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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Mike Foltynewicz

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Can Folty resurrect his once-promising career in the Bronx?

Atlanta Braves v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Another day and still no movement on the Yankees’ front. For those of you who were hoping for a DJ LeMahieu reunion under the tree, or a starting pitcher to ring in the New Year, my condolences. The winter, as expected, is moving at its most glacial pace in recent memory. However, that will not stop us from continuing to provide breakdowns of any and every player the Yankees could find interesting.

No doubt you have started to become numb to the seemingly inexhaustible list of free agent pitchers. And as we work our way further down that list, we find ourselves scraping through the dregs, picking around the trash heap, hoping to find a prematurely-discarded arm that can be dusted off and polished back into service. And it is here at the very bottom of the barrel that we find Mike Foltynewicz.

Foltynewicz, or Folty as he is better known, once looked like the next ace of the Braves’ rotation. He earned his first All-Star appearance in 2018 and finished eighth in Cy Young voting thanks to a 2.85 ERA, 3.37 FIP, 3.77 xFIP, 3.8 fWAR and 202 strikeouts across 183 innings.

He followed this with an up-and-down 2019, beginning the year on the IL with elbow discomfort, and getting optioned to Triple-A after posting a 6.37 ERA in his first 11 starts. It looked like he had rounded a corner to close out the season, pitching to a 2.65 ERA in his final ten starts, and turned in a dominant Game Two performance in the NLDS, throwing seven innings of three-hit shutout ball against the Cardinals. All that hard work was undone, however, as he was memorably shelled for seven runs in the top of the first inning of that fateful Game Five.

Unfortunately for Folty, that was not the low point of his story. He entered the 2020 season ready to reclaim his spot at the top of the Atlanta rotation, but after spring training was halted he came into summer camp with a much-diminished fastball. He ended up making only one start for the Braves, getting clubbed for six earned runs in 3.1 innings including three home runs. He was immediately designated for assignment — reportedly before the game even ended — and spent the rest of the season at the alternate site after clearing waivers. And so that is how a former budding star pitcher now finds himself as a minor league free agent this winter.

So why would the Yankees even be interested in this guy? Well first off, beggars can’t be choosers. Folty would have to demonstrate that he has recovered his fastball velocity to truly be worthy of consideration, but it is not out of the realm of possibility. He entered last spring with his fastball sitting 93-96 before returning in the summer having lost close to 20 pounds and with a fastball that barely touched 90. It is certainly not as simple as gaining that weight back, but it might be a good starting point.

Folty’s case reminds me a lot of two other free agent pitchers we have profiled this winter: James Paxton and Corey Kluber. All three had lost seasons in 2020, and all lost significant velocity on their fastballs. But unlike Paxton and Kluber — and what make’s Folty’s case more concerning — is that his decline is not linked to injury. No one really knows the root cause of his troubles.

Much like Paxton, Folty relies heavily on his fastball velocity to be effective. I looked at his numbers from 2018 versus the two preceding seasons, and they are pretty similar, leading me to wonder what allowed him to breakout in 2018. He actually allowed less hard contact and fewer barrels in 2016-17, and the movement profiles of his pitches stays pretty stable in that time span, so what changed?

The answer: fastball velocity. His four-seamer gained almost a mile per hour in 2018, and this had a profound effect on the rest of his pitches. The put-away rate on his breaking pitches jumped ten percentage points as batters had to cheat just that little bit more to catch up with the fastball, resulting in a 50 point drop in xwOBA against said pitches. His chase contact rate fell over 10 percentage points and his strikeout rate rose to a career high 27.2%.

So what does this mean for the Yankees? If the fastball velocity has not recovered, then not much. But if he is pumping the gas, then the potential upside is enormous. Taking a flyer is a no-lose scenario for Yankees. If it doesn’t pan out, you’re only paying him a minor league salary. If he returns to form, we’re talking about a former front-of-the-rotation arm signed for the minimum. When he’s on, Folty commands three plus-plus out pitches with swing-and-miss potential. Given the sorry state of the Yankees rotation, it can’t hurt to check.