Familiar faces litter the Braves’ projected Opening Day roster. Following a strong finish to the 2016 season, Atlanta’s lineup returns virtually unaltered aside from second baseman Brandon Phillips — this, of course, is a product of free-agent acquisition Sean Rodriguez’s offseason car accident that could keep him sidelined all season — and the likes of Emilio Bonifacio and Eric O’Flaherty impressed enough in camp to earn bench and bullpen spots, respectively.
This feeling of familiarity does not extend to the Braves’ rotation.
The front office duo of John Hart and John Coppolella focused on short-term staff renovations from the outset this offseason. Atlanta added the two oldest starting pitchers in baseball with Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey and traded low-ceiling prospects for the final year of left-hander Jaime Garcia’s contract — all in an effort to provide Day 1 improvement to what was comfortably a bottom-five rotation in 2016.
The three vets join longtime No. 1 starter Julio Teheran and promising young right-hander Mike Foltynewicz in what could (barring major setbacks and declines) become one of the most improved starting staffs in the majors. Here are a few numbers to know for the five rotation pieces.
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Julio Teheran: 4.07 strikeout-to-walk ratio
Julio Alberto Teheran Pinto turned 26 years old in January. That fact, in and of itself, still sparks surprise. The young right-hander is set to become the first pitcher since Greg Maddux to log four consecutive Opening Day starts and, with even a career-average year in 2017, he’s set to surpass the likes of Max Scherzer, Chris Archer and Matt Harvey in wins above replacement prior to a pitcher’s age-27 season. He is a National League staple and an ultra-valuable commodity with four years of club control remaining at $37 million total.
Despite his consistent track record (setting his forgettable 2015 campaign aside), Teheran is not quite in league with the Scherzers and Archers of the world. He boasts above-average stuff, including a low-90s fastball and an improving slider that he’s using more and more, but he has yet to piece together a full campaign of dominance. The two-time All-Star will not need to shoulder such a heavy load this time around, though.
Teheran’s career-best walk rate is an obvious positive sign in his continued development. Lacking the overpowering arsenal of some of his top NL East counterparts, control and pitch sequencing will be his meal ticket. He became one of 41 pitchers since 2000 to post a 4.00-plus strikeout-to-walk ratio prior to his age-27 season. Four full seasons into his career, Teheran looks poised to hover around seven or eight strikeouts per nine innings for the foreseeable future, so the more he can limit his mistakes — in turn, inducing weaker contact — and free passes the better for his prospects at the top of Atlanta’s rotation.
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Bartolo Colon: 1.33 walk rate
The oldest player in baseball barely touches the 90s with his fastball and signed a $12.5 million contract for his 20th MLB season in November. Bartolo Colon is both baseball unicorn and baseball treasure — the rare pitcher who has improved with age as his once-electric stuff faded, the most enjoyable wine in the baseball universe.
The question of “how” necessitates a long-form answer, but the essential element is control. (For a meatier entree, start here: Colon is a verified master of pitch tunneling and sequencing.) In his five seasons with the Oakland A’s and New York Mets from 2012 to 2016, Colon walked just 138 of the 3,857 batters he faced. He owns the second-lowest walk rate in the majors among qualified starters over that span behind only Cliff Lee, who pitched 416 fewer innings. In fact, the only MLB pitcher to throw 800-plus innings since 2012 and even approach Colon’s microscopic 1.33 walks per nine innings? Three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw.
Here’s one final number to put the MLB’s reigning king of walk aversion into perspective: During his four-year streak of National League Cy Young Awards, Hall of Fame Braves pitcher Greg Maddux, one of the greatest control pitchers in history, posted a 1.54 walk rate.
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Jaime Garcia: 56.4 ground-ball rate
From 2005 to 2013, Atlanta Braves pitchers induced the second-highest rate of groundballs in the majors behind only the St. Louis Cardinals. This is not a random nine-year stretch. Tim Hudson’s presence made Turner Field a veritable worm-burning mecca.
The right-handed sinker specialist joined the likes of extreme groundball pitchers Derek Lowe, Jonny Venters, Peter Moylan and Eric O’Flaherty to keep hitters earthbound on nearly 48 percent of batted balls. Then Lowe moved on and the vaunted “O’Ventbrel” bullpen broke up and Hudson suffered a gruesome ankle injury and, all of a sudden, Braves fielders were catching a lot more flyballs. (To be clear: A high groundball rate is not a guaranteed cure-all for a pitching staff — just ask the Pirates — but the Braves have seen an identity shift in recent seasons.)
The Braves looked to St. Louis for help in this department.
Left-hander Jaime Garcia represents not only the first southpaw to start for Atlanta since the 2015 campaign but also one of baseball’s premier groundball specialists. Relying on a balanced arsenal in which he can work in sinker, changeup and slider action along with his low-90s fastball, the 30-year-old southpaw can be extremely efficient when healthy.
From 2010 to 2016, the only pitchers with more innings and a lower ground-ball rate are Hudson and Justin Masterson — one is retired and the other is working on a minor-league contract, making Garcia the National League chairman of worm-burners.
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R.A. Dickey: 1,056 2/3 innings
Age makes a habit of catching up to everyone, including knuckleball pitchers. Dickey is far removed from his 2012 Cy Young season in New York. His knuckleball did not approach its former effectiveness during his four-year stint in Toronto, a run in which he served as the Blue Jays’ veteran presence as the rotation transitioned from the days of Mark Buehrle and J.A. Happ to young standouts Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman (with a brief run of David Price thrown in).
Throughout that time, though, Dickey churned out quality innings. At 42 years old, he’s a valuable back-end starter who has posted 6.4 wins above replacement over the past four seasons. Perhaps his greatest utility for a Braves team that taxed its bullpen at a franchise-record rate in 2016 is his ability to gobble up innings.
Since the beginning of his Cy Young season, only four pitchers have thrown more innings than Dickey: Price, Max Scherzer, Madison Bumgarner and James Shields. Pretty good company.
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Mike Foltynewicz: 2 key pitches
If we’re playing the “Highest Ceiling” game, the Atlanta Braves could feature the best No. 5 starter in baseball in 2017. Armed with a fully healthy offseason, a strong spring training and heat for days, Braves right-hander Mike Foltynewicz boasts the most pure arm talent in Atlanta’s rotation; it’s simply a matter of building upon the foundation of his first full season, one which featured a 4.31 ERA with slightly better peripherals and occasional flashes of dominance.
Weird but true: Foltynewicz flashed two above-average pitches in 2016 and neither one involved his lightning-bolt-inducing four-seam fastball. Only five qualified pitchers averaged higher velocity than Foltynewicz’s fastball last year, but the pitch (minus-3.6 weighted runs, per Pitchf/x) fell behind his two-seam/sinker and quietly effective changeup in terms of productivity.
Foltynewicz’s sinker action can develop into a weapon with its blazing mid-90s velocity, but his change could be the key to his breakthrough. The 26-year-old threw the pitch just 8 percent of the time last season, drawing one of the five highest whiff rates in the majors. Everything works off Foltynewicz controlling his fastball; however, his offspeed stuff could be the difference in another up-and-down season and a true breakout.