ATLANTA -- Of the 565 players to throw a pitch in the National League this season, only four struck out more batters on breaking balls than Max Fried. In one respect, that may come as little surprise, considering the extent to which Fried’s curveball has defined him since he debuted in 2017. But it’s the development of a slider over the past three seasons that has allowed Fried to evolve into something greater.
So improved is Fried that the Braves had no hesitation in announcing him as their NL Championship Series Game 1 starter. He’ll pitch opposite likely Dodgers starter Max Scherzer on Saturday.
“It’s a significant difference than a year ago when we started this tournament,” manager Brian Snitker said of having Fried and Charlie Morton as co-aces. “I feel really good about where Max is in the season, where Charlie is and what he’s done throughout his career. I think it’s a really good feeling to know we have two guys like that that we could choose.”
Morton, the Braves’ pick for NLDS Game 1, wasn’t a candidate to pitch the NLCS opener after coming back on short rest in Game 4. As of Friday afternoon, the Braves were still deciding whether to use Morton on regular rest in NLCS Game 2, or to line him up to pitch in Games 3 and 7 (if necessary). Ian Anderson is the other candidate to start Game 2.
No matter which stratagem the Braves employ, they will rely on Fried to give them a series advantage. Fried, in turn, will rely on his breaking balls -- the curve, which he began controlling better this season in part by keeping it flatter, and the slider, which he has used more and more each season since introducing it in 2019. Combined, those two pitches resulted in 104 of Fried’s 158 strikeouts during the regular season, then three more during NLDS Game 2.
“It’s just the development of who I am as a pitcher,” Fried said.
The left-hander’s success has coincided with an overall drop in strikeout rate, as he’s become one of baseball’s best at inducing soft contact. Much of that is through his unpredictability; Fried now throws his offspeed pitches nearly as often as his fastball, which should serve him well against the Dodgers’ potent lineup. He is 8-0 with a 1.35 ERA over his past 12 starts, although the only loss the Braves suffered in those games occurred in Los Angeles on Sept. 1. Fried also took a loss and a no-decision in two starts against the Dodgers during last year’s NLCS.
“It’s just really about execution and just going out there and laying it out on the line,” Fried said. “There’s no secrets. We know each other well enough by now, and it’s just going out there and handling it between the lines.”
With regular leadoff hitter Jorge Soler set to miss the NLCS due to a COVID-19 diagnosis, Snitker acknowledged that the Braves are likely to use Dansby Swanson as their leadoff hitter throughout the series. Swanson went 1-for-5 with a leadoff double and three strikeouts in Atlanta’s NLDS Game 4 win over the Brewers, averaging 5.2 pitches per plate appearance.
“I like him up there,” Snitker said. “I’m confident in whoever we put up there. If Dansby is up there, he’ll do fine. He profiles as that kind of back-in-the-day-type leadoff hitter.”
Swanson only led off twice in the regular season for the Braves, who generally used Soler, Ozzie Albies or Joc Pederson in that role during the second half. But batting Swanson first allows Snitker to keep Albies and Pederson in run-producing spots lower in the order.
Albies, who has hit third in each of his past 16 games, should remain in that spot, while Pederson figures to slot sixth. He drove in five of Atlanta’s 12 NLDS runs despite only starting once as Soler’s replacement in Game 4.
The Dodgers won 106 games this season, the Braves just 88. That’s the largest gap in records in a best-of-seven series since the 2001 ALCS, when the 116-win Mariners lost to the 95-win Yankees.
Unlike in that series, the Braves won’t need to win on the road to steal back home-field advantage. They already have it, thanks to Major League Baseball’s lack of reseeding teams between rounds. And they’ll gladly take it. The Battery development around Truist Park was already beginning to buzz on Friday night, more than 24 hours before the start of the first NLCS games in Atlanta since 2001.
“That’s huge,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “Having Game 1 in front of our fans on a weekend -- we saw how they came out [at] 1 o’clock on a Monday. Now we’re going to get them on a Saturday night, so it’s going to be so exciting. It’s been two years for a lot of [fans]. We didn’t get to play the NLCS in front of them last year, so now we can do that and it’s going to be rocking.”
Although the Braves lost four of six to the Dodgers during the regular season, both of their wins came at Truist Park.
The Braves used 12 pitchers and 14 position players during the NLDS, giving them six men on the bench. Should Atlanta follow the same strategy in the NLCS, outfielder Cristian Pache would stand a good chance of remaining on the roster, which he joined as Soler’s replacement before NLDS Game 4.
Atlanta could also choose to proceed with a more standard five-man bench and 13 pitchers to provide bullpen depth over the course of a longer, best-of-seven series. The Braves will announce their NLCS roster on Saturday.