Braves’ A.J. Minter aims to replicate 2020 success

Atlanta Braves reliever A.J. Minter delivers against the Boston Red Sox during the fifth inning Monday, March 1, 2021, at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Atlanta Braves reliever A.J. Minter delivers against the Boston Red Sox during the fifth inning Monday, March 1, 2021, at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

What a difference a year made for A.J. Minter.

The lefty went from the Braves’ closer of the future to a major disappointment to an afterthought to a great comeback story. It wasn’t an easy process, but Minter endured his early struggles and seems to have finally found what was missing.

In Minter’s first 81 games from 2017-18, he had a 3.18 ERA with 48 strikeouts to 12 walks. After a car accident interrupted his 2019 spring training, Minter never recovered that season. He had a 7.06 ERA in 36 games. His command was horrific: Minter walked 23 hitters in 29-1/3 innings. He was yanked from the bullpen and sent to Triple-A.

Entering 2020, Minter wasn’t guaranteed a bullpen spot. He likely he would have begun the season in the minors. But the abrupt pandemic shutdown altered his fate. When MLB returned from its hiatus, Minter had a successful summer camp and wound up on the opening-day roster. He never relinquished his spot.

Minter was brilliant, one of many bright spots in a strong bullpen. He had a 0.83 ERA with a 24:9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 22 games. Minter credited time he spent with fellow Tyler, Texas, native Josh Tomlin during the shutdown for his turnaround. Tomlin had a massive impact on Minter’s career (“He’s changed my mentality of pitching,” Minter said).

As if the comeback story couldn’t get better, Minter started Game 5 of the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers. It was his first start since his collegiate days at Texas A&M. He went three scoreless innings, allowing one hit and striking out seven.

The Braves ultimately lost that game and the series, but Minter’s individual performance wasn’t forgotten. It capped an incredible turnaround for the 27-year-old, who enters this spring in a much, much more favorable position than a year ago.

“Coming off that postseason run, (I’m) feeling confident coming into this year,” Minter said. “If you had asked me that last spring training, I wouldn’t have felt this way. It’s weird how everything changed in one year, just learning from it. Those mistakes, hardships I’ve had just made me a better pitcher moving forward.”

Minter will assume a larger role in 2021. The Braves lost veterans Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Darren O’Day from last season’s relief group. Will Smith and Chris Martin are the expensive veterans, but the team will need more from Minter. He, along with fellow southpaw Tyler Matzek, will be crucial in high-leverage spots. Minter will be deployed in different spots, from sticky middle-inning situations to the ninth inning.

The team’s trust in him shows how far he’s come. The Braves comfortably penciled Minter into their 2021 bullpen plans. They believe in his value in every circumstance. That’s a far cry from 2019, when Minter couldn’t throw a strike and had no place on the 97-win division champs.

“That’s part of the maturation process,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It’s good to see. He’s throwing really, really well.”

Next for Minter is figuring out what separates the best players: consistency. It’s one thing to rebound and have a nice season. It’s another to begin stringing productive campaigns together. Minter has the chance to do just that starting April 1.

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