-tied)
ERA: 1.60 (3rd)
ERA+: 298 (3rd) league average is 100
WHIP: 1.000 (14th)
Innings: 45 (11th)
Strikeout rate: 24.7% (21st)

The Braves have been in first place since Aug. 15, but they have a bevy of roster concerns, chiefly within their rotation. No. 3 prospect Ian Anderson has been stellar, but in all of two starts. Beyond Fried and Anderson, who knows what October will hold?

Beyond the Braves’ rotation voids, All-Stars Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies have also missed 13 and 25 games, respectively, with injuries. After Soroka went down, Fried seized the Braves’ baton and sprinted with it into first place. Just ask Freddie Freeman.

“When you lose Mike Soroka after three starts, and how [Fried] has stepped up, I’ve been saying for a few years how special that left arm is,” Freeman said. “You saw it last year, and now he’s really putting it together. We wouldn’t be here without Max.”

Daniel Kramer is a reporter for MLB.com based in Seattle. Follow him on Twitter at @DKramer_.