By Bill Simons
Game six of the 2021 World Series – November 2, 2021 – produced an indelible Jewish vignette. During the bottom of the second inning, Atlanta Braves pitcher Max Fried faced Houston Astros batter Alex Bregman. Bregman lined Fried’s pitch to rightfield where the Braves’ Joc Pederson speared the drive for an out. Pederson, Fried and Bregman are all Jewish. Garret Stubbs, a reserve, came off the bench to catch the ninth inning for the Astros. Four is not a minyan, but it set a record for Jewish players in a World Series game.
Fried pitched masterfully in game six before 42,868 in-person fans, mainly Astros’ partisans, at Minute Maid Park in Downtown Houston. Another 14 million viewers watched the live Fox Sports broadcast. The Astros have formidable offense, loaded with dangerous batters, but on this night, Fried silenced the Houston bats.
Game six provided redemption for Fried. Uncharacteristically, he had faltered in his last two post-season outings. Fried’s game five performance in the National League Championship Series, on October 21, was a disaster. Against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game five of the NLCS, Fried, the losing pitcher, was removed after 4.2 innings, having given up eight hits, five earned runs and two walks, as well as hitting a batter. On October 27, in game two of the World Series, Fried, pitching five-plus innings before exiting as the losing pitcher, yielded seven hits and a walk, threw two wild pitches and allowed six earned runs. Critics charged that Fried, who posted a 14-7 won-loss record and 3.04 ERA during the regular season, folded when it mattered most.
Fried soon silenced the naysayers. As the Braves starting and winning pitcher in game six, he returned to form, pitching six strong innings. It did not begin well, however. Jose Altuve, the Astros’ diminutive dynamo, led off with a single, beating out a ground ball to shortstop. On a Michael Brantley dribbler, Fried, normally an outstanding fielder, bumbled coverage of first base and was charged with an error, putting a second Astro on base. Even more ominously, Brantley stomped on Fried’s right ankle. Fortunately, Fried’s ankle proved impervious to the Brantley rubber-cleat spiking. Then, Fried rebooted. With Houston runners on first and second base and no outs, Fried set down the formidable middle of the Astros’ batting order. Deftly mixing a repertoire of four-seamed fastballs, change-ups, curves and sliders, Maximus, as Fried is known, allowed only four scratch hits and did not issue any walks. Of his 74 pitches, 50 were strikes. The Astros failed to score in a 7-0 game that made the Braves the 2021 World Series champions and established Max Fried as a big-game pitcher, baseball celebrity and Jewish hero.
The ultimate measure of a Jewish pitcher is how he stacks up against the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax. After game six of the 2021 World Series, some Jewish pundits and fans suggested that Fried was the second coming of Koufax. Such encomiums are premature. Although Koufax retired in 1966, the 27-year-old Fried honored his hero by requesting Koufax’s number 32 on his high school uniform. Both southpaws are tall, handsome, intelligent, modest, circumspect and gifted. While Koufax packed 205 pounds of sleek, hard muscle on a 6’2” frame, the 6’4”, 190 pound Fried, although possessed of an imposing wing span and delivery, has found the adjective “skinny” attached to him.
More to the point, contemporary pitch counts, five-man rotations and the ubiquity of relief specialists impede today’s hurlers from matching the on-field presence possible in Koufax’s generation. For example, Fried in 2021, pitching only 165 innings (limited early in the season by a pulled hamstring and index-finger blister), completed two games – only one behind the NL high – and his two shutouts tied for the league lead. In contrast, Koufax, over 311 innings in 1963, completed 20 games and recorded 11 shutouts. Fried’s top three season win totals (17, 14, 7) juxtaposed to those of Koufax (27, 26, 25) suggest differences in context and performance. Koufax holds the edge over Fried in strikeout average per 9 innings (9.3 to 9). Koufax topped the circuit five times in earned run average, thrice in victories, twice in won-lost percentage and four-fold in strikeouts; pitched a then record four no-hitters, including a perfect game; and won a Most Valuable Player and three Cy Young awards. In the preceding categories, Fried, at this juncture, is absent, aside from registering a perfect 1.000 won-lost percentage during the COVID-abbreviated 2020 season.
The arc of Fried’s career, however, may come to exceed Koufax’s in some areas. While Koufax was an atrocious hitter, Fried is an excellent batsman for a pitcher, hitting .273 in 2021 and earning a Silver Slugger award. Winner of two Gold Glove awards, Fried is the better fielder. Moreover, Fried’s current career won-lost percentage is a phenomenal .690, exceeding Koufax’s .655. Due to an excruciatingly painful arm injury, Koufax, at age 30, retired, at his absolute peak. If he remains healthy and durable, Fried, currently with 40 total wins, may well pass Koufax’s 165 career victories.
Statistics aside, Koufax is a legend to Jews because, coming off an incredible 1965 regular season (26-8 won-lost mark, 2.04 ERA, then record 382 strikeouts), he refused to pitch the opening game of the World Series as it fell on Yom Kippur. Koufax came back to shut out the Minnesota Twins in game five. Then, with only two days of rest, Koufax shut out the Twins again, making the Dodgers the World Series champions. Perhaps Fried, who played for the U.S. junior baseball team in the 2009 Maccabiah Games in Israel and appears more synagogue-inclined than Koufax, will have his iconic Jewish baseball moment.
Make no mistake: Fried is the real deal. During the second half of the 2021 season, he emerged as the NL’s most dominant pitcher (8 wins-2 losses, 1.74 ERA after the All-Star break). Time will tell if Fried is on a Hall of Fame trajectory – and challenges the great Koufax for the top spot on the all-time Jewish all-star pitching rotation.