Here’s one you wouldn’t have seen coming when the Atlanta Braves broke camp: Mike Foltynewicz, 2018 All-Star, demoted to Triple-A on June 23, 2019. If, however, you’d watched Foltynewicz — who began the season on the injured list due to elbow issues — pitch over these past two months … well, maybe you would’ve.
Here’s as inexact a diagnosis as can be offered, but he hasn’t looked right. After his first couple of starts, some of us who track the Braves for a living were convinced — or as convinced as folks working without benefit of MRI results — that his elbow was still infirm. Foltynewicz and the Braves would deny it, but we lay orthopedists weren’t convinced. (For a small honorarium, I’ll be happy to stop by your house and take a look at your creaky knee.)
The warning light was his strikeouts, or the lack of same. He has never been, and won’t ever be, confused with Greg Maddux. And that’s OK, assuming the power pitcher is, er, pitching powerfully. Last season, the All-Star Foltynewicz averaged 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings; this year, the newly minted Gwinnett Striper averaged 7.6.
His four-seam fastball — all these numbers per Brooks Baseball — had dipped from an average of 96.8 mph last season to 95.23. When a pitcher with a big fastball suffers a pronounced dip in velocity, he compensates by throwing more sliders. Trouble was, the Foltynewicz slider also saw a lessening — from 87.21 mph to 86.25. Not to go all Dr. Frank Jobe on you, but when everything that comes out of your hand comes out less fast, something’s amiss.
Now for the compelling evidence. (This is where I doff my doctor’s cap and don my Perry Mason fedora.) Hitters slugged .436 against Foltynewicz’s four-seamer last season; this year they’re slugging .712. Hitters slugged .183 — which is unbelievably low — against his slider in 2018; this year they’re at .585. His two best pitches, or at least the two that used to be his best, were getting destroyed.
And it’s not that he’s walking the ballpark. His walks per nine innings are slightly down. Opponents batted .195 and slugged .324 against him in 2018; in 2019, they’re batting .275 and slugging .554. Last season he averaged 0.55 home runs per start; this year it’s 1.73.
Watch the replays of some recent homers off him, and Foltynewicz’s reaction is telling: He throws a pitch; the pitch gets launched, and his response is a theatrical shrug born of denial — he can’t believe it just happened again — and frustration. He doesn’t know what’s wrong, and he and the Braves haven’t been able to fix it. It could be his arm. It could be mechanics. It could be psychological. It could be anything.
After Saturday’s start, in which Foltynewicz yielded eight earned runs in four innings, he told reporters: “I’ve got a 7-ERA on a first-place team.” (Close. He’s at 6.37.) Then: “It’s all my fault.”
The latter part mightn’t be true. The Braves employ pitching coaches — and real doctors — to prevent such things from happening. But baseball, as we’re invariably reminded, is weird. Not once in 31 starts last season did Foltynewicz surrender eight earned runs. He has done it twice in 11 turns this year.
Here’s something that might tell us everything. A team that’s creative beyond belief in stashing underperforming pitchers on the injured list — to wit: Kevin Gausman, plantar fasciitis — chose not to go that route with Foltynewicz. This suggests that the Braves could find no medical reason for what’s ailing him. This suggests the Braves simply got fed up with the man who was the No. 1 starter on the 2018 National League East champions, which is remarkable.
It’s not with precedent, mind you. On July 4, 2008, the Braves sent Jeff Francoeur — who’d driven in 100-plus runs in 2006 and 2007 and who, in 2005, hailed been hailed by Sports Illustrated as “The Natural” — to Double-A. He was back four days later after Omar Infante was disabled, but while in Mississippi he described himself as feeling “betrayed.”
On July 27, 2017, the Braves demoted Dansby Swanson, who’d been featured on Cobb County billboards as the face/hair of the relocated franchise, to Gwinnett. His first game in Triple-A came in Syracuse. He offered the barest of responses when greeted by a touring typist — i.e., me — en route to Cooperstown. “Everything you’d ask,” he said, “you probably know what my answer would be.” Swanson’s Gwinnett stint lasted two weeks, ending when Johan Camargo — who’d taken the shortstop spot from him — was injured.
Swanson suffered no ill effects from the downward detour. He has basically been the starting shortstop since and is now a fixture. His three-run homer Saturday enabled the Braves to beat the Nationals and leave eight-run Folty with a no-decision. Francouer was less sanguine. Relations between him and the team were never the same. He was traded to the Mets for Ryan Church a year later. (Today Francouer is the Braves’ No. 1 television analyst.)
Earlier this year, Sean Newcomb — who’d held a rotational spot since his big-league arrival in June 2017 — was sent to Triple-A. He returned as a reliever/spot starter. He appears to have accepted his role, which might again be subject to change with the absence of Foltynewicz. But we stipulate that neither Francouer nor Swanson nor Newcomb had been a big-league All-Star when sent down. Foltynewicz has. And even if he believes this is indeed all his fault, going from 5-star hotels to Courtyard by Marriott is a jolt. There’s no room service at Courtyard.
Long-term, the Braves have not given up on Foltynewicz. He’s too talented, and they’ve got way too much invested in him. (Yes, Dallas Keuchel is in the rotation, but his contract lapses in November.) That said, a first-place team just threw up its hands and said of the man who not long ago qualified as its best pitcher, “We don’t know what else to do with him.” And it shipped him to Gwinnett.
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