30. Atlanta Braves (6–12 record, minus-20 run differential, last time: 29)
At the start of every baseball season, we wring our hands trying to predict the next young pitching star. So far in the early going, the touts who liked Mariners left-hander James Paxton look good. Those predicting big things for Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman? Not so much.
Then there’s Braves right-hander Mike Foltynewicz. At 6' 4", 220 pounds, Folty wields one of the most explosive fastballs in the game, an offering that hits triple digits and is viewed by scouts as a potential 80 pitch on the 20-to-80 scale. Despite that devastating heater, the knocks on the big righty were his lack of reliable secondary stuff and inconsistent command. Coming into this season, the prevailing wisdom was, if he could somehow solve those two issues, he could explode on the league.
The first three outings of Foltynewicz’s 2017 season dug up those same concerns. In his opening start against the Pirates, he allowed nine baserunners (including three walks), and failed to make it out of the fourth inning, needing 91 pitches to record just 11 outs. A patch of days off allowed the Braves to use Folty out of the bullpen in his next outing. In a two-inning stint against Miami, he struck out four batters and walked none ... but still struggled to locate his pitches where he wanted them, serving up a two-run homer to Marcell Ozuna. On April 18 against the Nationals he looked better, firing seven innings. But Folty was lucky to get away with only two runs allowed, after walking four batters and striking out just three.
Everything finally came together Sunday afternoon. Foltynewicz breezed through the first six innings without allowing a run, finishing the day with seven innings pitched, just four hits, two walks, and one run allowed, and an impressive nine punchouts. The best news? He didn’t merely blow away hitters with heat. He threw 27 sliders on the afternoon, getting whiffs on 10 of them. Granting that Foltynewicz tends to throw his slider when ahead in the count and seeking a strikeout, but hitters have had no chance against that pitch so far this young season. For a Braves team that’s going to ride out some rough times during their rebuild, that’s a welcome sign of optimism.