The Atlanta Braves and the Wisler Conundrum

Sep 18, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Matt Wisler (37) pitches against the Washington Nationals during the third inning at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 18, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Matt Wisler (37) pitches against the Washington Nationals during the third inning at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports /

Not sure where Matt Wisler fits in the Atlanta Braves plan for next season? Let’s ponder it together.

I’m beginning to feel like the last stand for Matt Wisler, a good pitcher who is starting to get caught in a numbers game for the Atlanta Braves.

If you stumbled across Tomahawk Take searching for the Nick Markakis fan fiction, that’s a couple doors down on Josh Brown’s corner.  But as long as you’re here, allow me to make an impassioned case for Wisler, a 24-year old pitcher who was tantalizing enough two years ago to be the centerpiece in a Craig Kimbrel trade but is now, after two kamikaze seasons, looking squarely at the biggest season of his young career with a wealth of uncertainty surrounding him.

Veterans are Present

After the additions of Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia, with Julio Teheran still hanging onto his status as de facto No. 1 starter, there really only appears to be one spot up for grabs in the Atlanta Braves 2017 rotation—and that’s if they don’t pull the trigger on a Chris Archer deal.

The shortlist for the final spot includes Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz, Aaron Blair, John Danks and Josh Collmenter, and the first three have a ton to play for as Scott Ferris pointed out last week—maybe the season isn’t make or break, but with tons of young arms coming up behind them, it’s time to start figuring out where they fit into 2017 and beyond.

It’s hard not to give Folty the nod here, as he was clearly superior to Wisler last season and owns grander K/9, BB/9 and swinging strike rates and has been hurt more by balls in play over the course of the duo’s young career.

No argument there:  even I, someone who thought Folty would wind up as a triple-digits throwing closer early in his career, can’t deny his effectiveness in the rotation.  Combined with Teheran, Bartolo (the Human Gif), Garcia and Dickey, that’s a fairly intimidating 2017 Atlanta Braves rotation.

That group will win some games and be competitive and probably won’t quite be good enough to compete for the playoffs, thus allowing two or three of the veterans to be traded and open up a spot for Wisler in June or July, but that’s something of an issue; he’s probably too good to spend much time languishing in Gwinnett.

A month or two in Triple-A is probably not going to lead to an astounding revelation that turns him into a six-time All-Star, but it’s better than sitting in the bullpen and pitching two innings every three days.

And that would be fine, except Sean Newcomb and Lucas Sims almost certainly will be making their MLB debuts this year and may find Touki Toussaint, Max Fried and others hot on their heels.

In short, it’s time for Wisler to prove once and for all why he should be here.

The Game Plan

Wisler’s not overpowering like Foltynewicz or (find an adjective that you like that sounds positive for Blair, because I just don’t see it but whatever, everyone is entitled to their opinion about young players, please don’t compare me to Hitler or some such thing) but his overall body puts him right on par with Foltynewicz (career Game Score average of 47.8 for both).

But how best to convince the brass Matt’s ready for primetime? Try these things:

  1. Changing of the guard

Last spring, much was made of Wisler’s working with Atlanta Braves great Tom Glavine to change up his changeup during the offseason. Maybe another offseason will be good for it, but the change itself was crushed with frightening regularity (.444 opponent batting average, .741/.246 slugging/iso) last season.

  1. Movement with two strikes

He’s got to bury people with the slider. That pitch accounted for a whopping 20.3 percent swinging-strike ratio and was the punch-out pitch on 41.7 percent of Wisler’s 115 strikeouts. But he can’t just rely on that pitch; here’s his usage rate by month last season. Now here’s his whiff percentage. Notice the sudden cratering later in the year.

Maybe opponents weren’t sitting on it, but he was exclusively a two-pitch guy by the end of the year and it showed (.148 iso power vs. the slider in 2016; .079 in 2015).

  1. Get ahead

This will probably seem reductionist, but maybe he should throw more first-pitch strikes? Opposing OPS was .636 after an 0-1 count, .848 after a 1-0; that’s the difference between 2016 Jason Heyward and 2016 Mark Trumbo.

More from Tomahawk Take

In eight of Wisler’s 26 starts in 2016, he gave up one extra-base hit or less; the bad news is that in 11 of the remaining 18 starts, he gave up more than three extra-base knocks.

The better news is that was an improvement on 2015 (three-plus XBH in 12 of 19 starts, one or less in just five).

He either needs a pitch (the changeup, probably) to keep folks honest or he needs to start locating the fastball with Maddux-like accuracy to make it an elite pitch on par with his slider.

It’s going to be a fight, particularly as the players behind him develop. In four years, it’s possible we’ll be saying things like, “Remember when we thought Matt Wisler was going to be the Atlanta Braves No. 3 for a decade? That was a gas. Is he still pitching in Korea?”

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There is a lot—A LOT—of talent coming up behind him and a lot of veteran savvy to fight through this year. But I’m still a believer in the guy we all thought we were getting from San Diego two years ago.