2 free agent starters for the Atlanta Braves to avoid in 2022

Potential Atlanta Braves free agent target and former Rockies pitcher Jon Gray. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
Potential Atlanta Braves free agent target and former Rockies pitcher Jon Gray. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images) /
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The Atlanta Braves are in the market for another starting pitcher for 2022… but here are some names for them to avoid in their search.

One Winter ago, the Atlanta Braves immediately snagged two starting pitchers from the free agent market:  Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly.

Morton had been a playoff warrior for multiple teams and remains a great choice… enough that he’s coming back for at least one more season.

Smyly?  The analytics that convinced the Braves of his upside just didn’t pan out.

Without Smyly in the mix, it’s quite reasonable to believe that the Braves are still looking for more mound help.  There was a rumor that they were kicking Justin Verlander‘s tires before the Astros blew everyone away with a two-year offer for the perennial Cy Young candidate.

Atlanta spent $11 million on Smyly that was justified only on the basis of a limited set of analytics in 202.  Hopefully, those same kinds of analytics will allow them to avoid pitching money at either of these two free agents in 2022:

ALEX WOOD

Since leaving Atlanta in 2015, Alex Wood has indeed shown occasional flashes of brilliance… including a 16-3 campaign in 2017 (Dodgers) that came coupled to a 2.72 ERA.

2017 and 2018 saw him complete 52 combined starts, but injuries have dogged his career before and since.

2021 was his best season in a while, but even so, Wood only lasted 138 innings with 26 starts.  His ERA — even in cavernous AT&T Park — was 3.83.  Good, but it isn’t quite up to the level of an “innings eater” that the Braves would be looking for… particularly given his history.

There are other troubling aspects to Wood’s stats:

  • Do the Braves really need another left-hander?
  • His average batters’ exit velocity was in the 29th percentile, and that was consistent with max exit velocities and hard-hit percentage.
  • Fastball velocity and spin rates are both well below league average… which is likely why he basically doesn’t throw fastballs anymore, relying on sinkers, changeups, and sliders.

So without a go-to fastball option to get hitters thinking, Wood just doesn’t have a lot of speed differential between his pitches.  He does get a significant “chase” rate when hitters guess wrong (70th percentile), but that’s overcome by the “barreled ball” rate in the 86th percentile.

The fear here is that Wood has enough success that might be intriguing to the Braves… intriguing enough to try and bring him home next year.  But the numbers also suggest a trap.  Don’t fall for it.

JON GRAY

It’s hard not to like a pitcher that has lasted in Denver for as long as Jon Gray has.  In 7 seasons, he’s averaged a 4.59 ERA (with nearly identical FIP and xFIP for those inclined to believe those figures) and a very consistent fWAR around 2.5 per season.

Gray has been consistently starting games as well… including 29 outings in 2021 (149 innings).

The rest of his stats are amazingly consistent, too:  aside from 2020, his strikeout rate has been between 8.85 and 9.91 over his entire career, with a walk rate between 2.45 and 3.50.

He even tends to keep the ball in the ballpark better than most pitchers, which is a shock, given his home ballpark.

For Gray, you’d expect that his home/road splits would mirror those of his teammates since altitude giveth to hitters, but taketh away from pitchers.  This revealed a surprise.

Over Gray’s career (75 home games/77 road games)…

  • ERA:  4.54 at home; 4.65 on the road
  • Homers allowed:  55 at home; 50 on the road
  • Strikeouts:  just 19 more on the road (with a 2 games advantage)
  • Walks:  34 more (157 vs. 123).
  • Opponent OPS:  .737 at home; .765 on the road.

In other words, Gray is a freak of nature… a pitcher who pitches marginally better at Coors Field than on the road.  That’s … certifiably crazy.

Baseball Savant also has some scary numbers of their own.

  • 24th percentile for max exit velocity and 54th percentile for hard hit percentage.  Other metrics involving batter prowess are in the same neighborhoods.
  • Fastball spin rate?  29th percentile
  • Chase rate:  5th percentile

I was ready to write something about how I’d love for Atlanta to scoop up Gray and make him their #3 or #4 guy behind Fried/Morton/Anderson in some order.

After these wacky numbers, though… no.

MLBTR believes that Gray is in line for a 4-year deal in the range of $56 million ($14 million per year).  That feels about right, but I don’t know that the Braves should risk that kind of coin on him… especially on a multi-year deal.

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The upside appears to be very limited and the downside risk is significant.  Stay away.

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