How Strider went from TJ surgery in ’19 to Braves’ bullpen in ’21

March 28th, 2022

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- Spencer Strider began last season at Low-A Augusta and ended it as a member of Atlanta’s bullpen. But to fully appreciate this incredible ascent to the Majors, it must be remembered the hard-throwing right-hander had never pitched at the professional level before last year.

“He’s got a big arm,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I think the taste he got last year will serve him well. He’s an interesting guy.”

Interesting is certainly a good way to describe Strider, who has progressed faster than most could have imagined since missing the 2019 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He made just four starts for Clemson before his 2020 season was erased by COVID-19. Yet, the Braves took him in the fourth round of that summer’s MLB Draft and then watched him rocket through four levels during his first Minor League season last year.

“I started in Low A last year and expected to be there the entire season,” Strider said. “A year ago, my vision for how I was going to get to the big leagues was a lot different, a lot longer. So to be around camp and these guys as long as I have been, regardless of how anything turns out, it’s obviously been very beneficial.”

Given that Major League clubs can use a 28-man roster throughout April, there is a chance Strider could begin this season as a sixth starter, closer or long reliever at the big league level. His bid to gain a spot on Atlanta’s pitching staff was strengthened as he threw 2 1/3 scoreless and hitless innings in a 5-4 win over the Blue Jays on Monday afternoon at CoolToday Park.

But unless Strider is needed to make starts within the first couple weeks, he will likely begin the season within Triple-A Gwinnett’s rotation.

Strider opens eyes with his fastball, which, per Statcast, averaged 97.9 mph during his short big league stint last year. That fastball touched 100 mph Monday. But as the young hurler confidently attacked Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette and Teoscar Hernández in Monday’s first inning, he induced some awkward swings with both his curveball and changeup, a couple offspeed pitches he didn’t begin to truly develop until he reached the Double-A level last year.

“Guys are so geared for my fastball,” Strider said. “So, if I can just be around the zone with my off-speed pitches, especially early in the count, guys have to guess more. The fastball is then going to play better, and I’m going to get a lot of ugly swings on my offspeed pitches.”

Strider produced a 3.64 ERA over the 94 innings he combined to complete for Low-A Augusta, High-A Rome, Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett last year. This earned him a chance to spend the regular season’s final weekend at the big league level, auditioning to be in the Braves' bullpen for the postseason.

Though Strider didn’t earn that postseason spot with two regular-season appearances, the year was still a success.

“I was able to settle in at the lower levels and then when I got to Double-A, I started to be challenged,” Strider said. “I developed a breaking ball, worked on a changeup and refined my routine, because at that point, that was the most I had pitched in any season, really since high school. There was a lot of adversity I encountered for the first time. So, that was good.”

During Strider's first year of professional ball, he threw more than he had at any point since his senior year at Christian Academy of Knoxville (Tenn.). He totaled 51 innings while primarily pitching out of Clemson’s bullpen during his freshman season in 2018. Then after recovering from Tommy John surgery in February 2019, he totaled 12 innings over the four starts made before COVID shut down the sports world.

But within those four starts, he looked different than he had in 2018, when he was a two-seam fastball guy who showed a slurvy curveball and a sparsely used changeup. Strider returned in 2020 as a four-seam fastball guy who consistently challenged hitters up in the zone. His command improved with this more aggressive approach.

His velocity improved more as he spent some time at the team’s alternate training site in 2020. He then touched 101 mph during a Minor League game late last season.

While recovering from Tommy John surgery, Strider and a friend made the short drive to Truist Park to watch a Braves-Brewers game from the upper deck. He remembers watching the pitchers that day and thinking he needed to increase his velocity. But his greatest strides might have been made since he began really focusing on the curveball and changeup last summer.

“I’m very excited about him, as I am [about] a number of young guys in our stable,” Snitker said.