A young positional nucleus has many in baseball circles suggesting that the Braves could be emerging from their multi-year rebuild. And as they return to a competitive environment, they believe they already have their closer for the future.Left-hander A.J. Minter, an affable Texan who is quiet with his words but
A young positional nucleus has many in baseball circles suggesting that the Braves could be emerging from their multi-year rebuild. And as they return to a competitive environment, they believe they already have their closer for the future.
Left-hander A.J. Minter, an affable Texan who is quiet with his words but loud with his velocity, showed flashes of his potential with his best outing yet on Wednesday, when he struck out Moises Sierra, Trea Turner and Bryce Harper in a row, needing just 13 pitches in the eighth inning of the Braves' 5-3 win over the Nationals.
The four-pitch sequence to Harper revealed what the Braves like so much about the 24-year-old southpaw, specifically Minter's ability to manipulate his cutter with slider tendencies depending on counts and hitters. To Harper, Minter worked to 0-2 on the outer third, then added more depth to successfully secure a chase outside. It's just one sequence, but that one at-bat reflects the club's confidence in what could be many punchouts to come.
"It's so deep. It's so late," Braves manager Brian Snitker said of Minter's cutter-slider. "I watch behind the screen, live batting practice, and I'm like, 'I don't know how guys hit him.'"
Minter's cutter has late-action slice that lands backdoor to righties and moves off-barrel to lefties. He complements it with a high-90s four-seamer, and despite his lack of experience, the Braves marvel at Minter's ability to command the strike zone. Minter didn't walk a batter over his first 13 appearances last year as a late-season callup, and he has issued just three free passes to the 21 batters he has faced in 2018.
Highest swing-and-miss rate on cutters since Minter debuted last Aug. 23
Min. 50 swings on cutters
- Jacob Barnes: 50.0%
- Dennis Tepera: 46.9%
- Mark Leiter: 42.2%
- Wade Davis: 40.0%
5. A.J. Minter: 38.1%
This is why Minter has drawn on-the-record comparisons to some of the ninth-inning elitists of yesteryear and today. Snitker teased that Minter reminds him of a burlier Billy Wagner. Pitching coach Chuck Hernandez alluded that working with Minter reminds him of when he apprenticed Troy Percival and Bryan Harvey. And of course, there's the obvious resemblence to former Braves All-Star Craig Kimbrel, who was called up in 2010 as the Braves were emerging from their last rebuild.
Minter, who has dealt with various injuries since being drafted 75th overall in 2015, including recovering from Tommy John surgery, is not under restrictions for the first time. He understands that to reach the role he and the Braves envision for him, he needs to prepare for a heavier workload, For the first time since being drafted, Minter pitched on back-to-back days April 3-4 against the Nationals and again this week in Washington.
"I have to be able to go multiple days, back-to-back days, so that means if I get in there and pitch, I want to get out of there in less than 15 pitches, so that way I am fresh and ready to go tomorrow," Minter said. "And just being smart warming up. When you go out there and throw a bunch of warmup pitches, that plays an effect in being sore the next day. I want to go out there and throw multiple innings or an inning-plus, back to back. That's my goal."
Despite no restrictions, the Braves aren't burdening Minter with taxing workloads. Arodys Vizcaino is the current closer, and they believe they have a bullpen that can handle versatility. With a lack of urgency, Minter can build his workload and polish his repertoire; he also throws a two-seamer regularly when playing catch, but he hasn't incorporated it into game action yet.
"He's still at the early stages," Hernandez said. "There'll be things that you'll add along the years. But for right now, we want to keep him kind of simple and compact in his delivery and driving the ball through the strike zone like he's done to this point."
Thursday's off-day is the Braves' last until April 30. They begin a 17-game stretch that will be demanding of their entire 25-man roster, but particularly their bullpen, which entered Thursday with the Majors' lowest ERA (1.42) and has accumulated the eighth-most innings (50 2/3). It'd be naive not to acknowledge the small sample size of games, but it'd also be disingenuous to discredit Atlanta's promising start. The Braves believe they can challenge in 2018, and that they have a reliable reliever to call on when high-leverage situations manifest.
"Hopefully we go well enough this year where we need [Minter] to close," Snitker said. "If we're winning a lot of games, we're definitely going to need some help. But yeah, I absolutely do think he could do that."
Daniel Kramer is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @DKramer_.