The Braves’ fifth-round, and final, selection in the shortened 2020 MLB Player Draft, righty Bryce Elder made his Major League debut early in the 2022 season and eventually made nine spot starts for the Braves over the course of the campaign. While he experienced several ups and downs at the big league level, Elder’s seminal rookie moment came when he threw a crucial complete game shutout in a win over the Washington Nationals in late September, the only pitcher to record a complete game for the Braves in 2022.
As mentioned, Elder was the team’s fifth-round pick in the barebones 2020 MLB draft. He flew through three minor league rungs in 2021, and then was added to the 40-man and active roster on April 12, as the Braves needed him to fill a rotation spot.
What were the expectations?
Elder started the 2022 calendar year as the team’s No. 10 prospect based on our rankings, but found himself a couple of places higher by the start of the season following the trade of both Shea Langeliers and Cristian Pache to Oakland for Matt Olson. As a polished college arm, Elder had advanced quickly through the system, rising from Rome to Gwinnett in 2021 and seemed poised to make his Major League debut at some point during the 2022 season.
Elder had pitched incredibly well at Double-A (56 innings across nine starts with a 3.21 ERA, 3.96 FIP, and 3.17 xFIP) and held his own at Triple-A (seven starts, 36 2⁄3 innings, 2.21 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 4.06 xFIP). His projections suggested something fourth starter-y on the back of that performance, which is a common projection bucket that lots of Braves pitchability-type prospects that dominated the minors have fallen into across the years.
Elder’s debut came earlier than many expected, as he was called up to start the Braves’ sixth game of the season on April 12 against the Nationals. Backed by 16 runs on that spring night, Elder won his debut, allowing three runs over 5 2⁄3 innings. The game came with a little bit of ugliness, as Elder allowed two homers late to rough up his line, but the 4/0 K/BB ratio was more than fine, and led to Elder sticking in the rotation for the first month of the season.
While he didn’t walk a batter in his debut victory, free passes began piling up in his second start, and his lack of command led to inefficient outings the rest of the month where he allowed 14 walks over 13 1⁄3 innings in three consecutive losses to the Padres, Marlins and Rangers. Those outings were much, much uglier — he didn’t complete five innings in any of them, and while he danced in and out of trouble for the most part, he finished that first major league stint with an unseemly 115/159/144 line that looked frankly unplayable without substantial refinement.
Consequently, the Braves sent him back down to Gwinnett to work on his command, and while he didn’t put up impressive numbers while with the Stripers during the summer, Elder did do a better job at limiting walks in Triple-A. Unfortunately, he didn’t really do a great job pitching, with a 4.65 ERA and 4.45 FIP, but the focus on more strikeouts and fewer walks was clearly there.
Called back up to the bigs in August, the Braves picked and chose their spots to start Elder as the rookie took the bump five times against the dregs of the NL East, three times against the Marlins and twice against the Nats. (There was also a relief appearance against the Mets for good measure.) The strategy paid off and Elder was impressive, looking like a different pitcher than he was in April, albeit against lineups that weren’t particularly loaded. He missed enough bats, stayed efficient and in the strike zone, allowing just two earned runs over 27.2 innings in his first four of those starts over the course of August and September. The complete game shutout against the Nats on September 26 was the culmination of Elder’s late season success and showed his potential as an effective MLB starter.
One more October start against the Marlins in the Braves’ final series of the season wasn’t as successful, but Elder was plagued more by soft contact and bad BABIP luck in that one than by walks and deep counts.
Overall, if you include that relief appearance against the Mets and everything after his second call-up, Elder’s second stint featured an eye-opening 56 ERA-, 62 FIP-, and 82 xFIP-. That’ll play against anyone, and even though it played against some real poor competition down the stretch, it suggests that Elder can probably hang in the majors so long as he pitches like he did in the summer and fall, and not his messy outings in April.
All in all, Elder posted 0.8 fWAR with a combined 77/96/104 line across his first 54 career innings in his debut season, which is a pretty nice way to show up and make your mark.
What went right? What went wrong?
Elder’s success late in the year, relative to his struggles early, is hard to summarize. He threw his sinker more in his second stint, and across his last few starts, really benefited from running it off the plate armside. His cutter usage completely changed — early on it was a pitch he tried to run gloveside, but then he swapped it to throwing it high in the zone and more armside, which seemed to make a gigantic difference in its effectiveness. If you had to point to one difference, though, it seemed to be getting chases with his sinker, which could speak more to the opposition he was facing. Those hitters didn’t so much miss the pitch as just make weak contact against it when they reached for it, which made his life much easier and helped him get into counts where he could set up his slider and cutter.
Overall, though, Elder gave the Braves (and opposing teams) a glimpse at a profile that’s more than a little enigmatic. He doesn’t throw hard, and his pitch mix is pretty unusual in that he has two pitches that go down (sinker, changeup), a pitch that really rides despite lacking velocity (the cutter), and the not-quite-ubiquitous-but-maybe-getting-there Braves-special gyro-slider. The sinker command seems to come and go relative to Elder’s command of his secondaries, but he relies on the sinker to set up the other stuff, which is a problem when it’s A) not in the zone and B) not getting chases. Unless he reinvents himself for 2023, that might be the biggest linchpin in his profile: hitting his spots and the corners with the sinker could make him a major league fixture with an odd approach to getting hitters out; constantly missing and falling behind without the velocity to compensate for the wildness will get him sent back down to the minors.
While Elder’s shutout of the Nationals was probably his coolest overall game, his six innings of shutout ball against the Marlins a few starts earlier felt a lot more impactful given the latter’s status as a low-scoring game. In that one, Elder held a scoreless tie through three frames, then made a 1-0 lead stand up for three more.
Also, here’s a fun example of a poorly-executed slider really confusing Luke Voit, who waits back on it but can’t seem to adjust to its movement in the middle of his swing:
On the flip side, Elder’s pitch-to-contact-ish approach can lead to problems when the baseball gods don’t comply. In his last start of the year, he allowed four runs in five frames despite a 6/1 K/BB ratio to the Marlins. In the first, they put up a two-spot on him by stringing together five balls in play, none of them hard-hit, including a .190 hit probability grounder single, two bloop doubles, and an error. And of course, sometimes someone just jacks one off you.
Also, this isn’t Bryce Elder related, but I want to include the Adventures of Orlando Arcia in Left Field here, because this was charged to Elder but... oh boy.
While it was a bit of a roller coaster campaign for Bryce Elder, there is plenty for Braves fans to be excited about surrounding the burly Longhorn entering 2023.
If no other veteran starting pitchers are added to Atlanta’s roster prior to 2023, Elder will certainly be in the mix for the fifth rotation spot entering the season. His profile as a solid innings eater at the back of the rotation was only strengthened by his performances late in the season. As long as his command is on point, Elder is a bulldog who will keep the Braves competitive in any game he starts with four pitches that can miss bats if mixed and located well. However, without high velocity or filthy movement, command will ultimately be the determining factor for his success. There were certainly some issues at times with limiting homers in 2022, but that does seem to be something that improved command should help, especially if his mistakes don’t miss in the zone, which they often don’t. Continuing to work on consistently locating his pitches will be key to Elder’s development into a solid starter at the Major League level.
Due to his early big-league success and limited spots available in the rotation next season, Elder could also be used as an attractive trade chip in the offseason for Alex Anthopoulos.
Right now, projection systems will likely have Elder as a fourth starter-type once again, working in more of a swingman/bulk role. That’s not surprising given what’s been seen from him so far, but he’s got plenty of opportunity to outdo them and drag them upward for next year.