Stokke On Baseball
After a poor start, Astros top prospect Mike Foltynewicz is making his case for the majors
A 2.87 ERA in Double-A, 13 innings with the Major League spring training team allowing just two runs. All of it was down the drain after just three Triple-A appearances for Mike Foltynewicz, and he felt like it was back to square one. Back to defending himself, back to the end of the food chain that is minor league baseball.
All of that momentum, poof, gone. Three appearances, nine runs in just seven innings, 11 hits, six strikeouts and those dreaded six walks. A frustrated Foltynewicz heard all the critics say once again he wasn’t ready and was nothing more than a fastball.
There was no one more critical on Foltynewicz to start the season than himself. Considered a longshot at best to make the team out of camp, Foltynewicz thought he did enough to earn a Houston Astros jersey. He was handed an Oklahoma City Redhawks one instead.
“It was more of a let down. I had high expectations to make the team out of camp,” he said following his start in Nashville on Sunday. “To get that sent-down call puts a dagger in your confidence.”
Confidence, control, momentum. It was all lost.
“I lost concentration for the first few days and weeks,” he admitted. “The hitters were good, and I wasn’t using my change or curve a lot. I was taking out my frustration by trying to throw the ball past everyone.”
That works in A-ball, maybe even Double-A. Triple-A? Forget about it. But there was a little more to it than that. Admittedly by just about any pitcher you ask, pitching in the Astros’ piggyback system can be a hassle. The system pairs eight starting pitchers together. One game you start, and the next turn in the rotation you pitch in relief. Adjusting to the idea wasn’t easy last year for Foltynewicz. This year was no different.
“I’ve been a starter my whole,” he said. “It’s a whole different approach mentally starting to relieving. You don’t know when you’ll get the call. You don’t know how long you have to warm up. You have to use all your pitches right away because you won’t see the hitters two or three times.”
Foltynewicz started and earned his first win on April 15th, appeared once more in the piggyback, and on April 24th Foltynewicz started for the first time without any piggyback restrictions.
Since then, Foltynewicz has made five starts and thrown 27 innings allowing just six runs, striking out 28 and walking 13. His K/9 are up from last year. His BB/9 are down. His strikeout percentage is at a career-high.
It was a combination of maturation and one nasty combination.
“God-given ability only gets you so far. Now it's about location and reading swings,” he said, showing how far he’s come from thrower with a rocket launcher on his right shoulder to a thinking pitcher. “I’ve worked really hard the last 2-3 years on those aspects. I’m even watching videos of Justin Verlander. He’s a guy that can blow it by anyone, but he doesn’t force it. He works on getting that first pitch strike and goes from there.”
And then there’s that changeup. All the talk in the offseason was the changing of his curveball. His curveball, he says, is major-league ready. But his changeup, which registers 15 miles per hour slower, is the one that’s making strides. And one that is almost impossible to hit in combination with his triple-digit fastball.
“The coaches saw how good it could be last year, but it’s really been night and day from 2012 until now,” he said. “Now I can throw it in any count and I’m confident in it. I have to have it. It’s my best off-speed pitch. If they hit it, they don’t hit it very hard or it's just a pop-up.”
That was on display in his most recent start against the Nashville Sounds. Hitless through four innings and out in front of every changeup and behind every fastball, the Sounds managed two hits in the fifth. One was off a changeup that went about 17 feet slowly down the third baseline. The other was a bloop single--another changeup--that fell in the right place.
Foltynewicz has had plenty of help from the guys around him. Nick Tropeano and Jake Buchanan, two of Foltynewicz’s best friends on the team, are also pitching well this year. Tropeano is sitting with a 2.95 ERA and Buchanan (2.63 ERA) is coming off a complete game shutout. The competition between the three is enough that each one tries to outdo the other every time out.
Then there’s Robbie Grossman, who started the year as an outfielder with the Astros. Grossman told Foltynewicz that because he throws harder and comes with the title of “Top Prospect” players are more locked in against him which requires more concentration from Foltynewicz. That was none more evident than his appearances against New Orleans.
“I’m just trying to learn as much as I can down here. Whether it’s learning from my teammates or trying out something different with my pitches, I’m just trying to learn.”
One thing he continues to learn is how to deal with the pressures that come with the territory. Last week Foltynewicz became Twitter verified, a place where fans love to remind him about his poor performances. As the Astros continue to lose at the major league level, eyes start wandering towards the minors wondering who’s coming to save the day. When those names struggle, look out.
“Fans don’t realize that we hate losing more than them,” he said. “We want to win for our team, our city, our fans and our family. Everyone blames us and it can hurt. I can promise we aren’t out there trying to get lit up. We’re just doing the best we can and trying to learn every day.”
But as much attention as the two poor outings earlier in the season received, some positive light should be shed on his 2.88 ERA this year as a starter. As each successful start passes by, the Major Leagues get closer.
At 22 years old, that has to be a little exciting...right?
“I’ve been excited for the last two years, but I’ve just got to stay focused. You never know what can happen. You hear things, but you just have to take it day-by-day and not believe the hype. I don’t know if it will be tomorrow, next week, next month or next year.”
Only general manager Jeff Luhnow has that answer. But a team can only be patient for so long, especially with pitchers. At some point, a 2.87 Double-A ERA and a 2.88 Triple-A ERA has to be enough for a top prospect to earn a shot. There is a glaring hole in the No. 5 spot for the Astros this year behind Scott Feldman, Jarred Cosart, Dallas Keuchel and surprising Collin McHugh.
Being cautious with hitters is one thing. Pitchers can’t be so sure. With the recent Tommy John epidemic going through young arms like Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez, Jarrod Parker, Matt Moore, Jameson Taillon and so many more, a pitcher can’t help to be worried about wasting his arm in the minors. And a team has to be worried about wasting them just as much as protecting them.
“It makes me nervous,” Foltynewicz admitted. “I had elbow soreness at the end of last year. Talking with guys who’ve had it done, they’ll tell me that some days it’s good and some it’s not. It can happen out of nowhere. It’s very scary.
“It’s something you hate to see or read about for anyone. Sometimes people with perfect mechanics get it; sometimes people with funky deliveries don’t. It’s unpreventable. Your arm only has so many bullets. But it’s our livelihood and that’s a year of your career that you lose. There's no guarantee you'll come back, either."
Baseball is a business, and the business part of baseball plays a role in where Foltynewicz can use his bullets. Ask George Springer. Ask Jon Singleton. He’s not alone. But with starters like Rudy Owens, Brett Oberholtzer, Asher Wojciechowski, Alex White and David Martinez all ahead of Foltynewicz on the 40-man roster and in the minors, who knows when the business side will allow for Foltynewicz to start helping the winning side of the Astros.
The question everyone wants to know is if he will be called up this year. So why not ask him?
“Should I? Yes. Will I? Probably not.”
The business side of baseball is at square one, and it can make Foltynewicz feel like he’s still stuck there, too. But the numbers, the tape and the pitcher are much further along than that.