Quick, name the most frustrating player in Major League Baseball. The answer may well depend on which team you root for—nothing is more frustrating than when one of your guys fails to live up to expectations. Hometown bias aside, though, I’m thinking of a player dripping with talent, someone who’s flashed that talent at times and looked ready to break out, only to have the anvil of regression fall on his head. I’m thinking of Mike Foltynewicz.
The 25-year-old right-hander wields some absolutely filthy stuff: a fastball that sits mid-90s and often touches 98, along with a hammer curve. He’s a 6-foot-4, 220-pound former first-round pick, he’s made it to age 25 without the litany of injuries that often whacks developing pitching prospects, and he was a key component in the Evan Gattis trade the Braves made with Houston two and a half years ago, one they hoped could produce a talented and reliable force for their rotation.
That breakout looked like it might be coming, after Foltynewicz carved through the Reds and Phillies lineups in consecutive starts June 2 and June 7. He went seven innings in each of those starts, allowed a combined six hits and four walks, punching out 14 batters and allowing not a single run. Against Cincinnati, Folty dominated with his four-seam fastball, generating eight whiffs with that pitch. Against Philly, he leaned on his sinker, throwing strikes with that pitch nearly 68% of the time, with eight of those getting hit in play, and just one of those eight falling for a hit.
Then in his next start, the bottom dropped out. Facing the Nationals on June 12, Foltynewicz couldn’t get anybody out. He lasted just 3 ⅓ innings, surrendering eight runs on 11 hits, walking two, serving up three home runs, and registering just three swinging strikes. Then just to make everything a little more confusing, he landed somewhere in between against the Marlins on Sunday: two runs, seven hits, two walks, and four strikeouts in six innings.
So what can we expect from Folty going forward? A lack of obvious patterns makes that tough to say. Maybe we should have expected the league’s best offense to tear him apart. But then how do you explain the worst offense in the league (the Giants) manhandling him for five runs in four innings May 27? Or his third start of the season, in which he allowed just two runs on five hits in one of the four outings this season in which he lasted seven innings...this one coming against that same loaded Nats offense?
At the risk of oversimplifying, the answer may very well be pretty simple: When the big right-hander commands his smoke-inducing fastball, he can slice through any lineup, no matter how talented. When he doesn’t, he won’t. Having just made his 50th MLB start on Sunday, the hope is that more experience could help him take that next step.