The Atlanta Braves were mainly known for their dynamic starting pitching staff in the 1990s. In every year from 1991-2007 (with the exception of 2003), the Braves had at least one pitcher top 4.0 fWAR, according to Fangraphs. And that run of pitching wasn't powered solely by Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz, as Tim Hudson, Jaret Wright, Kevin Millwood, John Burkett, Denny Neagle, and Steve Avery also cleared the four win mark during that run in the 1990s. But things have been a bit different over the last five seasons. Atlanta has had just two four win seasons from starters in the last five years: Javier Vazquez in 2009, and Tommy Hanson in 2010.
Including 2013, only four Braves starters have cracked 100 starts since 2008. The only one still with the club is Tim Hudson, who will be a free agent at the end of the year. Hudson is also the only Braves pitcher to top 10.0 fWAR since 2008, and of the six pitchers aside from Hudson that have amassed at least 6.0 fWAR, four are no longer with the team, one is the team's dominant closer (Craig Kimbrel), and one is a player who has made just 37 starts and accrued a third of his value as a reliever (Kris Medlen). To say that there's a different era in Braves baseball right now is a huge understatement.
However, one pitcher is beginning to stand out from the pack in Atlanta. He was overshadowed in the second half last year by Medlen, but was pretty awesome himself after putting together a 2.16 ERA and 1.8 fWAR in 87 1/3 innings over 14 starts. This year, he's chipped in another 0.7 fWAR in 45 2/3 innings over seven starts while posting a 2.96 ERA. From the All-Star Break last season into this year, he's struck out 104 and walked just 24 in 133 innings with a 2.44 ERA. Because of all that, it's starting to look like Mike Minor is going to be the next Braves pitcher.
Why will Minor succeed when pitchers like Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens failed? After those two were forced down fans' throats for years, it's understandable for the fanbase to be concerned about yet another young, potential-laden starter. And while there are some similarites between the three pitchers, Minor clearly separates himself from each of those two.
First off, there's the issue of durability. After starting 30 plus games in his first two seasons as a Brave, Jurrjens didn't qualify for an ERA title in his final three years as a Brave. Even if you give him the benefit of the doubt and add minor league and major league starts together, he never made more than 24 starts in a season after those first two seasons. As for Hanson, he only *didn't* make at least 30 starts in his Braves career (accounting for his late callup in 2009) in 2011. However, Hanson's velocity began to fall like a rock starting in 2010, leading to his lack of effectiveness as a starter. The same thing happened with Jurrjens, but at least he had numerous DL stints to point the finger at.
The next major difference between Minor and the Jurrjens/Hanson combo is command. Jurrjens' career best strikeout to walk ratio was just 2.05, which was actually below the league average during each year of his tenure in Atlanta. Keep in mind, that was his *best* mark, but his average (which was even worse at 1.92). Hanson's was a bit better, topping out at 3.09 and averaging 2.67 (including 2013), but that mark continually slid downwards as his velocity slid, bottoming out at 2.27 in 2012.
Whereas Jurrjens and Hanson really couldn't adjust, Minor is continually adjusting. This season, he's thrown first pitch strikes to 64.9% of batters faced, taking after his teammates Medlen (72.0%) and Hudson (71.4%). Immediately getting ahead in the count has seen Minor cut his walk rate this year to 1.58 per nine innings, one of the best marks in the National League. Minor also has the perfect combination going in pitches outside of the strike zone: hitters are swinging at more of those pitches, and making contact on less.
Perhaps the one thing holding Minor back from being an elite pitcher in the league is his home run rate, which ha *always* been a problem. He's allowed six homers in seven starts this year, and in the second half last season, he allowed seven in 14 starts. But just because a pitcher allows a lot of homers, that doesn't mean he's not a damn good, top of the rotation starter. Jake Peavy and Cliff Lee were two of the best starters in baseball last season, and both allowed at least 25 homers last season (even though that's generally an outlier for them). Dan Haren, Cole Hamels, and James Shields all have had homer problems over their careers, and they're three of the best pitchers in the game when healthy.
As long as Minor keeps his stingy walk rate intact, he could end up being the next pitcher in the mold of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz in Atlanta. The Braves have been looking for that guy, and with Hudson likely heading out of town next year, I think Minor has the best shot of being that guy.