He was Folty again. The big smile, the big round glasses, the excited speech, a scraggly beard, and just plain effervescent. The right-handed pitcher Mike Foltynewicz referred to himself in the third person as “Folty” and “We” in an 18-minute video conference call Wednesday with Texas Rangers media. He was positively joyful at getting another crack at being a starting pitcher in the big leagues, so Foltynewicz didn’t dwell much on the Braves dropping him from their roster after only one start in 2020.
The 18 minutes seemed like one big exhale for a guy accustomed to exile in his professional baseball career.
“It’s just somewhere I know I can be comfortable and get that fresh start that some people need some times,” said the 29-year-old Foltynewicz after signing a one-year deal for 2021 with the Rangers for $2 million, plus incentives, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Foltynewicz’s career with the Braves essentially ended the night of July 27 at Tampa Bay, when he threw 70 pitches in 3-1/3 innings and gave up six earned runs in what was Game 4 of a pandemic-shortened 60-game season. In 2019 when he struggled, the Braves sent him to Triple-A Gwinnett to get himself together, and he came back with fire in his pitches down the stretch of the season. In 2020, there was no time for rehabilitation. Foltynewicz was sent to the alternate site at Gwinnett and never returned.
Asked if he was surprised to be jettisoned that quickly, Foltynewicz said, “No, a little bit, but I get both sides of it. At the same time, there’s just not as much opportunity for you at that point when a team is that good, you know, when trying to win a championship, especially in a 60-game season.
“So you know I get the point. ... They gave me plenty of chances in the past, and you know you can kind of tell when someone (thinks) it’s time to move on. It’s a business; I get all that point of it.”
The Rangers are going with a young pitching staff, and after an impressive workout for Texas and other clubs, Foltynewicz signed with the Rangers, who promised him a shot to make their starting rotation.
Foltynewicz did talk about what he thought went wrong in 2020. In March, when spring training was shut down, players went home to Atlanta. Foltynewicz said he could not stay on his weight-training regimen without equipment. He said he lost 10 pounds and the velocity on his fastball went with it. In the one start in Tampa, his fastball was 90-91, instead of 95-96.
“The quarantine hit, and you know what, I just didn’t get a chance to work out; that was about it,” he said. “The strength part, the working out, I didn’t get a chance to. All the gyms are closed, didn’t have much, you know equipment laying around and stuff like that, but we kept in shape as best we could.
“And I think, you know, that was a little reason for that velo dip. Once we got my weight back on, once I went down to Gwinnett, the velo started coming back up. Everything was fine, Spring 1.0, but once the quarantine kind of hit, it was a struggle to work out. I kept the arm in shape. The little things started to happen with mechanical-wise trying to reach for that velocity.”
Foltynewicz said he started over-throwing and then his mechanics failed. He was demoted to Gwinnett and carries some motivation, not necessarily bitterness.
“It kind of fuels you a little bit when somebody gives up on you like that,” Foltynewicz said. “We’ll just go from there. I worked my butt off in Gwinnett as best I could to try and come back and prove to everybody that wasn’t me.
“In ’20 when you throw almost 100 percent you see 90-91, when you’re used to seeing 95-96 and you keep reaching back, and reaching back, and it’s just not there. The mechanical stuff is off a little bit because you’re reaching back a little more. It’s not something fun you want to see at all.”
Who was Folty? It was hard to figure out over his 5-plus seasons with the Braves. A first-round pick of the Houston Astros and acquired in a trade before the 2015 season, Foltynewicz had what they call “stuff.” The four-seamer, the sinker, the slider. He had the makings of a top-end starter.
After a fitful three seasons (2015-17), Foltynewicz emerged in 2018 and became an All-Star. He had harnessed better that nervousness in tight spots, or after a few bad pitches, which made him speed up his delivery. Foltynewicz was 13-10 with a 2.85 ERA.
Folty regressed to start the 2019 season (2-5, 6.37 ERA) and he was kicked to Gwinnett on June 22. At the time, reports were he was there to sort out his pitches and find himself.
Foltynewicz said Wednesday it was an issue with his elbow, but he didn’t elaborate. He just decided in exile at Gwinnett to “screw it” and just throw the ball. When he returned to the Braves on Aug. 6, 2019, he was All-Star “Folty” again, going 6-1 with a 2.65 ERA over his final 11 starts.
In the best-of-five division series against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Braves down 1 game to none, Foltynewicz outdueled St. Louis ace Jack Flaherty with a remarkable seven scoreless innings (three hits, seven strikeouts). He was the first Braves pitcher to throw seven or more scoreless innings in a postseason game since Hall of Famer Tom Glavine went eight scoreless innings in Game 2 of the 2001 National League Division Series against Houston.
“I kind of got goose bumps thinking about it right now,” Foltynewicz said Wednesday. “It was electric there, you know, just to put that team on your shoulders there for a quick second ... you know, something you kind of just really dream about. Brings a smile to my face.”
A moment later he remembers how the story ends. “Game 5 overshadowed Game 2,” he said.
In the decisive Game 5 against the Cardinals, Foltynewicz and the Braves collapsed. He threw only 23 pitches, gave up seven runs, and the Braves were humiliated and eliminated from the playoffs in a 13-1 loss.
Then came 2020 and the quick hook. He stayed on the taxi squad with the Braves all the way through the 2020 playoffs, but was never called back up.
Now, Foltynewicz has a fresh start.
“I have to dig deep and get that Folty back,” he said. “Very generous and very grateful for the opportunity the Rangers are giving me right now. I have to go out and prove myself and for them to have some trust in me and prove that I can be the ’18, ’19 Folty.”