Three Cuts: Mike Foltynewicz's true potential on display; Freddie Freeman's best month ever
The first month of the season is complete. While the Braves were denied their second five-game winning streak of the month, this is a team that has shown it's decidedly better than the one that last year ended April at 5-18.
Atlanta is fifth in the majors in batting average (.265), 10th in slugging (.421) and eighth in the National League in runs per game (4.59). Last season, the Braves were 27th in average (.229), last in slugging (.289) and last in the NL in runs per game (3.26).
The Braves' new-look rotation has also taken steps forward, sitting seventh in the NL with a 3.98 ERA coming off being 27th in MLB (4.87) a year ago.
At the center of that improvement with the staff is a fifth starter that has taken strides of his own ...
1. We are witnessing the true potential of Mike Foltynewicz
As the great Chris Jericho would say, "Drink it in, man." Mike Foltynewicz's three-plus seasons in the majors have been about what could be. An arm that current Braves bullpen coach (and former Triple-A Gwinnett pitching coach) has called the most impressive arm he's been around since Clayton Kershaw, and whom catcher Tyler Flowers likened to his former White Sox teammate Chris Sale.
No, he hasn't reached Kershaw/Sale territory. But the Foltynewicz that we've seen over these past three starts -- and for most of Sunday's 4-3 loss to the Brewers -- is teetering toward elite as he's found consistency and an efficient approach that speaks to his confidence in his secondary pitches.
Against the Brewers, Foltynewicz threw four no-hit innings, started by his striking out the first four batters he faced and six of seven, before giving up a solo home run to Domingo Santana to start the fifth (the Milwaukee right fielder would go deep against him again in the sixth, a three-run shot).
Amid those Santana homers, five of the next 11 Brewers reached safely (one off a Dansby Swanson error) and Foltynewicz fell behind in five counts and the second deep ball came on the first pitch Santana saw.
Those were the final impressions of a day that ended in the bottom of the seventh, but in all, the right-hander yielded four hits and one earned run, didn't walk anyone, induced 10 groundouts to two flyouts vs. the 24 batters he faced -- and he kept his composure amid the late troubles.
Before Santana's first homer, only one player -- Orlando Arcia, twice -- saw more than five pitches and four of his Ks came on no more than four offerings. More impressive, was that all six of those whiffs came via a curveball or slider, underscoring how much focus the flamethrower has put on expanding beyond his mid-90s fastball.
In two-strike counts, Foltynewicz came with a 40 percent whiff/strike rate with his curveball, the highest of any of his pitches. Yet, he didn't throw it to register any of his six strikeouts, instead leaning on his slider (23 percent coming in) and a curve that hadn't resulted in a single K in '17. He got three via both those pitches on Sunday.
Three unearned runs cost him, and he's still waiting on his first win of the season (archaic stats being what they are) but consider this: in these last three outings against the Nationals, Phillies and Brewers, Foltynewicz has amassed these staggering numbers: a 1.80 ERA, 0.9500 WHIP and 1.050 FIP.
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2. Are Dansby Swanson's April miscues a concern?
He's a rookie.
At least he entered the season with one plate appearance maintaining that status, but at this point in what figures to be his first full year in the majors, only 10 shortstops went into Sunday with more innings played than Dansby Swanson's 194 2/3.
The offense hasn't always been on-point, as he's hitting .156/.200/.233 with two homers, a double and five RBI, but he's had his moments, including the walk-off hit vs. the Padres during the first SunTrust Park homestand and he was 3 for his last 8 at the plate in Milwaukee, including his second home run.
That part of the 23-year-old's game has seen him slide from second to eighth in the batting order, but along with the weekend's efforts vs. the Brewers, there is also some hope that he reverts to the mean as he continues to have a .188 BABIP.
Of more concern may be elements of what's happening in the field.
Surprisingly, going into Sunday, only the Royals' Alcides Escobar at 3.4 had a better defensive WAR than Swanson's 2.5 among shortstops, putting him a tick above the Indians' Francisco Lindor (2.4), and he's tied for second in baseball with 20 double plays. Of course, that first figure came before he bobbled a ball on a Hernan Perez grounder Sunday that extended the inning and allowed Santana to connect on that three-run homer.
That gives Swanson four errors already this season in less than 200 innings; a year ago, he had six in 313 after his call-up.
Said manager Brian Snitker after the loss: "He's made so many great plays to help us win games ... that's just one of those things."
Sunday's mistake will loom large given that it opened the door for Santana and let Foltynewicz's work go to waste, and while the offense would seem to be trending upward, there's enough positives defensively to outweigh the negatives. Along with that impressive dWAR, Swanson is carrying a UZR/150 of 6.3 after a minus-2.4 in 2016 and a better RZR (.784 after a .729 last year).
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3. Freddie Freeman's April onslaught gets a punctuation mark
If April showers bring May flowers, what does a barrage of Freddie Freeman bombs foreshadow?
We just watched the Braves' two-time All-Star first baseman close out what is arguably the greatest month of his career with a solo home run against the Brewers. That ran his April line to .381/.485/.798 with nine home runs (equaling his highest total of any month) with six doubles, a triple and 14 RBI. He also racked up four steals (two off the most he's had in any single season).
Freeman ended the month with 224 wRC+, 26 ahead of the previous high he set last August, a personal record he just missed with a 198 in September.
That 224 by Freeman is just above the Nationals' Bryce Harper (223), a world above reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant of the Cubs (137), and trails only Harper's teammate Ryan Zimmerman (246) and the Brewers' Eric Thames (227).
It would seem following last year's second-half surge wasn't an issue as we're seeing Freeman play at a level that could make being in the MVP conversation a very, very real thing.