Maxing out his potential, Fried fired up for Braves’ opening-day start

When Reggie Smith, a seven-time All-Star outfielder with Boston, St. Louis and the Dodgers back in the day, grades the young players he instructs, he goes by what he calls his S-A-T scores.

“Smart,” he said.

“Athletic.”

“And Tough.”

“Max Fried,” Smith concludes, “has all of that.”

The relationship between the now-75-year-old position player and the 27-year-old Braves starter dates to when Fried was just learning which end of the bat to hold in his earliest Little League days back in Encino, Calif. Smith still runs his baseball academy out of that same park where he befriended Fried and his family. The two maintain that mentor-mentee relationship.

As Fried said last year before facing his hometown Dodgers in the NLCS, “From a young age, I was able to kind of learn my baseball knowledge from Reggie.”

This gives Smith a longer-range view of the evolution of Fried, who the Braves will send out Thursday to set the tone and send a message as their opening-day starter in Philadelphia. Here it is important to know that Fried just didn’t drop out of the heavens fully formed as this team’s alpha starter for 2021. It required years of applying that high S-A-T score to the task.

When he came to the Braves, Fried was still a year away from recovering from Tommy John surgery. That was late 2014, in a trade with San Diego that sent Justin Upton back west. He’d spend the next couple years in the minors acquiring a relationship with the strike zone, getting a brief taste of the bigs in 2018. He’d contend with a confounding issue of blisters on his pitching hand that would knock him back just as he seemed to be getting some professional traction. Spring training of 2019 turned out to be an awakening.

Brian McCann, the elder Braves catcher who returned for a last hometown hoorah, had a message for the youngster. It went something like: There is zero reason you should ever see the minor leagues again. Not with your stuff (stuff defined here as a mid-90s fastball and a curveball that simply gaslights major league hitters).

That same spring, Fried began trying to fold a slider into his repertoire. The Braves weren’t sure. But Fried was resolute, bringing to bear some of the smarts and toughness. “I’ll never forget the day he brought the slider into camp,” Braves pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. “There was concern about whether the slider was going to do to his curveball. We had that conversation with him that maybe we should maybe hold off on that a little bit. He said I’m 25 years old, and this is what I need to do. I said, well, let’s go.” The pitch is becoming an important piece of his armory.

And now look at him. Fried has 50 major league starts behind him, four more in the postseason, a Gold Glove and now an opening-day assignment. Through his first 50 games, Fried is 26-11 with a 3.52 ERA. Another rather famed Braves lefthander, Tom Glavine, went 14-21 with a 4.27 ERA in his first 50 starts. Even allowing for a difference in age – Glavine was 23 when he made his 50th start – and difference in overall team quality – the Braves were awful in the late ’80s when Glavine arrived – it’s a comparison useful for underscoring just how thoroughly Fried has been mining his potential.

For Braves manager Brian Snitker, “It’s been really neat to be here through this whole run with him and watch him mature and become the pitcher that he is.”

For Kranitz, “It’s nice to see him come into his own, learn how to make adjustments and see them actually work for him. It’s a wonderful thing when a pitcher is starting to do that. It’s very rewarding for me.”

For Smith, who knew Fried when, “It is pretty much everything I expected. Max is doing now is what he is capable of doing.”

With Mike Soroka still working his way back from Achilles repair, and with Fried reporting to Florida this spring dominant from the first jumping jack, there was no mystery as to who the Braves would anoint their opening-day starter. Thursday marks another natural progression in the development of an increasingly dangerous arm.

An opening-day start is “something that you dream about and work for,” Fried said late last week after Snitker gave him the news.

“To actually have him walk up to me and tell me was pretty special,” he said.

The realization of what he could be as a pitcher didn’t exactly strike him, as a bolt of lightning, one day in his youth. As Smith remembers it, “In the beginning, Max didn’t know how good he was, how good he could be. There were times when he didn’t do well, he would be confused. We had breakthroughs in realizing failure is a part of playing the game. You can’t let it stop you from what you’re ultimately going to be able to achieve in the game.”

That process is ongoing. Little remembered is that Fried also appeared in the Braves 2019 opener. But that time it was a last-inning cameo appearance.

The difference in two seasons can be striking. “Then it was more I felt like I was trying to get my bearings and figure out who I was as far as a pitcher, trying to find an identity,” Fried said. “I was still trying to figure things out. Going through it, I feel way more established, more grounded, more confident in who I am and what I do as a pitcher. I’m excited to make the most of it, take the experience of the past and grow from it.”

“We started seeing the three-run and four-run innings end up as one-run innings. Keeping the damage to a minimum, that’s when it started, that’s when his confidence started building,” Kranitz said.

The evolution isn’t complete, by the way.

When asked, somewhat facetiously, about being a wily veteran now who should be transitioning into a position of leadership on the Braves, Fried didn’t jump at the proposition. Maybe all that will be for the next improved version of himself.

“I still feel like I have a lot to learn,” he said. “I definitely want to be there for teammates. If anyone has any questions, I’m more than happy to help. But we have a lot of tenured guys who have a lot more experience than I do. I don’t know about whole wily veteran description.”

In the here and now, Fried has worked his way into one of great all-time opening-day footnotes. He will be one of three pitchers from the same high school – Harvard-Westlake near L.A. – starting Thursday. The others are St. Louis’ Jack Flaherty and Lucas Giolito of the Chicago White Sox. Go Wolverines!

More and more as his career evolves, Fried is keeping great company.

A SoCal kid with a firm grasp of local history, Fried wore No. 32 in high school in homage to the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax. Both Jewish, both of the left-handed persuasion, both harder to beat than Caesar’s Palace, it was a natural fit. And a heartening one as well, such old-school respect being harder and harder to find.

No. 54 for the Braves, Fried is light years from Koufax’s legend, of course. But here’s a morsel sure to please him: When Fried goes to the mound Thursday afternoon for the first time as an opening-day pitcher, he will have equaled Koufax’s career total of opening-day assignments. Some guy named Drysdale kept getting in his way.

On Thursday, he’s scheduled to face an ace making his fourth consecutive opening-day start, the Phillies’ Aaron Nola. Another step for Fried, another grand opportunity to publicly compare S-A-T scores.