Braves players come up with comparisons for ‘unicorn’ pitcher Spencer Strider

Chadwick Tromp is standing at his locker and grabbing his clothes when the question comes at him.

In terms of pitchers you have faced or have seen in the major leagues, who does Spencer Strider remind you of?

“That’s a good question,” Tromp, one of the Braves’ catchers, said in a soft tone, as if he’s already beginning to ponder it.

He pauses. You can tell the gears in his mind are turning as he tries to come up with an answer.

His silence is telling.

Finally, he speaks.

“Brother, I ain’t ever seen anything like that,” he said. “I’m dead serious. I don’t think so. That consistent? That I’ve faced? No. I can’t think of one.”

In fairness to Tromp, he has only 99 career at-bats. He has faced elite pitchers – such as Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw – but he certainly does not have as large a catalog as others in the organization.

What about Travis d’Arnaud? D’Arnaud, a catcher in his 11th major-league season, has caught some of baseball’s top starters over the years. He also has stood in the batter’s box against many of the sport’s elite arms.

To whom would he compare Strider?

“Nobody. He’s a unicorn,” d’Arnaud said. “That fastball is one of one. I’ve never seen anything like that. I’ve seen velocity, I’ve seen command. Obviously, (Jacob) deGrom is a one of one as well. They’re just both one of ones.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution went around the Braves clubhouse and asked different players – young guys and veterans, position players and pitchers – various versions of this question: Who does Spencer Strider remind you of?

DeGrom was a popular answer.

Another common response: No one.

Braves pitcher Spencer Strider delivers at Truist Park on Thursday, April 6, 2023.
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

And this formed the key takeaway: To many players, Strider is incomparable. Baseball players watch a lot of pitchers – whether it be their teammates or opponents – throughout their careers. They develop comparisons for almost every one of them.

And yet, many of Strider’s teammates couldn’t come up with anything for him.

He might truly be in a league of his own, which is the greatest compliment in this sport.

“No,” catcher Sean Murphy said when asked if Strider reminded him of anyone. “I don’t know if I’ve ever caught anybody quite like him, as far as his stuff and demeanor. I would say he’s sort of one of one.”

Murphy paused as he continued thinking.

Then he spoke again.

“I’m racking my brain here trying to think of anybody that’s got similar stuff,” he said, “but I’ve got nothing for you.”

‘That’s kind of the only person I would still say: deGrom’

As a rookie last season, Strider reached 200 strikeouts in fewer innings than anyone in history. Put another way: There’s only one pitcher in MLB history with 202 strikeouts in under 132 innings pitched in a season, and his name is Spencer Strider.

Strider has struck out 42.4% of batters he has faced this season – the highest strikeout rate in baseball, and 6% higher than second-place Shohei Ohtani. Strider has fanned 67 hitters through 40 innings across his seven starts.

When asked for comparisons with Strider, some Braves players’ answers did include a name, as tough as it may have been for them to think of one.

“Umm, that’s a good question,” Sam Hilliard said. “I’m just trying to think of somebody who has an electric, unhittable fastball, that has crazy ride, plus velocity plus command.

“DeGrom?”

Of course, deGrom and Strider aren’t comparable physically. DeGrom, the former Mets ace who now pitches for Texas, is 6-foot-4 and lanky, Strider is 6 feet tall and has thicker legs. But deGrom’s stuff might be the closest reference point to Strider’s incredible fastball and devastating slider.

Braves pitcher Spencer Strider puts his jacket on in the dugout on April 12, 2023, at Truist Park in Atlanta.

Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

Last season, Michael Harris II said that, among pitchers he had faced to that point in his rookie season, Strider looked most like deGrom.

“That’s kind of the only person I would still say: deGrom,” Harris said recently when asked this again. “DeGrom-like stuff. (Strider) is showing it every night, and he’s getting closer and closer – I feel like he will surpass (deGrom) at some point, and I feel like he’s really close to doing that.”

DeGrom came to mind for someone else, too.

“I haven’t faced (Strider) so I can’t say for sure, but if you just look stuff-wise, a guy who has an elite two-pitch mix mainly – I mean, he’ll sprinkle in change-ups – but the first one that pops in my head is the deGrom,” Matt Olson said. “Four-seam, slider, that people have trouble with both. That’s the first one that jumps in my mind. Not trying to put any lofty expectations on him there, but it’s incredible to play behind.”

Sonny Gray, Justin Verlander and Nolan Ryan

When asked if Strider reminded him of anyone, 39-year-old Jesse Chavez, who is always insightful, took it another route. He didn’t think only about the pitches and the stuff.

He thought about personality. Then he reached into his rolodex of former teammates and pulled out a name no one could’ve expected.

“A lot of traits are similar to Sonny Gray when he came up,” said Chavez, who played with Gray in Oakland. “Obviously, completely opposite ends of the spectrum repertoire-wise. But from the conversations, the way he goes about his business, it’s a lot like Sonny, for me, in my eyes.”

What was Gray like?

“The same. Sonny is like Spencer,” Chavez said. “When it’s his day, his mind’s on what he has to get done until it’s over with.

“Sonny’s a really good one for me. One of my favorites.”

Charlie Morton, another 39-year-old, pointed to a 40-year-old pitcher when talking about Strider.

“They’re different, but he kind of reminds me of (Justin) Verlander a little bit, just watching him pitch,” Morton said. “I know it’s a little bit of a different (arm) angle. I mean, JV comes from way over the top. But watching those two guys, they’re kind of similar to me. I know there’s a height discrepancy there, the style of pitching is a little bit different, JV”s got a pretty nice breaking ball. But in terms of guys that I’ve seen, he resembles him the most that I’ve seen, like what he’s able to do with just a straight heater and you know that good slider. I’ve been impressed with him so much. I think he’s great on and off the field, too.”

Before this season, Kevin Pillar had never crossed paths with Strider. But he watched the 24-year-old on television a lot as he became more popular.

Then he saw Strider in spring training.

“And I think the thing that stands out is, I guess, kind of like his physical (aspect) – his size, but also how strong he is,” Pillar said. “(His height is) not really synonymous with being a power pitcher, so seeing him in spring training for the first time, you would have thought he was bigger, from what you had seen on TV. He’s not a very tall guy. Obviously, very big legs, very strong. It would be like a bit of a stretch, but I mean, you think about guys, like Nolan Ryan, that just had a really good fastball and on any given day, he could really go out there and pitch with one pitch.”

‘His fastball doesn’t make sense’

To this point in his young career, Strider has posted a 2.69 ERA over 174 innings across 40 games. Since 1995, only five pitchers have had a better ERA while pitching at least 174 innings over the first 40 games of their careers: José Fernandez (2.30 ERA), Matt Harvey (2.45), deGrom (2.46), Tanner Roark (2.49) and Roy Oswalt (2.67). But keep in mind that all five pitched more innings through their first 40 games because Strider began his big-league career in the bullpen before the team inserted him into the rotation.

Strider mystifies opponents. They might think they know what he’ll throw – he mainly uses his four-seam fastball and slider – but they cannot hit either offering. The fastball, which sits 97-98 mph and can touch triple digits, is like a magic trick.

Recently, Hilliard talked to a buddy from one of the Braves’ recent opponents who brought up Strider.

“His fastball doesn’t make sense,” the friend said.

To Hilliard, the pitch seems like an illusion.

“Your eyes see it, you think it’s gonna be in one spot, and it’s not there,” said Hilliard, who hasn’t faced Strider but tried to explain it from a hitter’s view. “You swing where you think it’s going to be, (but) it’s just above your bat. He pairs that with the good slider and the crazy velocity. It’s fun to watch, and I know he works really hard, so it’s good to see him having success.”

Braves starting pitcher Spencer Strider walks off of the mound after making his 13th strikeout to end the top of the eighth inning against the Miami Marlins at Truist Park, Monday, April 24, 2023, in Atlanta. Strider had 13 strikeouts and the Braves won 11-0. Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

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

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

To d’Arnaud, the entire package is mesmerizing.

“You got the velocity, you got the extension, you got the low (arm) slot,” he said. “I’ve heard people say it looks like they’re trying to hit ping pong balls. He’s one of one. There’s no fastball like it in the big leagues.”

Austin Riley also mentioned Strider’s arm slot (the angle at which a pitcher releases the ball). Riley has never faced Strider – not even during live batting practice in spring training – but said Strider’s fastball might look to hitters like it never comes down. It only rises.

“You can’t get on top of it,” Riley said. “Guys are swinging under it so much.”

So what do you do if you’re facing him?

“I’m sitting off-speed,” Riley said with a smile. “I’m hoping he’s making a mistake with the off-speed.”

‘I’m glad he’s on my team’

Kirby Yates, formerly an elite closer, referenced a recent quote from Marlins manager Skip Schumaker after Strider came close to no-hitting his team. “It felt like you’re facing a closer for eight innings,” Schumaker said.

That tracks.

“Usually, legit closers in the game are able to strike guys out at will,” Yates said. “That’s kind of why they’re back there, because they can get themselves out of innings by punching tickets. I would say, yeah, because traditionally, his strikeout rates would be in line with a closer.”

Yates also said this: “I think he’s one of one, just because I think his fastball is the best I’ve seen. I haven’t seen a fastball that – it’s firm, but it’s effortless. He throws 97, 98 (mph), but it kind of plays up.”

Strider already is rewriting the Atlanta-era Braves record books: He owns the record for most strikeouts in a game (16). He recently set the record for consecutive nine-strikeout games (nine). One could reasonably expect him to pile up the franchise records as his career progresses, given he stays healthy.

Strider has a long way to go before he can be considered one of the best pitchers of all time, but he already has people in the game wondering whether there’s another pitcher like him.

“I’m glad he’s on my team,” Hilliard said.

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