Every baseball season has out-of-nowhere successes and disappointments aplenty. Bryce Elder managed to incorporate both into his 2023 in dramatic fashion, and his role going forward is going to depend on whether he’s able to address the weaknesses that started to plague him midseason.
The Braves took Elder in the fifth and final round of the truncated 2020 MLB Draft. He was the fifth-to-last player taken, though amusingly, both he and second-to-last overall pick Gavin Stone have made their MLB debuts already and project to have major league roles going forward.
Elder flew through three minor league levels in 2021, and spent 2022 largely at Triple-A Gwinnett, though the Braves relied on him to provide a bunch of starting innings down the stretch.
What were the expectations?
Over the years, the Braves have had a ton of high-minors arms that seemed to fit into the same general bucket: guys who seemed like they could be fourth starters on paper and/or based on their minor league track records, but who ultimately struggled when given the chance to perform in the majors. While it was temping to lump Elder in with names of yesteryear based on his command-over-velocity profile, his 2022 made things complicated in that regard.
The Braves largely safeguarded Elder from high-powered offenses in 2022, especially after he was rocked as a rotation fill-in earlier in the season, but he still managed a solid 77 ERA-, 96 FIP-, and 104 xFIP- in 54 innings that year, earning himself 0.8 fWAR in the process. Combine that with a solid Triple-A xFIP under 4.00 in 2022, and expectations for Elder were a bit of a muddle. Further problematic in this regard: the fact that the Braves chose not to give Elder an Opening Day rotation spot, sending him to Gwinnett to start the year in lieu of both Jared Shuster and Dylan Dodd.
For what it was worth, ZiPS actually had Elder as an above-average starter (over 2 WAR in 142 2⁄3 innings as a central estimate) coming into the year, but components-based systems were more negative based on his lack of obvious, identifiable stuff.
The Braves’ surprising decision to have Elder start the year in Triple-A ended up not really mattering: he made just one start in the minors and then was called up just a few days after the season began to make his first major league start on April 5. He then stuck in the rotation all year, making 31 starts and totaling 174 2⁄3 innings. Only 28 pitchers made more starts; only 31 pitchers completed more innings in 2023.
Elder’s overall results belie the whiplash-inducing breakpoint in his season. On the year as a whole, he managed 1.8 fWAR with an 86 ERA-, 103 FIP-, and 103 xFIP-, with an xERA only slightly worse than his xFIP. Those are very “middle of the rotation (exclamation point!!!)” numbers, which is probably pretty impressive relative to expectations if you’re anyone other than ZiPS. That he did this while blowing past his previous career high in professional innings, and without falling prey to any injuries that regularly felled his pitching teammates and hurlers leaguewide makes it all even more impressive.
But, saying “Bryce Elder had a decent starter season” really obscures that it was a tale of two very different parts for the 24-year-old right-hander.
What went right?
For his first 15 starts of the year, through June 22, Elder was pretty much living a charmed life, pitching-wise. He didn’t have a run charged to him until his third outing of the year; he didn’t get taken deep until his fifth start. We made jokes about how he can’t keep getting away with it. We talked about how he got around his lack of velocity by offering batters a look at seam-shifted wake that they generally weren’t seeing anywhere else. Even after he didn’t get away with it for a game in which he allowed three longballs to the Marlins, he immediately came back and shut them out for seven innings in his next start. There was a three-start stretch in June where he allowed four homers despite solid peripherals, and even that seemed just like a karmic adjustment... but then he shut out the Phillies for seven innings after that, and it seemed like he was just going to have one of those magical, breakout seasons that 104-win teams reap as a bumper crop.
Elder was an All-Star selection (he didn’t pitch in the game, though). Through June 22, his pitching line was an absurd 54/86/84. His xwOBA-against was a below-league-average .308. His by-pitch xwOBA-against was .234 on his slider, .270 on his changeup, and a livable .350 on his sinker. (The less we talk about his four-seamer, the better.) The slider and sinker both had excellent command, with the slider often hitting the low gloveside corner and the sinker fading to the armside edge.
Elder’s last hurrah, as it were, was amazing. He went toe-to-toe with Aaron Nola on June 22, keeping the Phillies off the board for seven frames while the Braves were stymied by Nola for six. Even when left in the third time through, he allowed just a walk while collecting two strikeouts in the sixth and seventh.
Even when things looked bad, they turned to gold for Elder, like this hanging slider that became a double play, thanks to Michael Harris II:
But then... things turned sinister.
What went wrong?
It’s hard to pinpoint a collapse as its happening, because baseball is a game of large samples experienced in small samples. On June 27, Elder put up a 4/4 K/BB ratio against the Twins, only the second time all season that he didn’t have more strikeouts than walks. Sure, everyone has a clunker now and then, Elder included. But then came a 1/2 K/BB ratio game against the Guardians, a horrendous trashing at the hands of the Rays where he walked four and didn’t get a single strikeout, a BABIP-y game where he didn’t last all too long against the Diamondbacks, and well... you get the idea.
After having just one game with a K/BB ratio of 1.00 or lower through June 22, that phenomenon occurred ten times in his last 16 starts, which is an absurdly bad frequency. His stellar pitching line through his first 15 starts became 120/120/122 in his last 16 — consistent, but consistently awful.
The sinker’s xwOBA crept up to a quite-bad .389; the slider was no longer effective at .339. The location maps tell the story — the top row is the sinker, the bottom is the slider, while left-to-right is the difference between the up-to-June 22 stretch, and the June 27-onward stretch.
This doesn’t need to be belabored. A consistent sinker location became an unreliable one, with it going too far inside or leaking out over the plate; the slider became a gigantic mess in basically every respect.
The amazing part of all this is how it didn’t happen up through June 22, and then happened nearly without letup afterwards. Aside from a two-start reprieve (which came against the Pirates and Marlins in September), Elder literally did not have any other starts with both an FIP and xFIP better than league average from June 27-onward. Even when he was pitching horribly, things went wrong. For example, he was the long-forgotten starter in the epic 16-13 loss to the Diamondbacks in July, where he went 18-and-out in the third inning and managed a fine 4/1 K/BB ratio but allowed a homer and was charged with five total runs amid a Braves defensive meltdown.
Things like this became more routine for Elder — one of his few low points before June 22, many things were comparable low points after:
And, of course, we can’t wrap up the sordid part of our tale without talking about the playoffs. After much alleged deliberation, the Braves went with Elder to start NLDS Game . Elder was perfect through two innings, allowed a homer to Nick Castellanos in the third, and then a single. He was left in to start his second time through the order, and after an infield single put another runner on base... the Braves didn’t make a move when Bryce Harper strode to the plate. You know how it ends, a hanging slider on 2-1 that basically jackknifed the Braves’ season when it happened:
The bifurcation of Elder’s season makes forecasting his 2024 difficult. Is he going to figure out the command stuff, or not? If he does, he can probably be something akin to what he managed in his first 15 starts; even if he’s worse due to batter familiarity, the seam-shifted wake weirdness and pinpoint location are hard to handle and can easily render him an average starter, or at least a fine number four. If he doesn’t, well, you saw how he struggled last year — that guy probably isn’t anything other than innings-eating depth. It’s up to Elder, and the Braves, to help him figure it out... even though they weren’t able to for months at a time last year.
Projection systems are largely splitting the difference, as you’d expect. Steamer sees him as a below-average but playable starter, basically a high-quality number four. ZiPS’ projection hasn’t changed much, giving him essentially an above-average starter projection of 2.3 WAR over 150-plus innings. Perhaps Elder will have another tale-of-two-seasons campaign where he ends up in that range, but at this point it seems like he’s got way more variability in his potential outcomes than your typical third or fourth starter, as well as a ton of downside risk.