Spencer Strider entered the 2022 season as one of the top prospects in the Atlanta Braves system, though perhaps an underrated one. After the all-time, historic season he had, he won’t be flying under anyone’s radar ever again.
The Braves drafted Strider in the fourth round of the abbreviated 2020 MLB Draft out of Clemson. Strider was a bit of an unknown at the time of the draft. He was a former top recruit taken in the 35th round by Cleveland out of high school, went on to mostly pitch out of the pen as a freshman, missed his sophomore season in 2019 after undergoing Tommy John Surgery, then made just four starts for 12 innings before sports shut down in 2020. Despite the prep pedigree, the combination of injury, throwing just 12 innings, and mixed success as a freshman all meant that Strider was hardly a sure thing to be drafted in that five round 2020 draft.
What were the expectations?
Strider ranked No. 4 on our preseason Top 30 Braves prospect list — or No. 2 given the departures of Shea Langeliers and Cristian Pache — and was a guy people weren’t sure what to expect from in 2022. He was absolutely dominant in the minor leagues in 2021, going all the way from Low-A up to Atlanta in the same season — but his lack of innings pitched as a pro and in college meant he could be a guy who went up and down between Atlanta and Gwinnett. In addition that lack of innings and the Braves being contenders, there was additional uncertainty on whether they would need him in relief, or if he would get the chance to start.
The preseason ZiPS projections for Strider called for him to appear in 25 games (22 starts) for 94 innings, pitching to a 4.50 ERA with 95 strikeouts to 39 walks. That comes with a 100 ERA+ and 1.2 WAR projection. The preseason Steamer projections were less optimistic on his role, projecting 23 games, but just four starts. They had him at 41.1 IP with a 4.15 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, and 48 strikeouts to 18 walks.
Spencer Strider opened the season in the Atlanta bullpen and remained there through most of May, making his first 11 appearances of the year there before his first start on May 30th. That first start against Arizona wasn’t his best, but he never went back into the bullpen for the remainder of the year and finished the season with 20 starts.
Strider went 11-5 with a 2.67 ERA, 0.995 WHIP, and 202 strikeouts to 45 walks in 131.2 innings. He pitched to a 65 ERA-, 47 FIP-, and 58 xFIP-, posting 3.7 bWAR and 4.9 fWAR, and dominating down the stretch for the Braves as they came from behind to catch the Mets and win the NL East title. That was good for a second-place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year Award, 31 votes behind Michael Harris, but 81 points ahead of the third-place finisher.
Strider’s season wasn’t just great statistically, it was literally historic. He was the fastest ever pitcher to 200 strikeouts in a season, taking 130 innings to previous record-holder Randy Johnson’s 130 2⁄3 IP to reach that point back in 2001. His 86 hits allowed is the fewest hits ever yielded in a 200-strikeout season, beating the 102 recorded by both Nolan Ryan (1991), and Chris Sale (2018). These aren’t rookie pitcher records, or even NL-only records, but all-time any pitcher marks that he broke as a rookie.
What went right? What went wrong?
It’s almost fair to say everything went right for Strider in 2022, as his rookie season was beyond any reasonable person’s expectations for his rookie season. Overall big picture the only thing that went wrong was the minor oblique strain late in the year, and the slightly rushed playoff return that led to a within-inning collapse and an eventual playoff loss.
As good as Strider’s entire season was, it was his pitching down the stretch that was the highlight of his season. Between July 26 and September 7 he made eight starts, posting a 52 ERA-, 38 FIP-, and 52 xFIP- in 46.1 innings. This included his eye-popping September 1 start against Colorado, when he went eight shutout innings, giving up two hits and no walks, and striking out 16 hitters.
#MLB ¡Nuevo récord de franquicia para los Atlanta Braves!— Bitácora Deportiva (@BitacoraPma) September 2, 2022
Su abridor, el novato Spencer Strider ponchó a 16 en la blanqueada ante los Colorado Rockies, por 3-0.
( cortesía @MLB)pic.twitter.com/CJ5VXpyuGt
Strider’s arsenal helped him escape jams, even when he missed or faltered with location in a way that didn’t make a strikeout possible. Check out Max Muncy here, who can only beat an elevated fastball in the ground in a key situation:
Strider’s biggest weak spot was the fact his command wasn’t always on point. Despite only walking more than three batters once all season, in part due to his stuff being so good that he got swings and misses even when he wasn’t hitting his spots, he would occasionally take the hill and pitch an entire game without good command. While he wasn’t often punished for this by hitters in 2022, it did force him to throw more pitches, helping to shorten his outings — and is something that eventually good hitters will take advantage of if not improved. In the start referenced below, Strider pitched four innings of one run ball, only giving up two hits - but the command struggles helped to drive him out early.
Spencer Strider has thrown 86 pitches. Only 44 have been strikes.— Justin Toscano (@JustinCToscano) June 5, 2022
The 86th pitch, a wild one, allowed a run to score. He has not had any command. It's almost amazing he only allowed a run through four.
Early in the season, when working out of the bullpen, he had a few control- and command-related blow-ups. Probably the worst was when he blew a lead against the Marlins — two walks, a wild pitch, and a single set up this game-winning hit off Strider by Garrett Cooper:
And then there was him not locating super-well in his first start, leading to this three-run homer:
The other thing to watch is the strained oblique that made Strider miss the last part of the regular season, only to get back just in time for one short start against the Phillies in the playoffs. Strider is a hard throwing 6’0”, 195-pounder with a Tommy John Surgery, and not a ton of innings on his resume in either college or pro ball. It remains to be seen how his body will continue to hold up as he keeps throwing more and more innings year after year. This minor oblique injury is hardly a red flag, but more of a point to watch going forward. The combination of a past Tommy John Surgery, his velocity, and his pitch mix make Strider kind of the poster child for future Tommy John Surgery, and while he seems to be a expert in tracking and taking care of his body, it remains to be seen whether that makes him prone to other types of injuries as he takes care to safeguard his arm.
Strider is expected to pitch at the front of the Braves rotation again in 2023, likely as the #2 starter behind just Max Fried. He should contend for an All-Star selection, though it should surprise no one if there is some slight regression — he did strike batters out at a historic rate, and you just can’t count on continuing at that pace even if he does have a very strong sophomore season.
Steamer’s projection calls for him to pitch 154 innings with a 3.10 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, and 208 strikeouts to 56 walks. That translates to a 2.93 FIP and 3.7 WAR.