The Minor fall: From Braves pillar to non-tendered

He’s no longer a Brave. (AJC file photo)

On Oct. 4, 2013, Mike Minor started Game 2 of the NLDS against the Dodgers. The Atlanta Braves had lost Game 1 to Clayton Kershaw and now got the huge break of facing — pause to allow sarcasm to seep through — Zach Greinke. Had the Braves lost Game 2, they’d have faced elimination. Had they lost Game 2, the 96-game-winning National League East champs would essentially have been done.

Mike Minor beat Zack Greinke that night. The Braves won 4-3 to square the series and, albeit briefly, keep hope alive. (Hope was quashed in Game 4 when Fredi Gonzalez allowed Juan Uribe to face David Carpenter with the great Craig Kimbrel ready in the bullpen.) Greinke left after six innings, his team trailing 2-1. He’d yielded four hits and no walks. He was very good. Minor was better.

It started badly. Minor walked Mark Ellis, the game’s second batter, and then Hanley Ramirez, who hit everything thrown his way that year, doubled to right to make it 1-nil. Sitting in the press box, a guy — OK, this guy — thought, “Here we go.” (And not in a good way.) But Minor induced groundouts from Adrian Gonzalez and Yasiel Puig. That early run would be the only one yielded by Minor, who lasted 6 1/3 pressurized innings.

The Dodgers led off with singles in the second, third and fourth and managed a one-out double in the sixth. Minor kept dancing away. Double-play grounder in the second. Double-play grounder in the third. Strikeout of Puig in the fourth. Strikeouts of Gonzalez and Uribe in the sixth. This was tenacious October pitching from a man who, until that night, hadn’t been known for his tenacity.

The Braves liked Minor enough to make him the seventh pick of the 2009 draft. He was a college pitcher (Vanderbilt), and the book says you shouldn’t draft college pitchers because they’ve burned through too many amateur innings, but the Braves under Frank Wren didn’t always read the book. (We note that Roger Clemens went to college. Stephen Strasburg, too. But he mightn’t be the best example.) Minor was a polished left-hander who projected as maybe a No. 2 starter, and the Braves in 2009 were desperate for even a No. 5 starter.

By 2010, he was in the rotation, though the Braves were already beginning to wonder. Before a September game in Philadelphia — the Braves were trying to reclaim a blown lead in the NL East, trying in vain — manager Bobby Cox asked reporters: “Is (Minor) telling you he’s tired?” (Minor had started the night before against the Phillies and lasted only 2 1/3 innings.)

He made 15 big-league starts in 2011, splitting time between the minors, no pun intended, and the big club. In 2012, he seemed one of the worst pitchers in the majors over the first two months. When June began, his ERA was 6.98. (Minor told us reporters he was making “too many non-competitive pitches.”) But Fredi G., in classic Fredi G. mode, Kept Running Him Out There. This time the KRHOT tack worked.

On May 22, I’d written a little something suggesting that, if we went by xFIP — FIP is “Fielding Independent Pitching,” and “x” factors in a pitcher’s home-run rate, which for Minor, who’d yielded 12, was off the chart — Minor had actually pitched not much worse than teammate Brandon Beachy, who was leading the majors in ERA. That post is no longer available on the Internet, alas, but Ben Lindbergh, then the editor of Baseball Prospectus, preserved some of the sabermetric-bashing comments here.

Near year’s end, Ben wrote to ask: Why was Minor so much better over the rest of the season? (His ERA in July was 1.98. In September it was 0.87. He’d have made a postseason start had the Braves’ postseason lasted longer than the infield-fly wild card game.) Thinking cap donned, I emailed back: “I think he just figured out how to pitch.”

I cringed at deploying such a cliche, but I didn’t know what else to say. Minor hadn’t — like another Braves lefty, name of Glavine — discovered a circle changeup while fooling around in the outfield. He hadn’t taken to throwing underhanded. He was the same guy, pretty much, but he was making competitive pitches.

Ben wrote a very good post for B.P. — Ben writes nothing but very good posts; he one’s of the best writers on any sport — digging into the numbers and using GIFs as before/after case studies, and after all this he still wasn’t sure why Minor had gone from non-competitive to really good. His final paragraph:

“So, which was most responsible for Minor’s second-half success: more mixing of pitches, better fastball, or better luck? (Or something else entirely!) Did Minor stop serving up hits and homers because his luck turned and more balls began to find gloves? Or did he succeed because he started doing things that were more likely to lead to outs?”

Whatever the case, the Braves had reason to believe they were onto something. Sure enough, Minor took a great leap forward in 2013. He was 13-9 with a 3.21 ERA. FanGraphs assessed his WAR value at 3.5, which is good for a starting pitcher. (Shelby Miller’s WAR value for 2015 was 3.4.) Beating Greinke in the NLDS affixed the cherry atop a lovely season.

And then … nothing. Minor had urinary tract surgery over the winter, fell behind in his conditioning and, trying to do too much too soon in spring training, hurt his shoulder. His first start came May 2. In five of his first 15 starts, he yielded 10 or more hits. He finished the season with an ERA of 4.77. He hasn’t thrown another pitch for the Atlanta Braves since.

He missed last season. He had exploratory shoulder surgery in May. In July, team president John Hart was optimistic the Braves would have Minor back for 2016, but the shoulder didn’t cooperate. As of midnight Wednesday, the team still hadn’t seen him throw off a mound. At midnight Wednesday, they non-tendered him. At 27, he’s a free agent.

Which goes, yet again, to show: Baseball is a funny ol’ game, especially where arms are concerned. In 2013, you’d have sworn Minor would be a pillar of this rotation for the next five years. But shoulders are tricky — trickier than elbows, which usually can be fixed by one round of Tommy John surgery — and nobody knows how Minor’s shoulder will be.

When word came of the non-tender, I flashed back to a conversation with Mark Bowman, the outstanding journalist who covers the Braves for MLB.com, that October night in 2013. We’d come back upstairs after the usual interviews, and I said — again getting really profound — “How about Mike Minor?”

Said Bowman: “He showed me something tonight.”

He showed us all something that night. And then … nothing.

Reader Comments 0

17 comments
jamsess
jamsess

Well he wound up with a 2-yr contract, so somebody sees something in him!

mgunter
mgunter

Why doesn't AJC do an opinion poll on who should take over for Bradley and Schultz ?

Howardgarrett
Howardgarrett

I agree UGA75, Bradley doesn't have guts to stick up for a man like Coach Richt publicly. I expect a good journalist to see or perceive truth in reporting. If a writer, even "rose colored glasses" type like Bradley, can't see Glory before their eyes, then why read their opinion?

Not realizing special time or Glory in Georgia football and calling for Coach Richt's job, is same as calling for Bobby Cox's job during Braves' heydays in the 90's.

I guess he (Bradley) got A's in english and can write. He just needs someone to tell him (Schultz) what to write. Oh, and let's be nice about it!

Give me SOMEONE at AJC that opines with wisdom! It will sell papers, too. Too bad Furman Bisher is not around to mentor these boys!

UGA75
UGA75

Mark good to see you get off the Richt bandwagon and go to another subject you know nothing about, baseball  This is what you do best rehash other people's thoughts and statements and present them as your own in a slightly different look.


Back to UGA football, who is going to play QB for the Bulldawgs next year. Eason has decommitted, Bauta left, Ramsey is reported leaving, no QB recruited next year and only Lambert left. Remember you were in favor of this, congratulations!

Chilidawg
Chilidawg

@UGA75  Let's see if I have this right.  Ramsey was not good enough to play this year, and it's a negative that he might not be here next year.  Maybe Ramsey is leaving because of the way Richt and Shotty treated him.

mthomas
mthomas

Maybe the Cubs have the right formula nowadays. Your draft picks should go to good hitters. Pitchers have too many arm problems along the way, and shoulder issues too. They miss full season. And like Minor, they may never come back. Draft hitters, and fill out your pitching staff later

moboman
moboman

@mthomas thats the problem with amassing all those prospect arms.  You never know if they will last.  Remember when we were "set" with Beachy, Minor, Jurgens, Hanson, and Medlen?  How did that work out?  I will take position players any day, and then buy pitchers with PROVEN longevity.

MaybeMaybeNot
MaybeMaybeNot

One day Steve Avery was a lock to be the next great Braves pitcher with Smoltz and Glavine.  Then one day he was stinking worse than dog poo poo.  It happens.  This is baseball.  

extremus
extremus

Mr. Bradley, I can't believe you missed such an obvious opportunity for symmetry in your article's title: The Minor Fall: From Brave Pillar to Post-Brave

DrPhill
DrPhill

The Braves' organization sucks at all levels and shows nothing but contempt for the shrinking fan base.

DawgDadII
DawgDadII

A lot of pitchers have roughly followed his career track. Too bad he wasn't targeted for A-ball, the Braves would pay trade an under-30 MLB starter or pitcher to hang on to him and boost their prospect rankings.

ErvinOliver
ErvinOliver


Wonderfully written piece, MB!


Nice to have the unbiased perspective of a long time observer of Atlanta sports to remind us of what is too often very forgettable. Minor was indeed regarded as a permanent piece for the future...until one day he wasn't. That Game 2 versus Greinke is probably his career highlight. And a pretty good one to have at that!


Here's hoping the NEW future staff aces fare better than the OLD future staff aces.

Savdon
Savdon

He'll end up in DC and throw 2 one-hitters against ATL.

BenjaminSheffield
BenjaminSheffield

Braves fall has been highlighted - and yes, I know that isn't the right word here, but I couldn't think of any better - by those of Medlen, Hanson, Minor, Beachy, Venters, and Carpenter.  And Teheran and Wood have both lost about a foot off their fastball from where they stood a couple years ago.

There's something more to that to me than simply poor luck.  We need to be examining how we work these guys.

AnsweredTHIS
AnsweredTHIS

FIRST!


To not care about the Braves anymore...