ATLANTA — Few aspects of Mike Foltynewicz’s first three appearances of this season would be deemed ideal.
There was nasty weather in Pittsburgh on April 7 that could be considered “spring” only by the date on the calendar, along with a questionable strike zone. Then, due to the Braves having three off days in the opening two weeks of the season, the young right-hander was passed up in the rotation and had to come out of the bullpen April 11 in Miami.
When Foltynewicz finally got his normal start Tuesday against the Nationals, he found himself knee-deep in the CB Bucknor experience. The oft-criticized umpire — who has had an especially rough week — had a strike zone that could have drawn the Atlanta pitcher into the kind of mental lapses he’s been fighting to overcome.
Only, it didn’t happen, and that’s what Foltynewicz (0-2, 4.26 ERA) is looking to build on for his next scheduled outing Sunday against the Phillies.
“You’re just out there in the heat of the game, you can’t practice that stuff. You can’t practice umpires not giving you calls or home runs,” Foltynewicz said. “It’s just tough out there when you’re mentally grinding every pitch and you’re busting your butt out there.
“I took what they gave me and got guys out anyway and had to make a little adjustment in the zone and get the ball high up in the plate a little bit more and let the defense do the work.”
Foltynewicz went toe-to-toe with reigning National League Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and threw seven innings with two earned runs on five hits over 106 pitches. With a frustration strike zone (that is best broken down by this fabulous FanGraphs piece, but can be seen by some of the balls/strike calls here via BrooksBaseball.net) he fanned three with four walks.
“They’re around the zone and we’ll keep working on them and getting them around the plate a little bit more so they can put the ball in play or swing and miss.”
To his point, while it’s still early, Foltynewicz has been relying on that mid-90s fastball less, throwing it 59.3 percent of the time. It’s been a trend as he threw it accounted for 71 percent of his offerings in 2015 and 62.6 percent last season. The slider (26 percent) has become a bigger piece of the arsenal, using it nearly seven percent of the time more than he has in any of his four MLB seasons.
Foltynewicz’s last outing was a quality start, part of an entire turn through the rotation in which every Braves pitcher allowed three runs or less in at least six innings. As a team, Atlanta has eight QS, which is tied for fifth in the NL and eighth in all of MLB. A year ago, they were 11th in the NL and 25th overall in that department.
The additions of veterans Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia have been key in helping that, but the 25-year-old Foltynewicz stresses they’ve not only been trend-setters to put alongside staff ace Julio Teheran, but are a resource for him.
“Those guys are going to be consistent,” he said. “That’s why they’re there and hopefully they can teach me little things to be consistent and that mental approach. They’ve been done there, done that in games and hopefully they can teach me. I’ve already had a couple talks with guys about the mental part, not going out there and getting the calls, what to do. It’s been a lot of help.”
Now comes the matter of stringing together those kinds of strong starts.
In 2016, Foltynewicz had 11 starts in which he gave up two or few runs, but after the calendar flipped to July, he couldn’t do it in consecutive games. He also struggled in Philadelphia, allowing five runs on eight hits in his one outing there, and in two starts overall, Foltynewicz has an 8.22 ERA in 7 2/3 at Citizens Bank Park.
But he has something to build off of, and after a strange two-plus weeks of the season, he’s also settled into a routine.
“It’s big (from a) confidence stand-point,” Foltynewicz said. “I know I’m going to go out there and work on my fastball, in and out, and we’ll just go from there. Just keep it light right now through this go around in Philly and hopefully put together the same gameplan and just go out there and attack them and let the defense do the work too.”