Spencer Strider came out of nowhere for the Atlanta Braves in 2022 and exceeded all expectations, ultimately ending up as the runner-up in the NL Rookie of the Year campaign to teammate Michael Harris II. Strider’s season was amazing in most ways when you look at it top to bottom. He was supposed to begin the season in the Triple-A rotation, but turned enough heads during the abbreviated spring camp that he carved out an Opening Day roster spot in the bullpen. From there, he emerged as a dominant multi-inning option and eventually found his way into the starting rotation. It probably isn’t a coincidence that Strider’s move to the rotation at the end of May coincided with the Braves taking off and finishing a breakneck race to the finish with a fifth straight division title.
So what can Strider do for an encore? For one thing, change his look, apparently. Strider opted to switch jersey numbers this offseason, shifting from 65 to 99. He discussed the decision at Brave Fest a couple of weeks ago and disclosed that he had always worn No. 28 up until his time at Clemson, where Seth Beer had the number. He shifted to 29, but that isn’t an option in Atlanta given that it was John Smoltz‘s number and has been retired by the team.
“Of course, can’t do 29 here and then Olson shows up and takes 28,” Strider said. “I rode with 65 and got the contract and thought, I’m going to change my number to something cool. 99 was always my number in MLB The Show when I played. Most rosters had a guy with 28 so when I would add myself to a roster, I had to pick a different number.”
When asked about whether people might think that No. 99 would signify his average fastball velocity, Strider said that it wouldn’t be accurate.
“Has nothing to do with it. I think my average was 98.2, so it wouldn’t quite be accurate,” Strider said. “Some people don’t think numbers mean anything. I don’t really think they do, but picking your jersey number in baseball to me has always been something of importance. My favorite movie is Major League. I like Rick Vaughn. I see some similarities with Wild Thing and myself.”
The 2022 numbers for Strider were eye-popping. It is hard to even squint and speculate about where he could improve. A 2.67 ERA and a 1.83 FIP to go along with 4.9 fWAR, a 38.3 percent strikeout rate, and 202 punchouts in just 131 2/3 innings. Strider broke Smoltz‘s franchise record with a 16-strikeout performance against the Rockies this past September. Kyle Wright even suggested that Strider might strike out 400 guys given a full season in the rotation.
“That might not happen. If that happens, then I don’t know what we will do after that,” Strider said of Wright’s comment. “My goal is to just give us a chance to win. Strikeouts are not something I can control necessarily. If I’m striking guys out, that means I’m throwing strikes and if I’m throwing strikes, that means I’m pitching with intent. I’m controlling what I can control. So, if that happens, it means other things are going well, but that is not an immediate goal of mine to strike guys out.”
While it might not be a stated goal, blowing guys away is a big part of Strider’s game. To his credit, he isn’t going to rest on his past success either. He has spent a lot of his offseason getting ready for the upcoming season and has continued to work on the development of his changeup.
“I think the big one is just efficiency for sure,” Strider said of improvements he’d like to make in the upcoming season. “I have the stuff to get deep into games. I think adding the changeup, consistently finding that pitch, getting it to the same level as the slider is going to help and that’s something I’ve obviously focused on. Coming into this season, I want my fastball to be consistent and have good spin. Last year it was it was kind of wobbling, wasn’t riding the same way and I didn’t figure that out until I got to Spring Training. It was already solidified, [I] didn’t have the opportunity to really fix it. Had to figure that out on the fly. So, making that adjustment this offseason is going to be helpful.”
Strider will report to North Port with other Braves pitchers and catchers on February 15. Having been through the pandemic and the lockout, Strider said that it was nice to finally have some certainty about the timeline for gearing up for the season.
“It’s just nice to know when Spring Training is starting for the first time in my major league career,” Strider said. “I’m excited to get down there and get in some warmer weather. I don’t think anything changes necessarily. I mean, I don’t assume that anything’s given to me. We’re trying to win here. That’s really the goal. So, if I can’t help us win, then the organization is capable of doing something that helps us win. If that involves changes in my role, they’ll do it. I intend to come in prepared and better than I was last year and that’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
An oblique injury ended Strider’s 2022 regular season in the middle of September. He returned for the NLDS, but ran out of gas early in Game 3. Strider said that he used how the 2022 season ended for him and the Braves as motivation to carry into the offseason.
“Somebody asked me earlier and in kind of in a weird way, I’m glad that it worked out that way because, I don’t want to go into the offseason thinking I had a good year,” Strider said of hitting the shelf and then factoring into the early playoff exit. “The game is going to adjust to you and the biggest teacher is failure. You don’t really know what you need to improve on until something goes wrong, so that area is highlighted some way. Obviously, an oblique injury is something that everybody in baseball is susceptible to. Fortunately mine was not super severe and we handled it really well. Training staff did a great job of getting me back. I thought that I was effective for a little bit there in the [Division Series] and unfortunately, we didn’t pull it out. But, I think the group we have now is capable of going all the way.”
Strider will enter the spring along with Max Fried, Kyle Wright and Charlie Morton as arms penciled in to begin the season in the rotation. He sees the rotation as Atlanta’s biggest strength heading into the new season.
“Our starters are a pretty tight-knit group. We’ve learned a lot from each other and having consistency there is good for all of us,” Strider said. “Hopefully everybody stays healthy. I think everybody has the ability to go out and pitch seven or eight scoreless and always give us a chance to win. I think that can be the strength of the team. We’re pretty well stacked everywhere, but I think we consider ourselves kind of, not the backbone necessarily, but the game can be won and lost on the mound for sure. We all take pride in the fact that we can give us a chance to win.”