Tuesday, September 27, 2022

How Braves rookie Spencer Strider used a two-pitch mix to become one of MLB’s most dominant starters

The Atlanta Braves, the reigning World Series champions, are going to make the playoffs. The question the Braves have to answer over the ensuing two weeks is whether they’ll win their fifth consecutive National League East crown, or if they’ll have to settle for a wild-card spot. Wherever the Braves end up, they can credit their success this season in part to the emergence of right-handed rookie Spencer Strider.

Strider, 23, flirted with a no-hitter against the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday, keeping them off the board into the sixth inning. He’d surrender a home run to Alec Bohm that dashed his attempt at a no-hitter, but he finished the afternoon with the following line: six innings, one run on one hit, three walks, and 10 strikeouts. In other words, it was another dominant start from someone who has compiled their share as of late.

It’s hard to remember now, but Strider was not featured in a meaningful way early in the season. He didn’t make his first start until May 30, his 12th appearance of the year. His first 11 outings included plenty of low-leverage assignments. Since moving to the rotation, however, Strider has become a pivotal member of the Braves pitching staff by producing as one of the best starters in the game. 

Coming into Sunday, Strider had accumulated a 2.84 ERA and a 5.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 19 starts, giving him marks similar to San Francisco Giants lefty Carlos Rodón, the major-league leader in Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs’ calculations. Check out how Strider (only as a starter) stacked up versus Rodón prior to Sunday’s game:

Rodón

167.2

2.84

32.8%

7.3%

Strider

101.1

2.84

37.8%

7.6%

The Rodón comparison is useful in another sense as both he and Strider are two-pitch starters. Whereas Rodón chucks his fastball and slider a combined 92.6 percent of the time, Strider takes it even a step further: his fastball and slider usage account for 95 percent of his pitches. That Strider has been able to succeed with a predictable formula speaks to larger changes across the league, as well as the quality of his two offerings.

Indeed, Strider might have the best fastball in the majors. His heater features above-average break horizontally and vertically, and its 98.2-mph average velocity ranks third among pitchers with at least 500 thrown this season, behind Baltimore Orioles closer Félix Bautista and Cincinnati Reds flamethrower Hunter Greene. Believe it or not, Strider’s fastball plays even hotter than that number indicates. Despite being listed at 6-foot, he’s able to get far down the mound. His extension, or the distance from the pitching rubber to his release point, is closer to seven feet. Covering so much distance empowers his fastball to play about a mile per hour faster as a result.

Strider’s fastball benefits from his release point in other respects, too. His stature and release depth create a flatter angle from his hand to the top of the zone, constructing an optical illusion for hitters to solve. They haven’t succeeded. Strider has coerced whiffs on more than 37 percent of the swings taken against his fastball in the upper-third of the zone this season. The league-average, for reference, is 29 percent. 

Strider’s slider, meanwhile, is tied with New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom‘s for the highest whiff rate among its kind. If there is a drawback to the pitch, it’s that batters don’t swing at Strider’s slider (46.7 percent) nearly as often as they do deGrom’s (63.5 percent). The opposition’s selectivity is a product, in part, of Strider’s tendency to throw his slider in non-competitive spots: he ranks in the 12th percentile in that respect. Obviously his slider location hasn’t impacted his ability to flourish; still, it gives him a potential area of improvement he can work on this winter.

Before Strider can think too much about his offseason to-do list, he’ll need to focus on finishing strong in order to assist the Braves’ hopes of repeating as champions. He’s already in uncharted waters: his 131 innings marks a new career-high, as well as the first time in his life that he’s sailed past the triple-digit threshold. Strider doesn’t appear any worse for the wear at this point — even prior to Sunday’s game, he had opened September with a 16-strikeout performance against the Colorado Rockies — but it’s worth monitoring if and how the Braves curb his workload heading forward. 

After all, Strider has ascended from a fourth-round pick to a big part of the Braves rotation in short order. If he can keep this up heading forward, he’ll also find himself as a key figure in the annual NL Cy Young Award conversations, too.

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