Why Braves prospect Bryce Elder was ready for his debut

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Four years ago, as Texas baseball made its way through its schedule, coach David Pierce and his staff weren’t too pleased with the team’s standing. So as the team approached a weekend series at Oklahoma, Pierce decided to do something different.

Needing a Friday starter – which in the college game is reserved for the top pitcher on a staff – Pierce called on freshman Bryce Elder.

This is Pierce’s favorite story about his former player, the one who eventually put together a successful college career, heard the Braves call his name in the draft and ascended through the organizational ranks before being called up to start Tuesday’s game against the Nationals. Elder’s start at Oklahoma – in which the right-hander allowed four runs over a then-career-high five innings – taught Pierce something about the kid.

“That he was not afraid,” Pierce said.

He immediately added: “And I think that’s what the Braves are going to find out.”

Elder’s debut – April 12 – came almost four years to the day that he made that start against the Sooners (April 13, 2018). His call to the bigs arrived sooner than most could have predicted.

In a 16-4 win over the Nationals on Tuesday, Elder allowed three runs over 5 2/3 innings. At one point, he retired 12 batters in a row. When he exited, the Truist Park crowd gave him a loud ovation.

“That meant a lot,” Elder said after the win. “It was fun throwing in front of everybody. I look forward to doing it again. I enjoyed it.”

Elder, the Braves’ No. 5 prospect on MLB Pipeline, uses five pitches: A sinker, a four-seam fastball, a slider, a change-up and a curveball. This spring, he said he planned to use all five. He added that none stood above the others, but all complement one another.

In a March 20 interview, he was focused solely on his present – not his future. “It’s something that’s out of my control,” of making it to the bigs. “The only thing I can control is getting better and making pitches consistently, and if I do that, that’s their job to move me where they think I need to be.”

The circumstances pushed up his debut, but that doesn’t mean he’s not ready.

Two years ago, the Braves drafted Elder. In his first professional season, he went from High-A to Triple-A. The 22-year-old on Tuesday found himself at Truist Park, with a locker in the home clubhouse and a No. 55 jersey with his name on it.

Everyone seems to believe he’ll succeed.

Of Elder’s rise up the organizational ladder, Pierce said: “It just says so much about him, his character, his work ethic and his ability to compete – all of the things that are right. His ability to command the baseball, to be adaptable and make adjustments. He’s done it all, and he’s just got a baseball mind.”

Of his confidence, catcher Travis d’Arnaud said: “It’s super rare. One in seven billion should be a good number to put how rare it is, especially for a kid at 22. Crazy odds, right?”

Of his mound presence, Braves manager Brian Snitker said: “It’s not real common (for a young player). One of those things like that is what draws you to a kid, and you notice that right off the bat.”

Elder began the 2021 season at High-A, where he pitched to a 2.60 ERA over nine starts. He then made nine starts at Double-A and posted a 3.21 ERA. In seven starts at Triple-A, he had a 2.21 ERA.

In Grapefruit League action this year, Elder threw 7-2/3 hitless innings. When Snitker removed him from the second start, the Braves’ infielders, all gathered at the mound with the skipper, raved about Elder.

Elder is a scratch golfer. He was known for this throughout most of his high school career at Decatur (Texas) High. Pierce, his college coach, believes golf has helped Elder on the mound because he can “visualize things better than others, and he has the ability to kind of see it, he has the ability to repeat, and he has the ability to deal with adversity and believe in himself.”

Pierce explained it like this: “What do you try to do in golf? You try to repeat a swing. In baseball, you try to repeat a delivery. In golf, you hit the shot you want, you get penalized if you’re one foot short and it goes in the bunker, so you have to have the ability to get out of that without panicking. You make a pitch, (the batter) dumps it in right field, you have the ability to make the same pitch because it was really the right pitch. I think the two correlate really well together.”

On the mound, Pierce believes Elder has qualities that will help him succeed in the big leagues. Perhaps the most important of them: His feel for pitching. Elder showed this with how he has developed his sinker to have more action by altering the pressure point. He can command his pitches well. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos, Snitker said, discussed bringing up Elder for a start at the end of last season.

Elder’s first career start at Texas perhaps set the tone for his future. He was inconsistent as a freshman, Pierce said, but entered his sophomore year determined to be the team’s Friday night starter. “He bumped some other guys, just because of his merit, his ability to take that job,” Pierce said.

Four years later, he’s in the big leagues. It came sooner than many expected, but that doesn’t mean he’s any less ready for it.

“It’s always fun when you see that guy get that call-up,” Snitker said. “You just kind of hope you tell him in enough time where mom and dad can hop a flight and get here and witness it. That’s always an exciting time. Everybody gets excited about a guy getting the opportunity to be a major leaguer.”