A month ago this was shaping up to be a breakout season for Mike Foltynewicz, the year when he would emerge as the frontline starting pitcher the Astros envisioned when they selected him in the first round (19th pick) of the 2010 draft, and the pitcher the Braves envisioned he eventually would become after they acquired him and Rio Ruiz from Houston in a January 2015 trade for Evan Gattis.
Now look what’s happened. Just when so many of us were ready to or already had declared the corner turned and said Foltynewicz had become the Braves’ best and most consistent starting pitcher, he’s regressed so badly in the past month that his progress is threatening to be consumed by his relapse of command issues and emotions spilling over on the mound, issues that held him back previous but areas that we thought he’d learned to control.
Foltynewicz, who’ll turn 26 in October, had a 2 ½-month stretch through late July that was the best sustained pitching of his career, when he was 9-1 with a 3.56 ERA in 14 starts, including 12 Braves wins, and posting a 1.37 WHIP, .754 opponents’ OPS and 74 strikeouts with 28 walks in 81 innings. Those numbers including one of his worst starts, a June 12 outing at Washington when he gave up 11 hits, eight runs and three homers in 3 1/3 innings.
Toss out that game, and his other 13 starts during that stretch yielded a 2.78 ERA with nine homers, 74 strikeouts, 26 walks and eight homers allowed in 77 2/3 innings, including three or fewer runs allowed in 12 out of 13 starts.
But then, with no advance warning and no transition from good to terrible, he went from averaging six or seven innings and a couple of runs allowed per game over 10 weeks to this mess: In his past five starts, he’s 1-4 with a 10.64 ERA, 2.18 WHIP, .364 opponents’ average and 1.023 opponents’ OPS. In 22 innings he’s allowed 36 hits, 26 earned runs and 12 walks with 23 strikeouts.
And that’s despite one of those five starts being among the best of his career, an Aug. 5 win against Miami when he allowed four hits, one run and no walks with 11 strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings. In the other four of his past five starts Foltynewicz is 0-4 with a 14.36 ERA and has allowed 32 hits and 12 walks with 12 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings. Plus three hit batters.
What once was such a promising season now might end up being a step down from 2016. Foltynewicz is 10-9 with a 4.95 ERA and 1.515 WHIP in 25 games (24 starts), after going 9-5 with a 4.31 ERA and 1.297 WHIP in 22 starts during a 2016 season that began with him on the disabled list recovering from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery that forced him to rest and not work out for most of the previous offseason.
The recent slide has been alarming and hard to watch, and Foltynewicz has tried to explain after each successive rough outing what happened and why he’s not worried because he knows he’s just got to get back to work, look at video, figure something out and get back to where he was a month ago, when his career was in ascendance.
But instead of showing progress, he’s actually looked worse of late, particularly with the emotional aspect, the area where he and the Braves were so pleased and proud of his progress in such anan essential area that he needed to address to perform consistently.
In Monday night’s 6-5 loss to the Mariners, Foltynewicz was frustrated by calls that went against him and pitches that weren’t located where he wanted and got hit. His expressions were not at all what the Braves want to see from him on the mound, and he gave up nine hits, six runs, two walks and a hit batter in 5 2/3 innings, the fourth time in five starts that he allowed at least five earned runs and the third consecutive time he gave up six or more.
Afterward, manager Brian Snitker didn’t mince words when talking about Foltynewicz’s performance and recent struggles. And I thought that today I’d give you most of the transcript of what Snitker and Foltynewicz said after the game, with a few redundancies removed.
To me, the candid assessment by the manager made clear what he and the organization think of Foltynewicz, how they still have big expectations and believe he can be a frontline starter, but how they also know it won’t “just happen,” that there’s no guarantees, and that he’s got plenty of work to do and progress to make before the Braves can count on him to be one of their top starters when they become a postseason contender again.
On Foltynewicz’s overall performance
“He’s not hitting spots, command’s been the problem, the ball-strike ratio’s not good, not finishing guys off. … It’s just something he’s going to have to work through. He’s going to have to work through it and get back to where he was when he was kind of getting on that roll and being effective and the guy that we think he is. This game has a tendency to always try you. There’s always something, an obstacle in this game to overcome, and you’ve got to be mentally strong and fight through it, and that’s kind of where he’s at right now. He’s going to have to fight through this thing.”
Does show of emotions and his body language at times concern you?
“Yeah, it does. Because I’ve talked to him about it from (the time) when we were in Triple-A. And I think he’s made some strides but it’s something you’ve got to keep working at. It’s not just going to happen, he’s going to have to go out there and make it happen and take command of that. And if he does all that – guys go through stretches, we’re all human, it’s not going to be perfect all the time. You’ve just got to keep working, individually as players we all have to be the ones to take ownership and make it happen.”
On whether the emotions and his command issues are directly related
“Yeah, all of it is (tied) to the outcome. One leads to the other probably. It’s part of it, it’s part of playing this game and being successful at it.”
On whether Foltynewicz is having trouble trusting his defense and pitching to contact
“It’s probably hard for power guys that want to strike guys out, and he has that kind of stuff. But at some point you’ve got to pitch a little. Like I say, it’s a stretch he’s going through and he’ll get through it. He’s a tough kid and he’s shown he can do it. That’s the thing, it’s not like he hasn’t proven he’s capable of being a very effective pitcher, because he has. And he’ll do it again.”
“It’s a tough stretch right now but I believe in him. He’s going to do it.”
On his performance Monday
“Just some tough luck here and there, some bloop hits, but towards the end (of his stint) they were kind of putting the ball a little more solid and doing their job. It’s been a tough month in general and I just need to focus a little more and regroup and get back out there.”
Are his struggles more mental, or mechanical, or a combination?
“Definitely a combination. When you get hit around like that out there multiple times in a row it definitely does something to your confidence. But it’s a game where you have to forget about things. I have in the past but it’s kind of tough when things like this keep happening and happening. But you have to forget things, I’m trying really hard to put all this in the past and just focus on my bullpens and the days in-between (starts) just to get better. But we’ll figure out, maybe something mechanical, maybe it’s just something mental. But we’ll figure it out and get back to where I was in the past. I know I can do it, I’ve done it. Just have to go out there and actually do it.”
On getting frustrated or angry at himself on the mound to the point it becomes a detriment
“I’m very hard on myself, have been my whole life. It’s just tough out there when you know how good you are and this happens, especially multiple times in a row this whole month really. I’ve had one or two solid games and it’s very tough when you try to go out there and you want to do so much for this team and for yourself, and when it goes out of control early like this it’s very tough to keep going out there and pitching and just trying to do everything you can for your teammates.”
• Let’s close with this one from The Boss.
“ONE STEP UP” by Bruce Springsteen
Woke up this morning my house was cold
Checked out the furnace she wasn’t burnin’
Went out and hoped in my old Ford
Hit the engine but she ain’t turnin’
We’ve given each other some hard lessons lately
But we ain’t learnin’
We’re the same sad story that’s a fact
One step up and two steps back
Bird on a wire outside my motel room
But he ain’t singin’
Girl in white outside a church in June
But the church bells they ain’t ringing
I’m sittin’ here in this bar tonight
But all I’m thinkin’ is
I’m the same old story same old act
One step up and two steps back
It’s the same thing night on night
Who’s wrong baby who’s right
Another fight and I slam the door on
Another battle in our dirty little war
When I look at myself I don’t see
The man I wanted to be
Somewhere along the line I slipped off track
I’m caught movin’ one step up and two steps back
There’s a girl across the bar
I get the message she’s sendin’
Mmm she ain’t lookin’ to married
And me well honey I’m pretending
Last night I dreamed I held you in my arms
The music was never-ending
We danced as the evening sky faded to black
One step up and two steps back