Atlanta Braves 2021 Preview: Starting Rotation

by Bobby Bishop
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In 2020, the Atlanta Braves’ starting rotation was a dumpster fire, featuring starts from Robbie Erlin and Tommy Milone.

One year later, it lines up as a strength for the ball club. These are the starting pitchers for the Braves in 2021.

1. Max Fried

When Mike Soroka went down with an Achilles injury on Aug. 3, Max Fried stepped up as the Braves’ ace.

“Max Fried, I think, is gonna have a little something extra tomorrow,” All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman said following the injury to Soroka.

Freeman was correct, as Fried only gave up one run in six innings pitched against the Toronto Blue Jays the following night.

Fried continued the momentum throughout the rest of the season. Fried finished the shortened 2020 season with a 7-0 record and a 2.25 earned run average. In the Cy Young voting, Fried secured fifth place in the National League.

As a reward for his brilliant 2020 season, Fried will most likely throw the first pitch against the Philadelphia Phillies, as Atlanta’s Opening Day starter.

2. Charlie Morton

The Atlanta Braves drafted Charlie Morton in the third round of the 2002 Major League Baseball Draft. He rose through their minor league system and made his debut with the Braves in 2008.

After a less than stellar impression with the club, the Braves traded Morton to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Now, more than a decade later, Morton returns to his roots.

Morton, a late bloomer, didn’t become elite until his aged 33 season with the Houston Astros. That postseason, he took the ball in two Game 7s, and got a win on both occasions. Regardless of the Astros’ hitters cheating, Morton’s pitching that postseason was out of this world.

After the Tampa Bay Rays declined his 1-year, $15 million team option, the Atlanta Braves pounced, signing him to the exact same deal. He adds ability and experience to a young starting rotation.

3. Ian Anderson

With injuries and poor performances from many members of the starting rotation in 2020, the Braves called up Ian Anderson. He made his debut on Aug. 26, 2020 against the New York Yankees’ starter Gerrit Cole — one of the best pitchers in the league. Anderson went toe-to-toe with Cole, earning the win and giving up only one run in six innings.

Anderson never looked back. In his six regular season games, Anderson posted a 1.95 earned run average. He emerged as the Braves’ second-best pitcher. In the postseason, Anderson was flat-out dominant. In his first three postseason starts, he gave up no runs and struck out 22 batters.

Anderson only features three pitches: fastball, curveball, and changeup. His over-the-top arm slot allows all three pitches to start from an identical location, making it nearly impossible for the batter to distinguish the pitch type until it’s too late.

Anderson only has 32.1 regular season innings pitched, which qualifies him as a rookie for 2021. Anderson possesses one of the most impressive resumes any rookie pitcher has had in years. He should start the season as the third pitcher in the rotation and will look to prove that his 2020 season was not just beginner’s luck.

4. Drew Smyly

When Drew Smyly signed a 1-year, $11 million contract with the Braves, heads turned. A former second-round pick in 2010 by the Detroit Tigers, Smyly, while intriguing, has never fully put it together in the major leagues. He has dealt with injuries throughout his career, including Tommy John surgery in 2017. In the shortened 2020 season, Smyly looked fully recovered and showcased that he is set up for a big 2021.

Smyly’s strikeout ratio was an absurd 14.4 strikeouts over nine innings. The velocity on his fastball increased from 91.2 miles per hour in 2019 to 93.8 MPH in 2020. The Braves’ front office thinks that Smyly’s advanced metrics point to him playing a large role for the rotation in 2021.

He provides another lefty (along with Fried) in the rotation. While $11 million seems like an expensive contract for a player who hasn’t fully proven himself, there is a chance that Smyly turns that into a bargain by the end of the season.

5. Bryse Wilson/Mike Soroka

This final spot in the rotation will be Mike Soroka’s. Eventually. Even though his Achilles injury was only seven months ago, Soroka has shown great progress. 

He won’t miss much time in the regular season, but Soroka will most likely miss the first several weeks, as the Braves ease him back. Extremely valuable to the franchise, Soroka was an All-Star as a rookie in 2019, and the Braves’ Opening Day starter in 2020.

Upon his return, he will be a big boost to the team. Until then, the fifth spot in the rotation will belong to Bryse Wilson.

Kyle Wright and Huascar Ynoa will be the main sources of competition to Wilson for this role; however, Wilson will hold onto it for a few reasons. First, Wilson attacks the strike zone. His career first-pitch strike percentage is 65.3% — the highest among his competitors (Wright – 58.8%, Ynoa – 59.5%).

Second, Wilson’s best outing of the year came in the most important situation. Whereas Wright got destroyed in the first inning of Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, Wilson pitched the next night and dominated the eventual champion Los Angeles Dodgers.

In six innings pitched, Wilson gave up one hit — a home run to Edwin Rios. Wilson got the win against Clayton Kershaw, as the final score was 10-2. Wilson should be able to build off of that performance, gaining confidence from beating the best team in the league on the biggest stage.

There is a chance that Wright or Ynoa will be pitching the fifth game of the season over Wilson. No matter what, all three of those young pitchers will be making an impact in 2021.

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