Coming into 2023, Spencer Strider could have been poised for a sophomore slump. His 2022 saw strikeouts at a historic rate that, in theory, would not be replicated. It also saw his largest innings workload—by a lot—of both his college and professional career. No one would have been surprised with a bit of regression as he worked through his first full year as a big league starter.
But that’s just not Strider.
he Braves selected the former Clemson Tiger with their fourth-round pick in the 2020 MLB Draft. Strider shot through Atlanta’s minor league system, making his MLB debut in October of 2021. After beginning his 2022 campaign in the bullpen, he went on to establish himself as a rotation stalwart by the end of the season, ultimately earning a six-year contract extension just a year after his debut. The deal, worth $75 million, will keep Strider in Atlanta through 2028 and includes a $22 million option with a $5 million buyout for 2029.
What were the expectations?
It really is almost funny looking back to these same reflections from last year, because no one could have possibly predicted the strikeout volume Strider produced in 2023.
From our review of Strider’s 2022:
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.
We weren’t the only ones thinking such things, and Steamer’s 2023 projections had Strider throwing 154 innings with a 2.93 FIP and 3.7 WAR as a central estimate, while ZiPS had Strider throwing about 120 innings in a swingman role and racking up 2.9 WAR—in other words, the expectations were still a very solid season for his first full year as a starter.
And have a very solid season he did.
Totaling 186 2⁄3 innings over 32 starts, Strider an 87 ERA-, 66 FIP-, 67 xFIP-, and racked up 281 (!) strikeouts to 58 walks. The strikeout tally led the majors by a considerable margin—second-place Kevin Gausman recorded just 237—as did his 36.8 percent strikeout rate—Blake Snell’s 31.5 percent mark was good for second. In fact, no pitcher with more than 61 innings of work cleared this strikeout rate; in other words, Strider was striking out guys at a rate more prodigious than most relievers, while pitching as a full-time starter that was often left out there to go deep into games.
The strikeout total was notable from a franchise perspective as well, as Strider broke John Smoltz’s 1996 record for strikeouts in a single season when he recorded his 277th in his September 30 start against the Nationals.
Strider also broke his own record set in 2022 for the fastest pitcher to reach 200 strikeouts (123 1⁄3 IP) on August 1, when he managed to make none other than Shohei Ohtani look silly.
Spencer Strider got his record-breaking 200th strikeout of the season on this changeup to Shohei Ohtani. pic.twitter.com/0AZOBEdYs3— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) August 1, 2023
Additionally, Strider led the National League with a 2.85 FIP, and his fWAR ended up at 5.5, well surpassing his season projection and ranking second in the majors behind Zack Wheeler. It was the highest fWAR amassed by a Braves pitcher since Javier Vazquez put up 5.9 in 2009.
But it wasn’t just the strikeouts that topped the league-wide charts, as his 20 wins and .800 winning percentage also led the majors. Now, you can debate all you want about the merit—or lack thereof—of the pitcher win statistic, but the reality is that in a year in which Max Fried was sidelined for over three months with injury and All-Star Bryce Elder kind of fell off a cliff in late June (sorry, Bryce) and the fifth spot in the rotation was a revolving door, for Strider to be able to go out and pitch well enough such that the Braves won 26 of his 32 starts (with 20 “Ws” being “awarded” to Strider in the process) was huge. Paired with Kyle Wright’s 21-win 2022, Strider’s 2023 campaign marked the first time since 1998 that the Braves had back-to-back seasons with 20-game winners.
Though he did not appear in the Midsummer Classic, Strider earned his first All-Star selection as part of the cohort of eight that the Braves sent to Seattle. He also started Games 1 and 4 of the NLDS but earned losses in both, mostly due to getting a grand total of one (1) run of support in both games combined.
Despite the dominance, Strider ultimately finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting behind winner Blake Snell, Logan Webb, and Zac Gallen.
What went right?
We still aren’t done with the records. Another one of Smoltz’s marks fell early in the season, as Strider’s April 24 13-strikeout performance against the Marlins marked his franchise-record ninth straight game—dating back to 2022—with at least nine punchouts.
Four starts for - in 2023:— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) April 19, 2023
Spencer Strider is ridiculous. pic.twitter.com/uFUS53emd2
Strider also took a no-hitter into the eighth inning during that Marlins matchup.
While his patented fastball will always be just as fun for fans to watch as it is not fun for hitters to face, 2023 was the year of the Strider Slider. He featured it with nearly 34 percent of his pitches, up from 28 percent in 2022, and it was wildly effective.
more strikeouts for - ⛽️ pic.twitter.com/TJnYGTxmQ9— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) August 26, 2023
He ranked in the 95th percentile or above league-wide in terms of chase percentage (95), whiff percentage (98), and strikeout percentage (99), which tracks, of course. The whiff percentage on his slider alone was 55.3 percent, which is only rendered less absurd by the fact that it happened.
Spencer Strider, 85mph Slider (ball) and 99mph Fastball (backwards K), Individual Pitches+ Overlay.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 20, 2023
Why you'd take that fastball.
That's mean. pic.twitter.com/kmUzgDROx2
It feels like a broken record, but we have to keep talking about the strikeouts. 11 of Strider’s 32 starts saw double-digit strikeouts, including four consecutive starts from July 8 to July 26. In only one outing of more than five innings did he have fewer than five strikeouts. And while the end of his 2022 was marred by an oblique strain, he remained healthy for all of 2023 even with the increased physical and mental workload of being the most consistent piece of the rotation.
It’s hard to pick a favorite Strider start from this year, but some stand out because of how they deviated from the norm. On August 12, Strider had a weird (for him) outing — yes, he managed seven scoreless innings, but he did it with a completely unexpected 6/4 K/BB ratio when facing the Mets.
Also, remember this play? Strider was on the mound for this one!
What went wrong?
It feels like it takes a fine-tooth comb to find moments of weakness in Strider’s 2023 campaign. That said, a microcosm of what you might uncover is demonstrated through the fact that in the same inning that Strider struck out the side to break Smoltz’s single-season strikeout record, he also gave up three runs. Strider’s 3.86 ERA was much higher than his projected 3.10 mark, and it was the highest of any NL pitcher receiving Cy Young votes.
After an April during which Strider posted a 1.80 ERA, he had two starts per month for the rest of the season where he gave up at least four earned runs. From June on, there was one start per month with five or more earned runs. Additionally, while he tossed three shutout outings during April alone, he would just match that total throughout the rest of the season, and it would take until July before he had another.
The worst stint, runs-wise, he saw came in back-to-back June starts, with the first being the infamous original Braves Legends call of a marathon 13-10 win over the Mets on June 8. Of course, by the time it was over, no one remembered that Strider had only gone four innings while giving up eight runs. Four of those eight runs came via this Brandon Nimmo grand slam:
Brandon Nimmo grand slam off Strider!— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) June 8, 2023
Though he earned the win in his next start on June 14 at Detroit, it wasn’t exactly a bounce-back outing, as he gave up five runs—including three homers—in six innings. The two outings raised his ERA from 2.97 to 4.12, but he did bring it back below the 4.00 mark in his next start and did not surpass it again for the rest of the season.
These inflated runs totals can be laid more at the feet of ball-in-play stuff and sequencing. Out of 44 pitchers that qualified for the ERA title this year, only five, including Strider, had an ERA-FIP gap driven by both the frequency with which balls in play became hits and the timing of those hits in terms of whether runners were on base or not. Among those 44 pitchers, all of whom had enough innings that things balanced out for most of them, only Dylan Cease (who looks a lot like Strider) had a bigger ERA-FIP gap. While it seems tempting to blame Strider’s occasional hard contact and homer prone-ness, the reality is that his xERA, FIP, and xFIP were all fairly similar and much lower than his ERA — if he pitched as well as he did in 2023 all over again, there’s a great chance we wouldn’t be talking about the fact that so many runs were “charged” to him the next time.
As mentioned earlier, there are other outings that Strider would certainly want to forget, like his August 7, 2 2⁄3-inning loss at Pittsburgh during which he gave up six runs and only struck out three (a legitimately bad outing, with a 3/3 K/BB ratio), or a very similar home performance against St. Louis on September 6—5/3 K/BB ratio and a homer allowed. Dating back to his Clemson tenure, Strider has had flashes of struggling with command, and 2023 was no different. Being able to further limit the damage in starts where he doesn’t quite have it will be a good building block going forward, but it’s not like he actually needs to do it to be one of MLB’s best pitchers, as he showed this year.
While harder to quantify, Strider has talked at length about not throwing on autopilot and making purposeful pitches throughout the game. It’s difficult to know what situations, exactly, see him doing this instead of attacking with a gameplan, but we can try to infer flashes. The aforementioned June 8 game against the Mets, with the Nimmo grand slam, could be one: Nimmo’s grand slam came after Strider was BABIPed in the second and pumped in a dead-red fastball on the first pitch to start that PA. Later in the game, after a long PA ended in a walk, Strider threw another get-me-over fastball to Francisco Alvarez that also went over the wall.
Steamer currently projects Strider to lead the majors in WAR (4.9) in 2024, this time edging out Wheeler. His strikeout projection is a modest league-leading 257, with second-place Gerrit Cole sitting at 225. ZiPS is less sanguine, projecting Strider for 3.8 WAR in 161 2⁄3 innings, which is not dissimilar on a rate basis but does regress the innings quantity.
I’m most looking forward to the internal battle for staff ace between Strider and Fried in 2024. Fried will obviously be looking to get back to form after his injury-riddled 2023, particularly as he approaches free agency. Strider, ever the perfectionist, will obviously be looking to put together an even more impressive campaign than this last one. It should make for a fun friendly competition, and if we learned anything in 2023, it’s to never underestimate Strider.