Sean Newcomb, Mike Foltynewicz Excel As Braves' Other Dynamic Duo
ATLANTA—As the one-third mark of the season approaches, it's the rebuilding Braves who own the best record in the National League.
They were supposed to be one year away, but they are here now. A lot of factors have played into their accelerated success, but two players in particular have stood out as catalysts.
No, not those two. The other two.
Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz have taken enormous steps forward in their development this year, and with them they’ve carried the Braves' pitching staff into the upper echelon of the National League.
Newcomb is 4-1, 2.80 and on a run of 20 consecutive scoreless innings. Foltynewicz is 3-2, 2.87 and ranks fifth in the National League with 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings.
With those two leading the way, the Braves have gone from 24th in the majors in ERA (4.72) last season to tied for sixth (3.47) this season. It’s an 18-spot jump, even larger than the one taken by their offense, which has gone from 20th to third in the majors in scoring.
“Guys like Newk and Folty, you feel like they’ve been around but they’re still very, very young and at the age when people used to just be coming in,” said Braves starter Brandon McCarthy, a 13-year big league veteran. “Now they’re three, four years into their career. It’s very impressive how good everybody is here, and then you quickly forget they’re all as young as they are.”
Foltynewicz, 26, and Newcomb, 24, both came to the Braves in 2015 as Atlanta escalated its rebuild. Foltynewicz came over from the Astros in the Evan Gattis trade in January, and Newcomb joined in November as the top prospect acquired in the Andrelton Simmons deal.
While unproven, they weren’t exactly lottery tickets. Foltynewicz ranked as the No. 59 prospect in 2014 and had already made his major league debut. Newcomb was the No. 70 prospect in the game and had already excelled at Double-A.
Still, it took time.
Foltynewicz had a 4.87 ERA through the first 85 games (65 starts) of his career. Newcomb walked more than five batters per nine innings at both Triple-A and in his big league debut last year.
But they were still in their early to mid-20s. And that youth meant, even in the age of instant gratification and the expectation of instant prospect impact, they had potential excellence ahead of them.
More experience begat more confidence, and more confidence has begat that excellence.
“The difference is maturity and confidence,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It’s kind of any young player, I think the more you get them out there, the more they get confidence in themselves. They figure some things out. There’s nothing like that on-the-job training for these guys.”
Though both boast upper-90s velocity, the confidence in their stuff hasn’t always been there.
In Newcomb’s case, it was the confidence that he could locate his fastball that didn’t come until this season.
“Fastball command has been better, and that’s kind of played up with all my other pitches,” Newcomb said. “I’d been confident with everything else, everything else has been working ... It was just more of a repetition thing, just build confidence, know I could go in the zone more (with my fastball) and knowing that I can do things to avoid hard contact and miss some bats. Confidence has definitely been the biggest thing with the fastball.”
For Foltynewicz, it was a case of being confident his stuff was good enough as is, and he didn’t need to overthrow or reach for an extra gear to have success.
“Even with how good these (hitters) are, sometimes we give them just a little bit too much credit,” Foltynewicz said. “We try to throw our slider too nasty or try to throw our fastball too hard instead of letting them get out or pop up or put it into play. They’re good, their going to put the ball in play. We just have to figure out what to throw and trust our stuff.”
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It sounds simple enough, but in reality, there’s no substitute for the experience it takes for it all to come together.
“It’s time,” McCarthy said. “You’ve been afforded the time and luxury of being able to make multiple starts, dozens of starts, and then everyone is less guesswork. You get to refine, ‘This works, this doesn’t.’ You teach yourself how to be confident in a situation, there’s less fear of what’s going to happen. You start to pitch with a lot of confidence.
"It sounds easy and cliché, but it’s a very real thing. Eventually you throw more and more pitches and it’s less guesswork. You know what you’re doing. It’s just time.”
The wait for Foltynewicz and Newcomb to show the talent that made them such highly touted prospects stretched longer than some would have liked, but their timing couldn’t be more impeccable. They are reaching their ceiling just as the Braves’ wave of offensive talent is materializing, and that synchronization has elevated Atlanta into contention earlier than anyone anticipated.
Now, Newcomb and Foltynewicz aren't just around for the buzz surrounding the Braves.
They are a huge part of the reason for it.
“There’s been a pretty good buzz between us and everyone around us,” Newcomb said. “It’s starting to build a little. It’s an exciting time.”