Monday, July 15, 2024

‘The weird in between’: Braves ace Max Fried’s career midpoint brings dominance, uncertainty

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BALTIMORE – On a recent afternoon, Max Fried ducked out of the heat and bounded purposefully into the Atlanta Braves clubhouse, his workout complete. He paused at his locker just long enough to kick off his spikes, swiveled and took a seat at a table in the center of the room.

And stared furtively at a chessboard.

The pregame routine allowed enough time to complete a match and feed the left-hander’s recent chess jones. He got into it this winter, studied instructional videos and plays with friendly adversaries when he gets the chance, befitting a guy who admits that “if you put a board game in front of me, I’m more than likely excited to play it.”

Fried was raised on classics like Monopoly and Clue, fueling constant competition in Jonathan and Carrie Fried’s Los Angeles household. Like any good millennial, Fried, 30, now gravitates toward Catan.

“It’s a fun game, a strategy game,” he says of the island settlement competition. “It’s always fun when you gotta devise a plan of attack, and then figure out how to change it when things don’t go your way.

“Always being OK with changing what’s going on.”

It is an appropriate diversion for one of the game’s great left-handed pitchers.

In an era when most starting pitchers need a 96 mph fastball to gain entry to the big leagues, Fried commands a slightly slower lane, leaning on a beguiling six-pitch mix to keep hitters off balance.

In a season in which the Braves were expected to win a seventh consecutive division title – a run that neatly coincides with Fried’s ascension to ace – the club is instead mired in a 6-11 funk and perhaps hopelessly behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East.

And for a dude with a youthful appearance and a pliable 6-foot-4, 190-pound frame, Fried must suddenly confront the approaching middle age of his career – with a World Series star turn behind him and free agency looming this winter, Fried has some fascinating things in both the front and rearview mirrors.

“I still feel like I’m 23,” says Fried of his age when he made his major league debut in August 2017. “It’s a weird concept to sit here and say I’m 30, with parts of eight different years in the big leagues. It’s a little strange, because I still feel like in my core, I’m a young guy who’s still learning and trying to constantly master his craft. And feel like I still have so much more to give.

“It’s a little weird to be at that point where you can look back, because you’ve had some experience. But also for me, I feel like I have so much more to look forward to, that it’s kind of a weird in between.”

‘There’s no ego’

Travis d’Arnaud is making $8 million this year, the fifth consecutive season he’s earned that salary from Atlanta. The veteran catcher can certainly call a handyman or repair service should something go wrong at his Atlanta home.

Instead, he’ll often call on his next-door neighbor. And Fried is more than happy to help.

“He’s a great human who helps out with my house whenever I ask him,” says d’Arnaud. “My son and daughter love him, my wife loves him. Always wants to do anything for anybody.

“Always truly looks out for the best for each person. Wants to teach every young kid everything he’s learned over his career. There’s no ego.”

There’s a little something in it for Fried on his forays next door, typically a Call of Duty session with d’Arnaud. But the home repair – and the willingness to help – comes innately.

“I’ve always had a really, really great support system – people who have been nothing but helpful and love to give or give back,” says Fried. “To be able to show my appreciation for teammates and friends and do certain things – if I get the opportunity to help out or to give to someone, I try to take advantage of that.

“I enjoy it. I try to stay away from power tools – just for the nature of getting hurt – but I enjoy fixing things and doing home projects.”

That mentality – can-do, fix-on-the-fly – can come in handy. Such as in Game 6 of the 2021 World Series, when Fried was primed to put away the Astros – and he got brutally spiked by Michael Brantley, the second batter he faced, on a haywire play at first.

The Braves were beside themselves; d’Arnaud couldn’t stop cursing.

Fried soldiered on – for six innings of shutout ball.

“Any little thing that happens to him,” says d’Arnaud, “we know he’d be able to steer the course and get back to who he is.”

And Fried chafes if he has to wait for that process to unfurl.

After a four-year run that included a 52-20 record, 3.06 ERA (142 adjusted), fifth- and second-place Cy Young Award finishes and his World Series heroics, Fried was sidelined for most of the 2023 season. A forearm strain and hamstring injury limited him to just 14 starts and 77 ⅔ innings.

He still posted a 2.55 ERA, but the Braves were again KO’d from the NL Division Series in Philadelphia. Healthy again this year, Fried got bombed in his first two starts.

He’s been virtually untouchable since.

Fried has a 2.20 ERA in his last 11 starts, including a 92-pitch shutout against Miami on April 22 and a career-high 13 strikeouts against Boston at Fenway Park on June 5.

The method to the magic is that six-pitch mix – a half-dozen offerings that are legitimate, none for show, and all able to be called upon when the situation demands it.

This year, he’s throwing his cutter a bit more often, a different look than his 94-mph fastball. Yet his putaway pitch remains his curveball, a beguiling, big-breaking monster that comes in around 76 mph.

Good luck squaring it up: Fried’s 3.20 ERA and 1.06 WHIP are nice enough, but more telling is the 97th percentile in which his average opponent exit velocity (84.8 mph) and groundball rate (61%) rank.

“Hitting is all about timing,” says Fried. “And if you can disrupt timing, you’re going to give yourself the best chance as a pitcher.

And on a night-to-night basis, the mix – which also includes a changeup, slider and cutter – is a mystery for the hitter.

“If you watch Max in the dugout between innings,” says catcher Sean Murphy, “he’s constantly letting you know – ‘I’ve got this working, I don’t have this working. This feels bad, this feels good.’ That can change throughout the game.

“Max can pitch with a bunch of different styles. He can play north-south, he can play east-west, he can adjust and develop a game plan for the next inning based on what he felt the previous inning.”

Murphy says Fried’s game prep is so vigorous that he can trust the lefty’s conviction, knowing “it comes from a place of knowledge.” That part of his game has probably developed the most in his five full seasons in Atlanta.

“It’s just the consistency and Max’s dedication to the game and what he does – just a consummate pro,” says manager Brian Snitker, whose first full year as manager came in Fried’s 2017 debut season. “And when he’s throwing the ball really well, he’s one of the best in the business.

“It’s been neat that I’ve been on this ride the whole time and seen his growth and maturity and the pitcher he’s become.”

A future in balance

The next stop on the ride is unknown. Fried is perhaps the most prominent player Atlanta has failed to secure on a long-term contract, and he can be a free agent after the season.

Fried says he “hasn’t even begun to think about anything in that realm,” what with the 35-30 Braves trying to get right and secure a wild card spot well within their grasp; chipping away at the Phillies’ 10-game lead is a topic for another month.

The Braves’ offense is so impotent that one lousy hanging curveball – smacked for a three-run homer by Baltimore’s Jorge Mateo on Tuesday night – is enough to send Fried and the Braves to defeat. They went 182 games without getting shut out before facing that indignity twice in six days.

Still, the club eyes a bigger picture. Rookies Spencer Schwellenbach and Hurston Waldrep have arrived, with an eye toward giving the current big three of Fried, Chris Sale and Reynaldo Lopez extra rest.

If ace Spencer Strider is lost to Tommy John surgery, perhaps a staff with more bullets come October will reap a more positive result.

As for Fried, it is all about maintaining equilibrium, about mixing pitches and inducing harmless contact and taking what hitters leave for him. The chess game continues.

“Baseball’s a really funny game,” he said the other night, after the Orioles beat him. “When you’re riding the highs, it’ll humble you. And when you’re riding down low, it’s going to be able to lift you up.

“It always balances out.”

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