Atlanta Braves: Triple-A is the Right Place for Mike Foltynewicz, for Now


Mike Foltynewicz, one of the best prospects in the Atlanta Braves organization, was recently sent back to Triple-A. It’s the best place for him…for now.

Following the 11-3 loss to the Colorado Rockies July 12, the club’s fifth consecutive loss heading into the All-Star break, the Atlanta Braves optioned Mike Foltynewicz back to Triple-A Gwinnett.

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Foltynewicz, one of the many pitchers Atlanta president of baseball operations John Hart acquired over the off-season, has an electric fastball and above average breaking ball that helped him become the 19th overall pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft and a consensus Top 100 prospect. “Folty” been a starter the vast majority of his professional career, and shot through the Houston Astros farm system, but has struggled at the major league level.

After an up-and-down first season with the Braves (literally, as the most recent demotion marks his third stint in Gwinnett) many Braves fans are wondering whether Foltynewicz should simply be relegated to the Atlanta bullpen, perhaps even groom him as a future closer for the Braves.

It’s a fair question since Folty has the tools to work the ninth inning, but it’s not something the front office is ready to commit to – at least not yet – and for good reason.

"“We know he can do that (bullpen) role,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said in early July. “There’s no question in our minds he can do that role. But it’s an easy move for us in the organization to say, ‘Hey, you’re a bullpen piece.’ Which, for us, it could always be there. (But) let’s try to develop him as a starter, see if there’s something there. I mean, there’s not too many guys that are starting that are 96, 97 miles an hour, carrying it through seven, eight innings.“That, what we saw yesterday, for me we can do that anytime we want (with him). Why not try to develop him into a starter and give him the innings, and try to develop pitches, and see what happens? It’s hard to find major league starters at 97, 98 (mph). And this guy may or may not be able to do it. Why not take the time and effort to see if he can do it or not.”"

Still just 23 years old, Foltynewicz made his big league debut in 2014 with the Houston Astros and was a key piece in the trade that sent Evan Gattis to the American League. The right-hander was developed as a starter with the Astros and often pitched as one of the youngest players in his league. Folty didn’t dominate, but posted a decent 3.97 ERA across five minor league seasons before making 16 appearances out of the bullpen for Houston. He allowed 23 hits, seven walks and 11 earned runs for a 5.30 ERA and also struck out 14.

May 24, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Mike Foltynewicz (48) leaves the field after being removed from the game against the Milwaukee Brewers during the eighth inning at Turner Field. The Braves defeated the Brewers 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

After a disappointing spring with Atlanta (5.84 ERA, 21 hits and three home runs allowed in 12.1 innings), Foltynewicz began the year with Gwinnett and earned a quick call to the Majors with four impressive April starts in which he compiled a 2.08 ERA across 21.2 innings in which he struck out 30, walked 10 and allowed 15 hits.

Foltynewicz was serviceable in May for the big league club, and picked up wins in three of his first five starts in Atlanta – his top performance coming May 24 against the Milwaukee Brewers in which Foltynewicz allowed one earned run on just three hits and one walk and struck out seven in 7.2 strong innings.

Unfortunately, Folty struggled mightily in three consecutive starts in early June – a period in which he allowed 14 earned runs, including four homers, on 29 hits in just 15.2 innings. Opponents hit .403 during that stretch. Not surprisingly, the Braves sent him back to Gwinnett.

Foltynewicz allowed seven earned runs in six innings in his first start back in Triple-A, but allowed only four earned runs combined over his next three starts to prompt his second call-up, and this time he worked out of the bullpen. In 2.2 innings across three appearances, Folty allowed two earned runs on six hits and one walk.

Putting the 6-foot-4, 220-pound righty in the bullpen was a brief exercise for the Braves primarily to give the ball club flexibility in the week leading up to the All-Star break.

But why not leave him there? Why send Folty to Gwinnett when he can help the Braves win games now, especially since the team has one of the worst bullpens in the Majors? For starters, Foltynewicz has a lot of work to do before he can help the Braves in Atlanta, and he needs more innings to work through his struggles – even if his future is in fact as a reliever, or even the team’s closer.

Folty certainly has the stuff to be a closer candidate. With an explosive fastball (clocked as high as 99 miles per hour in his most recent big league appearance and sits in the mid 90s), Foltynewicz has struck out 19.8% of the minor leaguers he has faced to date. His slider and curveball are swing-and-miss options and his changeup is improving as well.

However, for those that see Foltynewicz as a future closer and compare him to starters-turned-closers like Yankees closer Dellin Betances and Trevor Rosenthal, Folty will need to do a much better job getting out left-handed hitters.

With Atlanta this season, lefties are hitting a robust .351/.397/.568 with four home runs in 120 plate appearances. The numbers aren’t much better in Triple-A, either. In 79 plate appearances, left-handed hitters are hitting .304/.392/.478 against Folty with three home runs.

A pitcher’s performance in less than 200 matchups certainly are not enough to determine whether or not he is capable of – but an inability to get left-handed hitters will not only make it difficult to stay in a Major League starting rotation, it will also make it very difficult to stay in the big leagues, period.

Plus, franchises with a history of success in rebuilding mode like the Oakland Athletics, Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays have taught us, there’s no sense in prioritizing to install a dominant closer before the team is ready to contend for the postseason. Since Atlanta is likely to be a seller at the trade deadline and out of the playoff race by September, it makes sense to keep Folty in the rotation in order to pitch as many innings as possible.

Mike Foltynewicz is just 23 years old, and with two option years remaining after this season, there’s still plenty of time to see if Folty develops. If he doesn’t, there will still be a spot for him in the bullpen when the team is in the hunt again in 2016 or 2017.

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