Getting To The Bottom of Mike Foltynewicz’s Downslide

Atlanta Braves right-handed starting pitcher Mike Foltynewicz allowed eight hits, eight earned runs, and two walks in four innings of work on Saturday against the Washington Nationals, hardly managing to strike out two batters. Simply put, this game was the last straw on the camel’s back for Braves skipper Brian Snitker, and here’s what he had to say after the game: “I thought he had turned the corner, but I’m seeing signs this year of going right back where he was two, three years ago. Nobody can take care of that other than him. He has to be the one to control that” (Gabriel Burns of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

Foltynewicz, who was waiting at his locker after the game and delivered an emotional interview, didn’t deflect blame.

“I’ve got a 7.00 ERA on a first-place team,” he said. “I’m battling every single night. It’s just tough. It’s just the person I am — I’m going to wear that stuff on my sleeve, especially when things aren’t going my way. It’s all my fault too.“I’m just missing my spots, walking people. So I’m going to get mad at myself when I know I can get people out easier than I have been. It just sucks. End of story.”

Gabriel Burns

One can only imagine how tough this has been on Foltynewicz, who was genuinely looking to build off of a career year. In 2018, he made the All-Star team and finished eighth in the NL Cy Young Voting. Foltynewicz pitched to the tune of a 2.85 ERA and 1.08 WHIP, and he struck out nearly ten batters per nine innings.

Unfortunately, he battled an elbow injury during Spring Training, which sidelined him for the first month of the regular season. Foltynewicz has not been the same ever since. His ERA this year (11 GS) currently sits above six, and his strikeout rate is down drastically (7.58 K/9). There is no doubting the fact that home runs have been a big issue for him (2.43 HR/9). In 183.0 innings pitched in 2018, Foltynewicz surrender 17 dingers. This season, however, he has already given up 16 home runs (in only 59.1 innings pitched).

Ultimately, Foltynewicz’s awful start to the 2019 campaign can largely be attributed to the drop-off in velocity and movement on his pitches…

Average Pitch Velocity (according to FanGraphs)

2018

  • Fourseam Fastball: 96.8
  • Sinker: 97.0
  • Slider: 87.2

2019

  • Fourseam Fastball: 95.2 (-1.6)
  • Sinker: 95.5 (-1.5)
  • Slider: 86.2 (-1.0)

Pitch Frequencies (according to FanGraphs)

2018

  • Fourseam Fastball: 40.5%
  • Sinker: 15.8%
  • Changeup: 6.4%
  • Slider: 27.1%
  • Curveball: 10.2%

2019

  • Fourseam Fastball: 30.1% (-10.4)
  • Sinker: 23.1% (+7.3)
  • Changeup: 10.5% (+4.1)
  • Slider: 27.3% (+0.2)
  • Curveball: 9.0% (-1.2)

Here’s how hitters are faring against each of Foltynewicz’s offerings…

Fourseam Fastball

2018

  • SwStr% (FanGraphs): 7.2
  • OPS: .680
  • wRC+: 91

2019

  • SwStr% (FanGraphs): 7.7
  • OPS: 1.098
  • wRC+: 172

Slider

2018

  • SwStr% (FanGraphs): 17.9
  • OPS: .375
  • wRC+: 15

2019

  • SwStr%: 17.8
  • OPS: .904
  • wRC+: 136

Sinker

2018

  • SwStr% (FanGraphs): 5.0
  • OPS: .871
  • wRC+: 149

2019

  • SwStr%: 5.0
  • OPS: .630
  • wRC+: 73

Changeup

2018

  • SwStr% (FanGraphs): 13.4
  • OPS: .558
  • wRC+: 59

2019

  • SwStr%: 18.0
  • OPS: .710
  • wRC+: 91

Curveball

2018

  • SwStr% (FanGraphs): 8.4
  • OPS: .548
  • wRC+: 52

2019

  • SwStr%: 7.1
  • OPS: 1.170
  • wRC+: 202

His fourseam fastball, slider, and curveball have all regressed significantly in terms of their effectiveness, as conveyed by the stats above. One big reason why hitters are suddenly crushing these pitches is that they are generating less movement than in the past (compared “to other MLB pitch types within +/- 2 MPH and from within +/- 0.5 feet of extension and release” [Baseball Savant])…

Graph via Baseball Savant
Graph via Baseball Savant

Compared to the average fourseamer (based on FFs with similar velocity and release/extension point), Foltynewicz’s heater is getting less rise and slightly less horizontal movement. Furthermore, his slider is dropping less on a dramatic scale and is getting reduced gloveside movement. His curveball movement, though to a lesser extent (than the slider), has deteriorated as well. With that being the said, the results on the pitch are atrocious. Hitters have a 1.170 OPS against his slider. To put that in perspective, only one hitter in baseball has a higher OPS than that: Christian Yelich (1.179).

Another reason why his fourseamer and curveball have fallen off is that his spin rate (on those offerings) is done by quite a bit…

Graph via Baseball Savant

2018

  • Fourseam Fastball Spin Percentile: 70
  • Curveball Spin Percentile: 56

2019

  • Fourseam Fastball Spin Percentile: 46
  • Curveball Spin Percentile: 40

Braves pitching coach Rick Kranitz said the following in regards to what Foltynewicz needs to improve upon:

“He needs to be more consistent mechanically,” Kranitz said. “To be able to repeat his delivery and have a consistent release point. The stuff is there. There’s no doubt about it. He’s going to be back to form, there’s no question in my mind.”

Gabriel Burns

Let’s take a closer at Foltynewicz’s mechanics in regards to his three pitches that have been hit the hardest — the fourseam fastball, slider, and curveball (all video below courtesy of Baseball Savant).

Fourseam Fastball

Slider

Curveball

Foltynewicz has had a very hard time repeating his delivery in 2019 for each of the three pitches outlined above. This presumably has had a negative impact on his command (could explain why he’s been giving up so many more home runs this year).

Something else that warrants attention is the idea that Foltynewicz might be tipping his pitches…

Graph via Brooks Baseball
Graph via Brooks Baseball

Foltynewicz releases his slider at a lower release point than all of his other pitches and he releases it the furthest away from his body. This could signal to the hitters that a slider is coming. Additionally, he releases his curveball at a higher release point than the rest of his offerings and he releases it closest to his body.

All things considered, I believe that if Foltynewicz can figure out his mechanics and stay healthy, he can become a solid third or fourth starter. Nevertheless, I do get the impression that the Braves are underplaying his elbow injury, and that Foltynewicz’s declining velocity serves as representative proof of this notion. How Foltynewicz performs down the stretch will likely prove to be inconsequential to the Braves in their quest to repeat as division champs, but it could dictate how far Atlanta can go in the postseason.

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