There might not be anything more frustrating in baseball than watching a young pitcher. It’s like watching a baby deer try to get his feet under him for the first time. He can struggle, but it might take awhile to stand with authority without falling down.
Mike Foltynewicz is still a bit wobbly. The 24-year-old right-hander is struggling. In his 13 starts with the Atlanta Braves this season, Foltynewicz has a 5.57 ERA and has allowed 93 hits in 74-1/3 innings. Since he returned from Triple-A Gwinnett, Foltynewicz has an ERA of 6.46 in his past four starts.
Those aren’t good numbers. But if you watch Foltynewicz, you see a pitcher with outstanding stuff. His fastball is consistently in the mid-90s, and he maintains his velocity even late in the games. But his command and location are what remain problematic. He’s just too inconsistent, which is usually what keeps a young good pitcher from being great.
But it’s there. You can see it. Foltynewicz can look like John Smoltz against some hitters, and then he can turn around in the next inning and look like Kyle Davies. Foltynewicz can rebound in an at-bat after throwing some bad pitches, maybe getting away with a few poorly located pitches and then blow the ball by the hitter. Then Foltynewicz might walk the next batter on four straight pitches.
But man, that fastball is electric. Not many pitchers can throw it as hard as Foltynewicz can, and the fact he can throw in the mid- to upper-90s late in the games matters. He just has to control it and harness it, and then maybe Foltynewicz might be something special.
The Braves have been through this before. It seems I wrote this same column 25 years ago when Smoltz was trying to find himself. In Smoltz’s first 12 starts with the Braves, his ERA was 5.48. How about Tom Glavine? It took him even longer to get his feet under him. Glavine had a 5.90 ERA in his first 22 starts.
Look, no one expects Foltynewicz to be Smoltz or Glavine. That would be unfair for any kid to have that high of a standard to live up to as a young pitcher. But there’s no doubt the troubles those future Hall of Famers had early on in their careers are similar to what Foltynewicz is going through now.
From all accounts, Foltynewicz is a good kid. Coaches love his aggressiveness on the mound, but it was his stuff that got him where he’s in the rotation. Can he handle this pressure? Are his struggles as much between the ears as between the white lines?
Pitching is tough. Smoltz learned the hard way, needing a sports psychologist to get through the 1991 season. It is as much about the ability to mentally deal with the roller coaster that is pitching than anything else. Having great stuff is only part of it.
If I were in charge of the Braves, I would ask Smoltz if Foltynewicz could spend about two weeks with him this offseason. It was great to see Smoltz talk with all the pitchers Friday at Turner Field, and you can only hope Foltynewicz and others listened closely. But with Foltynewicz being a power pitcher, he could learn so much from Smoltz.
Think of the stories Smoltz could share. Sure, he’s a Hall of Famer, but it definitely didn’t come easy for him. Like Foltynewicz, Smoltz had the stuff. But Smoltz had to overcome injuries. He had to reinvent himself twice. He changed from a starter to a reliever and then back again. Smoltz’s road to Cooperstown was not as easily paved as it was for Glavine and fellow Hall of Famer Greg Maddux. That journey, that story, could only help Foltynewicz.
There’s talk that, like Smoltz, Foltynewicz could become a reliever if he doesn’t make it as a starter. But the Braves need to be patient with Foltynewicz and give him every chance possible to be a starting pitcher. If he fails, then move him. But that decision should come much later.
Teams rarely find pitchers with Foltynewicz’s potential, and the Braves better make sure he can succeed in a starter’s role before pulling the plug. The folks in charge were patient 25 years ago, and the current front office should do the same thing now.
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