Saturday night, as Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Mike Foltynewicz was enduring his latest struggle on the mound, I was chatting with a friend via text message about whether or not the Braves should consider moving the right-hander down to AAA Gwinnett for a couple of starts.
“Hmm, wouldn’t that be kinda a middle finger to an All-Star?” the friend replied.
I agreed that sending a player who was an All-Star and the team’s No. 1 starter just last year down to the minor leagues might not be the most popular move, but said that a team in a division race like the Braves has more urgency to not let a struggling player continue hurting the team’s results.
It would turn out that in Saturday’s game Foltynewicz’s performance did not cost the Braves the game, as the team scored nine runs over the last three innings to earn a thrilling, come-from-behind 13-9 win over the Washington Nationals.
But a couple of hours after the game, news broke that Foltynewicz reportedly will, in fact, be optioned to the Gwinnett Stripers, the team’s AAA affiliate.
This is one of those moves that people say “if you told me in Spring Training that this would happen, I wouldn’t have believed it,” but the Braves have made the right decision in demoting the 27-year-old known as “Folty.”
This move will allow Foltynewicz to work through his struggles without the pressure or urgency to win that each and every major-league game entails. Instead of feeling like he has to be his 2018 self every time out, he can be more patient in trying to solve his problems.
After a very solid 2018 season — 13-10 with a 2.85 ERA in 183 innings, with 202 strikeouts and a league-leading two complete games, leading to an eighth-place finish in National League Cy Young Award voting — the 2019 season has been a struggle for Foltynewicz, from the beginning. His Spring Training was compromised by an elbow injury and he didn’t make his season debut until April 27.
He is currently 2-5 with a 6.37 ERA, and has allowed 16 home runs in 59 1/3 innings for a rate of 2.4 home runs per nine innings, by far the worst of his career. By comparison, he allowed 17 home runs in three times as many innings last year.
Saturday’s start was his 11th of the season; only four of the 11 have been quality starts, and Foltynewicz only reached 100 pitches once. He hasn’t recorded an out in the seventh inning yet this season.
The struggles particularly reached a flash point Saturday in Washington as he allowed eight earned runs over four-plus innings and showed negative body language throughout the outing.
“I’ve got a 7-ERA on a first-place team,” Foltynewicz said. “It’s just tough. I’m battling every night. It’s just tough. It’s just the person I am. I’m going to wear that stuff on my sleeve, especially when things aren’t going my way. It’s just tough. It’s all my fault, too.”
Foltynewicz often struggled with his in-game emotions over his first four major-league seasons, but seemed to mostly harness them in 2018, leading to his successful campaign. Many around the Braves organization thought he had turned that corner for good, but even Braves manager Brian Snitker — who almost never makes negative public comments about his players — wondered aloud after Saturday’s game what effect Foltynewicz’s emotions were having on his performance.
“I thought he had turned the corner, but I’m seeing signs this year of him going right back to where he was two or three years ago,” Snitker said. “Nobody can take care of that other than him. He has to be the one who controls that.”
Now, as Foltynewicz in back-to-back starts goes from facing Anthony Rendon to facing Danny Mendick*, he can breath easier as he steps back from the burden of a pennant race and can work on whatever in his game needs working on without the risk of costing his team ground in the National League East standings.
*Yeah, I don’t know who that is either, but he leads Foltynewicz’s likely next opponent, the Charlotte Knights, in at bats.
Foltynewicz is surely frustrated that it’s come to this — and it’s rare for a player to go from an All-Star to the minor leagues in less than a year — but hopefully once his flight back to Georgia lands he’ll be able to see that this move can benefit him in the long run. If he can iron out the struggles in his performance and once again control his emotions as he competes, I don’t see any reason why he can’t return to the form he showed in 2018 and help the Braves as a productive starter — maybe even down the stretch this season.
As the Braves hope that’s what comes from this move, they’re not exactly “giving him a middle finger” but instead doing their best to reach out a helping hand.