After a surprisingly strong finish to the 2016 season, the Atlanta Braves quickly addressed the teams’ biggest weakness heading into 2017: the starting rotation. Atlanta’s pitching staff ranked near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories last season. The rotation was plagued by injuries throughout the year, forcing a number of the Braves’ prized minor league arms into major league service sooner than the front office would have liked.
Over the course of the 2016 season, the Braves used sixteen different starting pitchers. Only three of those sixteen starters pitched more than 100 innings, and only two managed a sub-5.00 ERA for the season. Those two, Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewicz, will join new additions Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey, and Jaime Garcia, to form the revamped starting rotation for the 2017 Braves. The rotation has some prominent names with a combined 1,083 major league starts between them. It’s a mix of youth and experience, with the sky-high potential of Teheran and Folynewicz now bolstered by two former Cy Young winners in Colon and Dickey as well as strong rebound candidate Jaime Garcia. Let’s take an in-depth look at the rotation that will usher in a new era of Atlanta baseball at Suntrust Park in 2017.
Teheran is the ace of this Atlanta staff, and one of the most underrated pitchers in all of baseball. Signed by the Braves as an international amateur in 2007, Teheran has been an All Star in two of his four major league seasons since his rookie year in 2013. He’s the only Braves’ pitcher who’s pitched more than 180 innings in each of the last four seasons, and posted the best ERA+ and WHIP of his young career in 2016.
Since his debut in 2013, Teheran is in impressive company statistically. Among all starters who have pitched at least 700 innings since 2013, Teheran has a better ERA and ERA+ than Cy Young winners Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, and Rick Porcello. Over the same time period, he ranks within the top 20 in FIP, strikeouts per 9 IP, walks per 9 IP, and BABIP. More important than his compiled stats, however, is the fact that he’s improved in each season since his debut and has been durable enough to rank 14th in innings pitched since 2013. Teheran will unquestionably be the Braves’ opening day starter and is sure to benefit from the experience of Colon and Dickey.
Colon is the definition of a workhorse starter. Although in recent years he’s been the subject of countless memes and criticism about his off-field behaviors, he’s also incredibly well respected and loved around the majors. Entering his 20th major league season, Colon is a former Cy Young winner in LA in 2005, and has enjoyed a career resurgence since joining the Oakland Athletics in 2012.
In the 5 seasons since, only six pitchers have more wins than Bartolo. He has managed to remain effective despite wielding a fastball that averages just 88 MPH as of 2016, and that he throws more than 85% of the time. While he’s no longer an elite pitcher, and is now far removed from his Cy Young winning season, Colon will provide the Braves’ rotation with a stability that it did not enjoy in 2016. Since 2013, Colon is one of only six pitchers who has thrown 190 or more innings each season. The rock-solid reliability of Colon will allow Atlanta to be patient with the plethora of talented minor league arms throughout their farm system.
One of the few remaining knuckleballers in the league, Dickey is coming off an inconsistent stint with the Blue Jays after he enjoyed Cy Young success in 2012 with the New York Mets. In 2016, Dickey still had one of the best soft contact rates among all starting pitchers, and threw more than 160 innings for the sixth consecutive season. As a knuckleballer, Dickey is particularly unpredictable. It would not be surprising to see his numbers improve dramatically in Suntrust Park, which is expected to be as pitcher-friendly as Turner Field was.
Despite his apparent regression in Toronto, Dickey has been one of the most reliable starters in the majors. For the Braves, this is especially important as they seek to avoid a repeat of their pitching carousel from 2016. Dickey will slot nicely into the middle of the Atlanta rotation, and is a high-upside pitcher as he returns to the NL East.
Atlanta sent two mid-level prospects to St. Louis to obtain Garcia, counting on another improved season from the lefty who is now two seasons removed from his UCL surgery in 2014. The beginning of 2016 saw Garcia post a series of unexpectedly dominant performances that created a lot of promise in St. Louis despite his decline as the season went on. Garcia has long been known as an excellent contact manager and one of the better pitchers in the majors at inducing ground balls. The Braves may not be able to count on Garcia to be an innings-eater like they can with Colon and Dickey, but he does represent the highest upside of all their offseason acquisitions. At his best, Garcia is a #2 starter with plus stuff that makes hitters look foolish. Atlanta is hoping that Garcia continues to return to the form he displayed prior to his consecutive injuries in 2013 and 2014, and provides the bite they need in the middle of the rotation.
Foltynewicz, or “Folty” as he’s affectionately know by Braves fans, is the youngest member of the Atlanta rotation heading into 2017. Acquired in the trade that sent slugger Evan Gattis to the Houston Astros in 2014, Folty improved massively in 2016 in his first major league season of more than 100 innings pitched. Still more of a prospect than a proven commodity at this point, he’s the unofficial headliner of the Braves’ stacked farm system. Armed with a plus fastball that tops out at 98 MPH at times, Folty has also added an effective slider to his repertoire since coming to Atlanta. While the fifth spot in the rotation will likely change once or twice throughout the 2017, Foltynewicz is in command of it for now, and will be given the opportunity to cement the back end of the rotation come the start of the new season.