A.J. Minter taking advantage of his extra chance

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves manager Brian Snitker talks about how reliever A.J. Minter has benefited from some mentoring by other pitchers on staff.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves lefty A.J. Minter remembers his freshman year of high school, when the future major leaguer was trying to crack the varsity team. Indians pitcher and future Braves teammate Josh Tomlin, a fellow Tyler, Texas, native, visited the high school.

“Wow that’s Josh Tomlin,” Minter recalled thinking when Tomlin walked on the field. “That’s a big leaguer. It’s a guy you looked up to. He’s a big leaguer. I never would’ve thought I’d be playing against him, sure enough playing together. Watching him when he pitched in the World Series was very special. I wouldn’t be here without Josh.”

Minter’s recent renaissance can also be partly attributed to Tomlin. The left-hander has been the Braves’ best pleasant surprise early in the 2020 season. After having an ERA above 7.00 in 2019 — a year in which he battled physical and mental issues — Minter has allowed one run over his first four appearances (3-2/3 innings) entering Sunday.

The 26-year-old looks like his old self, when the Braves felt he could become their regular closer. He had a 3.18 ERA with 95 strikeouts against 24 walks across his first two seasons (81 games). His progress was undone in 2019, when he was jettisoned to the minors and shut down early to prematurely end the nightmare campaign.

A slimmed-down Minter came to spring training with a fresh perspective after a dedicated offseason. The Braves made several bullpen upgrades since last July and weren’t banking on him yet, sending him to minor-league camp after a couple outings.

When the pandemic suspended MLB operations, Minter felt it afforded him an extra chance to ready himself whatever season was looming.

“I looked at it as, ‘I’m getting a second chance here. I’m getting a second chance to go home, get feedback on what I needed to improve on,’ ” Minter said. “Luckily, I made the team out of camp for the second round of camp. I told myself I was going to be aggressive. Looking back at last year, it started off as — I obviously got off to a rough start. Physically, I probably wasn’t ready to come back (from injury in spring).

“As the year went on, it was more a confidence thing, not trusting myself, not trusting my stuff. I walked too many guys, that’s what it came down to. I wasn’t getting ahead in counts. It’s hard to get guys out when you’re not ahead in the count. I told myself this year to trust my stuff and be more confident. I feel like it’s been going pretty good so far.”

The Braves loved what Minter showed in the rebooted camp, with manager Brian Snitker saying: “I saw that cutter back to where it used to be. I saw something like it in ’17, when he was our closer. The big thing with him is he’s healthy again, too. He felt good in spring training, but we weren’t going to bring him with us (on the first 26-man roster) because we wanted to make sure he got back.”

What changed between the shutdown and summer camp: Minter again turned to Tomlin, who instead of just providing inspiration to an aspiring big leaguer, helped Minter with his mechanics and mentality while the two worked out with other local athletes at APEC in Tyler.

Minter spent significant time working on his change-up, which he’s used effectively. The cutter has looked sharp too — what it has lost in velocity it’s seemingly gained in movement. The fastball continues covering in the mid-90s.

“I owe a lot of credit to Josh,” Minter said. “Not only mechanics, but just the mindset of learning how to pitch, how to throw to hitters, how to set up hitters. I worked on my change-up a lot. Me and Josh, I couldn’t tell you how much I appreciated having him, and having the guys catch me and work out with. I was blessed to be in that situation.”

The Braves’ bullpen transforms if Minter’s rebirth lasts. They’d been looking for another left-hander to go with Will Smith, who hasn’t pitched yet due to testing positive for COVID-19. In his absence, lefties Minter, Tyler Matzek and Grant Dayton have performed well.

Plugging the old version of Minter into the new Braves bullpen strengthens an already impressive, versatile group. Minter has also shown the ability to pitch in high-leverage situations again, giving the Braves another option in tight spots.

“It makes me feel good with all the hard work I put in this offseason,” Minter said. “Getting there, making the team, getting off to a good start. It helps me confidence-wise. Last year, it was a rough year for me. I’d never faced adversity like that before. I could’ve dealt with it better. It made me a better pitcher and better person. It’s just one of those situations where I’m still not where I want to be right now. I want to be the best reliever in baseball. Sometimes you have to go through adversity to make you that much better.”

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