Max Fried and the Braves’ Risk Tolerance

Max Fried is a dude again.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that it is so. Being a dude in baseball is much preferable to being just a guy.

After a lengthy rehab from Tommy John surgery and a shaky return, Fried finished the 2016 minor-league season by striking out 44 against seven walks in 25 innings over his final four starts. He touched 97 mph and the knee-melting curveball was back. According to the reviews out of Braves camp, he has picked up this spring where he left off in the fall:

You might recall that Fried was once the second-best pitcher on his high-school team, behind staff ace Lucas Giolito, but was talented enough to go seventh overall in the 2012 draft.

After an encouraging start to his career, ranked 53rd in Baseball America’s preseason rankings in 2014, Fried required Tommy John surgery in August of that season. Despite the surgery, the Braves wanted him included as a key piece in a trade that sent Justin Upton to San Diego four months later.

Fried is emblematic of the Braves’ approach to and acceptance of risk under president John Hart. All three of the Braves’ first-round picks during the Hart regime have been high-school pitchers. Twelve of their first 14 picks in the 2015 draft were pitchers, and seven of their first eight picks in 2016 were pitchers. Maybe pitchers were just often the best player on their board, but it feels like a strategy was implemented. Kolby Allard (No. 37), Mike Soroka (No. 48), Ian Anderson (No. 66) and Sean Newcomb (No. 78) are all arms drafted or acquired by the Braves to rank in Baseball America’s top-100 list this spring. The list doesn’t include Fried, who has perhaps the most upside of them all.

As the sport deals with an epidemic of pitching-related injuries and Tommy John surgeries, as clubs like the Chicago Cubs have used premium picks to draft position players and seemingly become more risk averse with regard to amateur arms, the Braves have gone in the opposite direction, loading up on arms and risk.

The club, of course, understands the perils associated with young arms. I interviewed Hart when he was still at MLB Network for a story about the Pirates’ historic commitment to prep arms in the draft.

“A truism is if you have 10, you can really count on two of them making it,” Hart said. “I came up in the (1980s) and never believed it. I said, ‘Come on, there can’t be that much attrition.’ Then bang: This guy gets hurt. This guy doesn’t develop a third pitch. … You can never have enough pitching.”

What’s also interesting about this quality-from-quantity approach is that the Braves have been so pitching-focused despite leading baseball in Tommy John surgeries since 2005. But this is, of course, a relatively new front-office group. The organization parted ways with long-time pitching coach Roger McDowell in November, and while one individual can hardly be blamed for the injuries, it is perhaps a signal of a different philosophy in the club’s handling of pitchers.

For instance, the new leadership group has exhibited a more conservative approach with return-to-action timetables. Fried didn’t pitch at all in 2015 and went nearly 21 months between minor-league starts.

Wrote David O’Brien for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

He was held out the entire 2015 season by the Braves, whose current front office errs on the side of caution with prospects coming off surgeries. They now add months to typical rehab periods, after the Braves of the past had pitchers Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy and Jonny Venters get re-injured following Tommy John surgery and 12-14 month rehabs.

“It was a long time,” Fried said. “The two-year rehab process and on top of that, just my little scuffles at the beginning (of the season), trying to find myself again after so much time off. It’s definitely been a journey, but it’s something I wouldn’t trade because I’ve learned so much about myself and what I need to do in times of either adversity or just trying to find yourself again.”

For some time, at least anecdotally, it seemed like the medical and athletic industries’ focus was on reducing return-to-play timetables. Now, more and more, teams seem interested in player rest and efficiency, while perhaps erring on the side of caution with regard to returns.

The Braves seem likely to benefit from a conservative approach for the moment, given not only their wealth of young arms but also the modest expectations of the major-league club in 2017.

Hart knows the danger and risk in loading up on young arms, as he recounted some history in speaking with me two years ago:

“Remember the Mets with the Big Three? With (Paul) Wilson and (Bill) Pulsipher and (Jason) Isringhausen, that whole group?” Hart said. “Some years, some development systems, it works out better. For some others, it doesn’t work out at all.”

Will the arms the Braves are collecting turn out more like the Atlanta staffs of the 1990s, or the Generation K Mets of the early 1990s who never fulfilled expectations? We’ll have to wait and see. But as we’ve seen through Fried’s finish to 2016 and an early snapshot of electric stuff this spring, perhaps a recipe of significant risk tolerance, combined with a volume of arms, and a conservative development approach is the right formula in creating the next quality Braves rotation, and yet another successful rebuild led by Hart.

We hoped you liked reading Max Fried and the Braves’ Risk Tolerance by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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mike sixel
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Member
mike sixel

It’s easy to draft only hitters high (like the Cubs), if you have the money to sign big time FAs…..other teams have to draft pitchers, right?

A team needs more pitchers than any other position, I’d think loading up on them makes a lot of sense.

brood550
Member
brood550

The price of all pitching has been increasing. But relief pitching is still relatively cheap. Why stock up on future pen arms when you can stock up on hitters that can play multiple positions and have a higher chance of success? More success means more value even if they are blocked at the major league level. You can always trade for other pieces later. I like taking the safer bet.

timmer
Member
timmer

I think the “value is value” thing is useful here. The Cubs don’t have to sign big time FA pitchers (though of course they have and will likely continue to do so), they can also trade from their stable of hitters for the pitchers that make it through the minor league gauntlet without breaking down. If it’s truly “easy” to draft hitters high, then most teams should do it because you basically want as much value as you can accumulate and then you can deal for need.

JediHoyer
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JediHoyer

This. The cubs could acquire Quintana without even using Baez as a chip. Take away jay, montero, heyward and their position players cost under 30 mil this year.

Baltar
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Member
Baltar

I couldn’t agree more. I just looked at Eric’s Atlanta Top 20 list. Wow! The Braves are doing something right.

victorvran
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victorvran

Perhaps I’m missing your point, but isn’t it also really expensive to sign big time FA position players?

Are you saying they are easier to find in non-high picks, that they are less important to the success of a team, that a rotation requires big time fa pitchers but a team doesn’t require big time free agent position players or something else that I’m completely missing here.

mike sixel
Member
Member
mike sixel

I’m suggesting/asking that the Cubs have the money to sign big time FAs, so they can pass on worrying about drafting pitchers early and load up on college hitters (who are less risky). A team like the Twins probably can never afford to outbid the big teams for the top FA pitchers, so they need to take chances on pitching early (or get lucky late in the draft).

victorvran
Member
victorvran

I guess I’m still left wondering why it matters whether it is pitchers or hitters then. The twins can’t outbid the big teams and sign big time free agent position players either. Why is it a bigger deal for pitchers than it is for hitters?

JediHoyer
Member
JediHoyer

The twins are carrying mauers contract, they signed Santana to decent money. Basically all teams can afford one big contract. Talented pre arb and arb players is all teams want and need.

mike sixel
Member
Member
mike sixel

I’ll reply to mine, since a couple asked kind of the same question….can you really just trade hitters for pitchers? At some point, unless you are the best drafters ever, you will run out of trade chips, I’d think. I’m not dissing the Cubs, I wish that my team would act more like them. I just think that implying that the Cubs are more risk averse is not necessarily true. I mean, was taking Kris Bryant about taking a hitter, or about taking a great hitter who should have been taken there?

victorvran
Member
victorvran

Their front office has drafted position players with their first round pick every year since they’ve been in control of the draft (Almora, Bryant, Schwarber, and Happ) then gone rather pitching heavy the rest of the way. It seems like a rather deliberate strategy to grab hitters at the top then go for a quantity approach to pitching with later picks. I guess you can argue whether this actually makes them risk adverse, personally I think it does though.

I could be mistaken, but I don’t think every year was an instance where it just so happened that the BPA at their slot was undoubtedly a hitter either. I seem to recall that in 2014, when they drafted Schwarber, he was seen as a reach at that spot and that there were other players available, some pitchers, who were expected to go before him.

I think this shows a pretty clear example of a front office thinking that hitters are less of a risk and thus spending their top picks on them or just seeing it as there is more value supplied by hitters who are drafted in the first round than by pitchers.

I think this can be shown again in 2016 when they had lost their first 2 picks, they used their first 4 selections (which started at 104) to draft pitchers. Drafting a bunch of pitchers after the first round or two has been a pretty deliberate strategy if you look through their past draft records. http://chicago.cubs.mlb.com/team/draft.jsp?c_id=chc

Going forward, it’ll be interesting to see if they can develop any quality arms from their less than premium picks vs. what the braves come away with. It doesn’t seem like there is really a disagreement that arms break and you need lots, it just seems like the cubs are less willing to use premium picks to acquire the arms than the braves are.

wow, sorry that got way too long

mike sixel
Member
Member
mike sixel

Great post. I do agree with everything you say. I just think the ability to fall back on big time FAs make it easier to use this strategy. Of course, I could be wrong. I’m very open to that possibility. :)

rlwhite
Member
rlwhite

I’ll see if I can find it, but there was an interview where a Cubs FO member said that there was no deliberate strategy to take hitting at the top of the draft, that that was just how their evaluations happened to fall.

Coppy recently said that the Braves tend to take pitching in the draft and hitters internationally.

timmer
Member
timmer

The fact of the Cubs having resources ($$) is an important one, and allows them more options to compete than other small-market clubs can, no doubt. And drafting well is obviously important too. But you won’t run out of trade chips sooner with a hitter-focused strategy vs. a pitcher-heavy strategy.

In a comparison of 10 high-drafted hitters vs. 10 high-drafted pitchers, maybe you get 5 “hits” among the batters and 2 “hits” among the pitchers. The team that drafts the hitters can deal from their surplus of hitting value to get pitching, the team that ran a lower success rate with pitchers will run out of trade capital faster.