The Atlanta Braves have been churning out great pitchers for the past 20 years, it seems. They won their division each season from 1991 through 2005, made the playoffs in 2010 and 2012 (while famously coming one game short in 2011). They lead the National League East in 2013.
But who are the pitchers leading them into this new era? Not Tom Glavine, or John Smoltz, or Greg Maddux. There's Tim Hudson, but he's 37. Kris Medlen has given every indication that his immaculate 2012 was an outlier so far in 2013.
No, the ace of the Atlanta Braves is Mike Minor, who might be the best Braves pitcher since their famous trio, and does so with a style that conjures up Glavine and Maddux.
Entering Saturday's start against the New York Mets, Minor posted a 2.78 ERA over 58 1/3 innings, with a walk rate of just 1.9 per nine innings and a strikeout rate of 7.9 per nine. That ERA is virtually identical to the 2.78 ERA he put up over his final 19 starts of 2012, meaning that for essentially a full season, Mike Minor has pitched like an ace.
And that's particularly interesting, because at this time a year ago, Mike Minor's ERA was around 7, and the Braves had dispatched Kris Medlen to the minor leagues to replace him in the rotation, according to Minor.
"I think there was a point where they sent Medlen down to take my spot," Minor said of his low point in late May 2012 as we spoke in front of his locker at Citi Field prior to Friday night's game. He spoke quietly, thoughtfully, clearly more comfortable discussing his struggles now that he's left them behind. "Work his pitch count up, and everything. And that's when I turned it around.
"Me and the pitching coach, Roger McDowell, talked about it," Minor said. "What really got me in trouble was, I'd give up a single, then I would walks somebody, then I'd give up a home run. And there's three runs right there, rather than attacking every hitter, making them earn the hits."
For a guy who was averaging just 90.3 miles per hour on his fastball, that was a problem. Minor came to the Braves with a top-flight pitching prospect pedigree, but without the overwhelming heat normally associated with pitchers who starred at Vanderbilt (such as his teammate there, David Price) or who get picked seventh overall in the 2009 draft, as Minor was by the Braves.
He moved through the system quickly, debuted in 2010, held his own the next year in 15 starts with a 4.11 ERA and entered 2012, his age-24 season, looking ready to stick around for a while.
Then came the start of 2012, and Minor simply couldn't find any kind of success, for the first time in his career, really.
"Every game, it was like: I need to have a good game, I need to have a good game. And then I'd have a bad game. Every start, I'd have a bad start, and I'd be thinking: all right, what did the pitching coach think? What are the coaches thinking, what's the front office thinking, who's coming up behind me in the minor leagues. There was always this doubt in my head."
That's when Minor changed his approach. Not his pitch selection: Minor threw his fastball, curveball, slider and changeup at roughly the same rates. But he began to throw inside significantly more, and he expanded the areas he was throwing to ("I aimed at thirds of the plate, instead of fourths or corners, or the black," Minor explained), less afraid to make a mistake.
"My plan was to not be scared and timid against anybody, to attack them," Minor said. He pointed to a game against the New York Yankees on June 12 as a turning point for him, in which he gave up one run on five hits over seven innings, and more important, just one walk. Minor had been a good, but not a great control pitcher in the minor leagues. His walk rate entering 2012 in the major leagues had been 3.0 per nine, and entering that game against the Yankees, it had climbed to 3.7. Combined with a home run rate that was a natural outgrowth of Minor's fly ball tendencies, that was a problem.
"When I look back, when I would walk guys, it wasn't like I was erratic," Minor said. "Couple inches outside, couple inches inside, couple of inches high, whatever it was. But I was around the glove. So when I told myself to pitch to thirds, instead of corners or the black, it was a lot easier to hit my spots. Sometimes I'd leave a ball in the middle, and not like every time I leave a ball in the middle it's going to be a home run. But even if it's one, if I keep the walks down, it's a solo shot and I can live with that."
Minor's improved command not only brought down the walks, but pitching in better counts lowered the home run rate as well. Entering that Yankee game, he'd given up 14 home runs in 63 innings. From June 12 on, he allowed 12 home runs in 116 1/3 innings. But it really was necessity that became the mother of invention.
"It was a point where I was down so low, having so many bad games and my ERA skyrocketing, nothing going right for me, I had nowhere to go but up," Minor said. "So my mentality was, I didn't care anymore, I didn't care about the result. I just went out there, tried to execute pitches, and wasn't intimidated anymore."
Minor's memory of the Yankee game as a breakthrough is true to an extent, though he reverted to his earlier struggles over his next few starts, including a five-inning, five-walk game against the Washington Nationals on June 30.
But from July 5 on, Minor was the pitcher he knew he could be. His walk rate was 1.7 per nine over the rest of the season, better than it was at any minor league stop. And he threw his curveball more, and still more this season, knowing that is his strikeout pitch.
"Some days, I do want to throw my curveball more, because I do know that, I do know that not a lot of guys hit it," Minor said. "But some days, it's not very good. So even if that stats say that, on some days, anybody can hit it, because it's not very good."
They sometimes hit Minor's fastball, too. The home runs are still a part of his game. With the second-highest fly ball rate in the league, that's to be expected. Minor actually tried learning a two-seam fastball to complement his four-seam offering this spring, in an attempt to get more ground balls.
"It's a lot harder for me," Minor said. "Some other guys pick it up quicker, I guess. My fly ball to ground ball rate was really high, I gave up a lot of home runs. And if there was a way I could limit that, I felt like-looking back, I didn't give up too many hits, throughout the game. And I always thought, if I could get more ground balls, then I'd have better success."
But when the two-seamer didn't take, Minor reverted to purely using the mid-thigh offering that constitutes his fastball. It's coming in slower this season than last, just 89.7 on average so far this season. And that brings to mind a Brave of the past: Tom Glavine. But Minor won't allow himself to think about those heights just yet.
"When you look back on those guys' legacies, and what they've done...if you think about that, it kind of seems unreachable," Minor said. "Because a lot of those guys have 300 wins, or 200-plus wins and 200-plus saves or whatever it is Smoltz has. So when you look at those numbers, you think: it doesn't seem possible." Minor smiled. "Unless I string a couple of 20 game winner years here, next couple of years."
What Minor is on pace to do is post the best season any Braves starter has logged in quite some time. His ERA+ of 138 is equal to Tim Hudson's mark in 2010, his best as a Brave, and was last bettered by Jair Jurrjens and Javier Vazquez in 2009. To find a Braves starter before that better than Minor's pitched this season, you have to go back to John Smoltz, 2007.
Minor expressed gratitude that the Braves were so patient with him.
"It showed a lot from those guys to stick me out there, start after start after start," Minor said. "I look back on it, and I think, I don't know if I'd be able to do that... I guess they saw something in me, and they were sticking with me for a while."
Everybody sees now what the Braves saw, even Minor, a year after he had nothing to lose. And what does he think that coaching staff he worried, correctly, was preparing to replace him thinks now?
"Hopefully they're thinking, don't mess with this guy," Minor said with a small chuckle. "Just let him pitch, let him run his course. 'Cause we know he can win."