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Looking Beyond the Box Score of Mike Foltynewicz

The box score says Mike Foltynewicz is more John Rocker than John Smoltz, yet the Smoltz comparison won’t go away. Whether Foltynewicz is the next Smoltz, the next Rocker, or somewhere in between is beyond my knowledge. But I do know you should take a look beyond the box score before making your opinion, whatever that opinion may be.

A first-round pick by the Houston Astros in 2010, Foltynewicz’s stock has been a roller coaster. It took him two years to graduate from Low-A ball. He breezed through Double-A Corpus Christi. He was up-and-down in Triple-A Oklahoma City before the Astros called him up to pitch out of the bullpen at the end of the 2014 season.

Prior to the 2014 season, Foltynewicz was a top-60 prospect according to each of Keith Law, Baseball America, MLB.com, and Baseball Prospectus. The Astros cashed him in for the more-immediate help in Evan Gattis, while the Braves pictured him as a key cog in the plan to build a winner by 2017.

It’s not 2017, and the Braves aren’t winning. But because it’s professional sports, long-term outlooks are often thrown out at the first sign of trouble. It’s all about the day-to-day quick fix.

For instance, like the idea of sending Foltynewicz to the bullpen.

With tunnel vision, it’s not a bad idea. He boasts a big-time fastball and has proven himself in bursts multiple times. But it’s that second and third time through the order that, at times, causes him problems. Eliminate that second time through by putting him in the bullpen. That seems easy enough.

That’s what the box score suggests.

Friends and family with tunnel vision might want to turn away, because the numbers aren’t pretty. They’re not encouraging. They’re why Braves Twitter has already signed up to trade Foltynewicz back to the Astros for Gattis, who at 28 years old is worse than a replacement-level player this season and has nowhere to play in the field.

On the season, Foltynewicz has a 6.06 ERA and has allowed 107 hits in 81.2. Cleveland’s Danny Salazar has allowed 107 hits in 58.1 more innings.

August 8, 2015: Atlanta Braves Catcher A.J. Pierzynski (15) [2014] talks to Atlanta Braves Pitcher Mike Foltynewicz (48) [7923] during a regular season game between the Miami Marlins and the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia. Braves defeat Marlins 7-2.

Foltynewicz has been able to lean on Pierzynski during his rookie season.

His first homecoming felt like rock bottom. Making his first career appearance in Chicago, the Minooka, IL. native took the mound in what had to feel like his MLB debut 2.0. There was a small handful in attendance for his debut in Houston. There was a small town in attendance on Thursday night. Add in the fact that the Cubs are in the middle of a playoff chase leaving fans torn on who to root for, and there’s no question that there were more nerves leading up to this start than his debut.

His box score looked like this: 4.2 innings, seven runs on eight hits, two walks, two home runs.

Foltynewicz’s first impression–whether it be this season in Atlanta or his return home to Chicago–hasn’t been a good one in the box score. But sometimes, a calculator can’t compute the perfect answer.

Here’s the thing when it comes to rookies: they struggle. We’re talking about a really freaking hard game to play. It’s a game of inches. Inches separate the best from the worst. Maybe another inch over the plate and Doug Eddings rings up Anthony Rizzo in the second inning rather than issuing a walk. Maybe Rizzo can’t sit on an inside fastball and launch a three-run homer in the third. Maybe another inch inside and Rizzo doesn’t hit it at all.

Foltynewicz’s starts don’t look all that different each time out. For three or four innings, Foltynewicz shows exactly why he gets compared to Smoltz or Justin Verlander. And for one or two innings, things stack up and make you remember that he’s a rookie. It was no different on Thursday.

For the first two innings, Foltynewicz consistently hit 99 on the radar gun, only occasionally taking some off of it to register 97. He flashed every bit of his potential and more. The Cubs were caught off guard on sliders and his newly-implemented splitter. And in those moments, it looked like everything was coming together.

August 8, 2015:  Atlanta Braves Pitcher Mike Foltynewicz (48) [7923] during a regular season game between the Miami Marlins and the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia. Braves defeats Marlins 7-2.

Even with his rookie mistakes, Foltynewicz has shown plenty of his potential.

Rizzo took an inside fastball that was 98 mph and hit it a long way. Addison Russell hit a slider that didn’t slide for a home run. That was enough for the human element side to show through the blue Atlanta uniform.

Walking off the mound, a clearly dejected Foltynewicz hung his head. It’s hard not to blame him, all things considered. A professional sports uniform might as well be a superhero cape to the outside world, but even Batman can’t handle the highs and lows of the job. In that moment, with the box score on his mind, Foltynewicz couldn’t either.

In baseball, two pitches out of out 97 are enough to skew the numbers. Everything is a line drive in the box score and seven runs are seven runs–no one cares how they happen.

But it’s not as bad as it looks. Family and friends can uncover their eyes now as Foltynewicz will pick his head back up.

With nothing else to play for except pride and development, Foltynewicz is giving Braves fans a reason to look beyond the box score and into what 2017 could look like. If the Braves were within a game of the Mets, would Foltynewicz be in the bullpen? Possibly. But you don’t waste that arm in the bullpen of a losing campaign. Not many teams could field a starting rotation if that happened every time a young starter struggled.

He struck out six Cubs on Thursday, including likely NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant twice. He caused 11 swings and misses, which is the kind of number he put up in an impressive start against the Orioles earlier this year and his first six starts when he had a 3.96 ERA. His 17 strikes looking were on par with what he did during that stretch as well–much different than the nine strikes looking against the Giants when he gave up six runs and four homers.

Those peripheral numbers look more like what the eye-test has said about Foltynewicz this season, even if they didn’t match up the way you’d like to see in the box score. They look more like the pitcher who accompanied Cy Young winner Corey Kluber as the only pitchers in the majors with at least seven strikeouts in at least five consecutive starts in May.

The next step for Foltynewicz is twofold. His secondary pitches have to continue to develop and become pitches he can throw in any count. It’s no secret hitters can hit a fastball a long way if that’s the only pitch they have to worry about. Throw in the slider that Foltynewicz threw to get strike one swinging against Jorge Soler, and all of a sudden, the hitter can’t sit on anything.

And there’s the ever-important mental side. It’s having a short-term memory. It’s having unwavering confidence. It’s worrying about only the things he can control. Once it’s all put together, the numbers will match what the eye sees. But it doesn’t happen overnight.

The Braves continue to show confidence in the overall product that Foltynewicz can be rather than what he is right now. With 2017 on the brain, they’d be crazy not to. They didn’t acquire him in the offseason expecting immediate results. Instead, they want to allow him to work through his inconsistencies en route to hopefully becoming that workhorse ace they believe he can be.

They didn’t have to look too far for an example. The Cubs sent Jake Arrieta to the mound on Thursday. His ERA three years ago was 6.20. The Orioles, who traded him to the Cubs for two months of Scott Feldman, wish they didn’t give up on him.

Be careful getting stuck in the box score when it comes to Mike Foltynewicz. You don’t want to feel like the Orioles.



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