Draftee Elder’s winding road back to baseball

June 17th, 2020

ATLANTA -- To understand how much Bryce Elder appreciates the intricacies and mental aspects of baseball, you simply have to hear the recent Braves draftee explain why he regained his love for baseball after being given the chance to pitch while competing for his high school golf team.

“I appreciate the game of baseball more than I do golf,” Elder said. “I like playing golf. But what goes into baseball and how you prepare and how the game works, I really appreciate that more than I do with golf.”

A little more than a decade after initially ditching baseball, Elder is preparing for the opportunity created when Atlanta took him in the fifth round of last week’s Draft. The University of Texas right-hander has not yet signed, but he is confident he could soon ink his first professional contract.

Elder anticipated being selected in the third round and did not even hear from the Braves until midway through the fourth round. But after taking a couple of under-slot picks within the first few rounds, Atlanta was still in position to offer the 6-foot-2, 220-pound junior the kind of bonus he had anticipated as a projected third-rounder.

“It played out different than I thought,” Elder said. “But I’m comfortable with where I’m at, and I’m ready to go.”

Elder’s life has included a few key, unanticipated developments.

Growing up in Decatur, Texas, which is located about 45 minutes north of Fort Worth, Elder was introduced to travel ball at a young age. But by the time he reached fifth grade, he was tired of driving an hour to practice twice a week and missing the chance to spend weekends on his family’s boat.

So he quit playing baseball and began playing golf with his friends, becoming one of the top teenage golfers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Still, he maintained an appreciation for baseball and thought about playing as a freshman at Decatur High School. But he nixed that idea when the baseball coach told him he could not play both baseball and golf, which are both spring sports in Texas.

Fortunately, Brian Tickel became Decatur’s baseball coach the following year. Tickel allowed Elder to play both sports as long as he threw his side sessions, completed his pitcher-fielding-practice drills and was available to pitch when scheduled.

“I thanked him and told him how much I appreciated all he has done,” Elder said. “He knows without all he did, this likely wouldn’t have happened.”

Elder’s self-confidence and diligence also influenced his rise.

Elder had some success at Decatur, but Howard Junior College was the only school initially offering him a chance to play at the next level. The young pitcher took advantage of a late invite to an all-star game and then requested that the University of Texas send one of its baseball coaches to watch him pitch.

“I gave up a run in the first inning and [UT coach Philip Miller] left and I was thinking, ‘Well, there goes that,’” Elder said. “I threw another inning thinking my chances were done. Then I threw again about three or four days later in Houston, and they came to see me there. It was a weird road to get there, but I made it.”

Elder worked primarily as a reliever during his freshman year for the Longhorns, and then posted a 2.72 ERA over 17 starts during the past two years. His success at the high school and collegiate levels was influenced by a highly effective slider he started to develop when he was just 8 years old.

Brad Davis, one of the youth coaches in the Decatur area, didn’t want his young players attempting to throw breaking balls. But he was willing to teach the slider grip that Elder still uses.

“I hold it like a slider and throw it like a cutter,” Elder said. “My fingers are up in the horseshoe of the seams. I don’t spin the ball at all. The pitch actually comes off my index finger last. A lot of people call it a cutter because they don’t know what it is. There’s something about my arm slot and release that allows me to have very good command with it and change speeds. I hope to be able to throw it for a long time.”

Elder will forever be thankful for the assistance he gained from Tickel and Davis, as well as former big leaguers Troy Tulowitzki and Huston Street, who were both on Texas’ coaching staff this year.

“I think they’ve taught me something I’ll always be able to use, which is to try to simplify things as much as possible and go out and compete,” Elder said.

It’s hard to say what the future holds for Elder. But it’s not like his past was all that predictable.