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Jacob DeGrom, Trevor Bauer, Shane Bieber, Gerrit Cole; these are all guys that may pop into your head when you hear the phrase “best pitchers in baseball”, and they certainly deserve this praise. The next echelon of elite pitchers is accepted to be guys like Lucas Giolito, Yu Darvish, Tyler Glasnow, and Walker Buehler; while these guys deserve this categorization, Max Fried is never though about as an elite starting pitcher. I’ve seen many lists that don’t even rank him inside the top 20, mostly because he does not strike batters out at an elite level. This snub is obscene to me; watching Max Fried pitch last season, it doesn’t take much to understand how integral he was to our rotation. With the injuries and inadequacies our pitching staff faced last year, I genuinely think there would have been a reality where we miss the playoffs entirely if Fried doesn’t pitch at the Cy Young caliber level that he did. I have no doubt that Max Fried is among the best pitchers in baseball, and hopefully, the argument I am about to convey will remind you of his greatness.
Wins as a stat are inferior when evaluating pitcher performance, as there are many factors that influence an outcome other than the pitchers performance. After all, if a pitcher goes 5 innings and allows 5 run, a subpar performance at best, he is credited with a win if his team leads when he is pulled and ultimately win the game, but that is more due to the offense than the pitcher. However, I would like to bring attention to the fact that Fried lost 0 games last season. Fried was so dominant, he did not once put his team in a position to lose the game, and that in itself holds value. I know that the offensive prowess of the Braves aided him in this metric, but there are certainly other elite pitchers with elite offenses, like Gerrit Cole of the Yankees who lost 3 starts, that cannot make this claim. Thus, Fried’s excellence directly contributed to consistent winning performances by the Braves, achieving the goal that every MLB team sets out for.
If you are a Sabermetrician and believe that the fact that he did not lose a game is too shallow to convince you of his elite status, I understand; I typically do not like evaluating wins and losses to analyze pitchers, but I think his lack of losses speaks to his importance to the Braves. However, if you condemn Max Fried based on the fact he only strikes batters at a rate of 8 K/9, a level that is not by any means worrying, I ask you to remember the name of the game for a starting pitcher: getting batters out. Max Fried excels at getting batters out, even if it is not via the strikeout. Per Baseball Savant, Fried ranks in the 98th percentile in limiting exit velocity and hard hit percentage, while ranking in the 94th percentage in limiting expecting slugging percentage, and in the 91st percentile in limiting expected wOBA. To the more unfamiliar reader, this means that Fried consistently induces weak contact, and in turn, the number of runs scored against him. It does not matter that batters can make contact against him because their contact is weak and they fail to hit the ball hard against him, and their weak batted balls turn into outs. These weak batted balls culminated in stellar numbers, as Fried possessed a WHIP of 1.09 and HR/9 of just 0.3.
Many argue that a pitcher must strikeout as many batters as possible to be considered elite, because a strikeout will never be a homerun, and a given batted ball could be. They argue that pitchers like Fried that induce weak contact are lucky when they put up elite numbers, and they are not truly elite pitchers. While it is true that strikeouts are, by definition, the best possible outcome for a pitcher, I propose the following question: if one consistently gets batters out, does it matter how they do it? Fried induces weak contact better than almost anyone in baseball, and his ability to retire batters consistently stems from their consistent weak contact. Fried has proved that he can consistently get batters out; his numbers aren’t simply flukes because the ability to induce weak contact itself is not a fluke, but a practiced ability that sustains Fried’s greatness. If you like pitchers like Gerrit Cole or Tyler Glasnow that rack up the strikeouts, that is fine; I also love watching them pitch, and they are definitely among the league’s best. However, it is important to acknowledge that there are multiple ways to get batters out, and although Fried is not a strikeout pitcher, he is among the best in the league at inducing weak contact and getting batters out, and he therefore must be considered as elite as the strikeout masters.