There was a point this season where, outside of Ronald Acuńa Jr, you could argue Bryce Elder was the most valuable player on the team. When Max Fried and Kyle Wright both went down for extended periods of the season, there was a real question of how the Braves were going to manage the next 2 or 3 months of the season without two of their best pitchers, or probably more accurately, if they could manage it. Well they did manage it and even excelled at times, in large part because, out of nowhere, Bryce Elder had an All-Star level first half, plugging a huge hole in the rotation and stabilizing the team at a time when things could've gone south quickly.
But baseball is a long season, and narratives change quickly and roles change quickly. Max Fried is back and looks like Max Fried. Kyle Wright is back, and while he doesn't look like Kyle Wright yet, he’s working his way towards that. And for Bryce Elder, that all-star first half seems like a long, long time ago and questions are starting to emerge as to what exactly he can be trusted to do once the calendar flips to October.
After posting a 2.97 ERA in 106 inning in the first half, Elder has seen pretty much all of his numbers crater in the second half. His ERA since the All-Star break is 4.71, his FIP is 4.84, his strikeout rate has dropped to an abysmal 16% and his walk rate risen to 9%. With no way to sugar coat it, the simple truth is Bryce Elder has been bad for going on 2 1⁄2 months now. He was never as good as his first half ERA said he was but the drop-off, while predictable, has been more severe than anticipated.
So that leads to some questions.
The NLDS, the first round of playoffs the Braves will participate in, has additional off-days built in to the schedule this year, which means teams can get by with using only three of their starting pitchers to cover the entire 5-game series. If you assume Max Fried, Spencer Strider, and Charlie Morton make the first three starts, and you assume Fried and Strider return on normal rest to pitch games 4 and 5 as needed, then where does that leave Elder? Is there a scenario where the Braves leave him off the NLDS roster entirely? Could they move him to the bullpen to help cover innings there? Could they roster him as an emergency option and just not use him unless something went wrong? What if Kyle Wright looks really good in his last couple of starts? Could a guy who made the All-star team in July really have no role in October?
We’ve reached the point where these are all valid questions.
The best argument for Elder to at least have a roster spot in the NLDS is, you usually only end up only using 20 or 21 of the 26 roster spots in the actual games. Only the very best players in each position group get used in October, with fewer games and more off-days allowing for more of a top-heavy approach. The seventh, eighth, or ninth best relievers on the team rarely see the field, just like the last couple of guys on the bench rarely see the field. You play your best guys and only your best guys every game. That means the guy who gets the 25th or 26th roster spot on these teams doesn't really matter that much either way. And if that's the case, why not carry an extra starter just in case something crazy happens? If I'm making Elder’s best case, that's the one I'm choosing.
But even if he makes the team, the role he'd play would still be very much in question. Even if the Braves were able to move on the NLCS, where four starting pitchers would be necessary, it’s still not clear Elder would be the guy. If Kyle Wright improves enough over his last couple of starts, he could get that call. Or the Braves could use Jesse Chavez as a semi long man and make a bullpen game out of the game 4. Or a combination of the two, maybe Wright and Chavez, or who knows.
On the surface, the big question appears to be “will he even make the team?” but honestly, the bigger question is probably, even if he does make the team, will the Braves actually trust him with any significant role in the postseason, or any role at all for that matter. How Wright looks the rest of the season will play a large role in that decision, as will the number of relievers the Braves decide to put on the initial playoff roster. Even if they put him in the bullpen, which the Braves don’t love doing in case they need to stretch guys out again, it’s unlikely he would be high enough in the pecking order to see any significant time on the mound, not unless a game is already out of hand and Snitker wants to save his bigger arms for a more competitive game.
If I had to place a bet on what happens, my guess is Elder makes the NLDS roster but is relegated to cheerleader unless something fluky happens with one of the other three starters. And if the Braves make the NLCS, Elder’s role would be tied to the level of confidence the team has in Kyle Wright or what sort of appetite they have for a bullpen game. That's my best guess as of today.
But Elder’s pitching over the last couple of months has made this a legitimate question and its not out of the realm of possibility that, once the regular season ends, Elder’s season ends with it. Especially if Kyle Wright looks better and better.
We’ll find out soon enough.