Bryce Elder, the Braves’ All-Star no one saw coming

Bryce Elder delivers a pitch during Gwinnett's season opener against the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp March 31. Since being called up to the majors, Elder is 7-2 with a 2.97 earned-run average - and a spot on the National League All-Star team.

Credit: Jason Getz/jason.getz@ajc.com

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Bryce Elder delivers a pitch during Gwinnett's season opener against the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp March 31. Since being called up to the majors, Elder is 7-2 with a 2.97 earned-run average - and a spot on the National League All-Star team.

Credit: Jason Getz/jason.getz@ajc.com

SEATTLE – Braves fans who loath baseball’s velocity obsession must relish Bryce Elder’s starts. Even those who prefer flamethrowers, too, must appreciate what he’s accomplished.

Elder bucks modern trends. He’s 23, but he’s an old soul. His fastball averages 90.6 mph, but his 2.97 ERA ranks fifth in the National League. He didn’t make the Braves in March, but he made the National League All-Star team in July.

By his own admission, “I’m not going to strike a bunch of guys out.” That alone is a rarity. The Braves have won 13 of his 18 outings.

“He’s a younger guy that is a true pitcher, the type of pitcher I grew up watching,” said 39-year-old Braves starter Charlie Morton. “It’s almost like, a different generation. Watching him is like watching a little bit of a throwback because he’s throwing the ball to smaller areas and he’s moving the ball in different directions. I’ve seen it in person, but I think it’s been a while since I’ve seen a righty starter that was pitching in that style. And to be so young and be able to do that, it’s awesome.”

The Braves needed one of their unproven starters to establish himself entering the season. And that was before Kyle Wright and Max Fried suffered injuries that have sidelined them for months. Elder has teamed with Spencer Strider – a fellow 2020 draftee and All-Star – and Morton to give the Braves a reliable trio, an enormous help with Wright and Fried out. The injured duo went 35-12 with a 2.83 ERA combined last season.

Elder had a nice debut campaign, posting a 3.17 ERA over 10 games (nine starts). He even tossed a shutout against the hapless Nationals last September. But he wasn’t guaranteed anything entering the 2023 season. He failed his brief audition for a rotation spot in spring training. After a shaky outing in Clearwater, Florida, on March 14, the Braves optioned him to Triple-A Gwinnett.

He was Gwinnett’s opening-day starter. Most would’ve figured that was the biggest honor he’d receive this season. But when Elder returned to the majors, he established himself as a necessary component of the marvelous Braves’ success.

“To be honest, no (I couldn’t have envisioned this),” Elder said Tuesday. “I always thought maybe you pitch well enough, you end up achieving something like this. But to start the year in Triple-A, I really never would’ve thought of it. I’ve just put my head down and it worked out. This is pretty cool to be here.”

Third baseman Austin Riley: “I don’t like to count anybody out (as a potential All-Star before the season), but he was the opening-day starter in Gwinnett. That storyline right there is pretty sweet. To be an opening-day starter in Triple-A then an All-Star in the big leagues is pretty cool. He goes about his business as good as anyone. He knows his stuff. He’s not one of those guys who’s going to light up the radar but he knows his craft and knows he has good enough stuff to get guys out, and that’s what he does.”

No one else would’ve guessed he’d be among eight Braves in Seattle this week, either. The guy who headlined Gwinnett’s rotation March 31 is now peers with Gerrit Cole, Clayton Kershaw and the game’s greatest pitchers. “I don’t know any of them but I’m looking forward to meeting them,” Elder said. “To see these guys you’ve been watching for years and to be here with them in some capacity, it’s pretty cool.”

Elder, who not too long ago was prioritizing golf in high school, is perhaps the best starter on MLB’s best team. He deserves to be in the Pacific Northwest alongside his more recognizable teammates. Elder won’t pitch Tuesday, but he doesn’t need to. He’ll save his national introduction for October.

The Braves feature a pair of All-Star starters. When Strider and Elder pitch consecutive days, fans are treated to two differing styles. Strider leads MLB in strikeouts, hovers in the high-90s and overpowers his opposition. Elder earns his success the old-fashioned way. He’s the opposite of flashy but he gets results.

Elder performs with precision. He can less afford to miss his spots than someone pumping triple digits. He’ll get plenty of ground balls and let his defense handle its responsibilities.

“You see Strider’s stuff, throwing 100 (mph) with a wipeout slider, then you almost have the polar opposite with Elder,” first baseman Matt Olson said. “Sinking, moving the ball around. I think it’s great the way they learn from each other.”

Strider says he’d love to have Elder’s sinker to induce a groundball whenever he needs it. Elder, meanwhile, shared he still wouldn’t mind having a little more velocity. “If I could throw 98 (mph), I’d throw 98,” he said. “I just can’t.”

But he can get outs, and that’s all that matters. What an accomplishment for Elder, the unforeseen All-Star who can help the Braves maintain MLB’s best record in the coming months before the postseason crapshoot begins.

“Just keep doing the same thing I’ve been doing,” Elder said. “Keep executing pitches, stay up on my work and see where we end up.”

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