Strider starts strong, shows off new pitch in scoreless spring debut

February 24th, 2024

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Based on what’s happened over the past two seasons, it may seem crazy to think there was debate regarding whether would be best utilized as a starting pitcher or reliever.

“It’s been fun watching the development of this guy,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It’s been really impressive to see what he’s been able to do.”

Strider enhanced excitement about the upcoming season as he tallied four strikeouts while completing two scoreless innings in a 6-5 win over the Rays on Saturday afternoon at Charlotte Sports Park. The Braves flamethrower was pitching with a purpose as he showed off his new curveball and also lit up the radar gun with an array of 99 mph fastballs during this mutual Grapefruit League season opener.

“That was a big focus for me. I wanted to come to camp in the best shape I’ve ever been in and I ever could be so that I could get honest feedback,” Strider said. “I wanted to be able to run things as close to full speed as I could.”

Strider will continue to rely on the fastball/slider mix that has proven dominant during his first couple of big league seasons, but opponents now have to be cognizant of a curveball, which he threw a few times during Saturday’s exhibition.

“As long as I am pitching off my fastball and I anticipate that [it] will be my highest-usage pitch, guys are going to have to look for it,” Strider said. “The curveball will give me a little more room to move my fastball around.”

While Strider will continue to occasionally show a changeup, it’s a pitch that isn’t exactly fit for his delivery and approach. His attempt to add a third pitch led him to develop the curveball this winter. His slider consistently sits 84-85 mph, but now opponents will have to look for the curve, an 80-82 mph pitch which has a little more vertical break than the slider.

The curveball will be just another weapon for Strider, who induced an MLB-high 306 whiffs against sliders (including slurves and sweepers) last year. Dylan Cease ranked second with 269 whiffs, while no other pitcher had more than 204.

Now opponents have to be prepared for another breaking ball.

“That’s a real curveball too,” Snitker said. “I had a hard time telling the difference between [the curve and slider] a couple times. That was kind of nice for him to be able to throw it against another team, too.”

Saying Strider produced a MLB-high 483 strikeouts since the start of the 2022 season is providing just a glimpse of his accomplishment. Yankees ace Gerrit Cole ranks second with 479, but Cole threw 91 1/3 more innings than Strider during this span.

Strider had played just one professional season when he earned a spot on Atlanta’s 2022 Opening Day roster as a reliever. Despite being used out of the bullpen during that season’s first two months, he secured one of the seven 200-strikeout seasons constructed by a Braves pitcher this century.

In his first full season as a starter last year, Strider responded by recording a modern-era franchise record with 281 strikeouts.

Strider certainly has the capability to record what would be just the 10th 300-strikeout season going back to the start of the 2000 season. Randy Johnson accounted for three of these seasons. Cole and Justin Verlander accounted for the most recent such seasons in 2019.

“[Strider] is always looking to add or to get better,” Snitker said. “I don’t think guys like that are ever satisfied. They always feel like there is something they can do to better themselves on the field and make themselves more successful on the field. I don’t think a kid like that will ever change.”

Game notes

homered against the first pitch of the Grapefruit League season and then capped his two-hit performance with a double.

• Daysbel Hernández and Ray Kerr both surrendered a home run during their respective one-inning appearances on Saturday. Hernández missed most of last year’s second half but was healthy enough to be on Atlanta’s postseason roster. Kerr is a hard-throwing left-hander who should be a part of Atlanta’s bullpen at some point this year.

• Bryce Elder will make his Grapefruit League season debut when the Braves host the Red Sox on Sunday afternoon. Elder earned an All-Star selection last year, but will now battle Reynaldo López for the rotation’s final spot.