Spencer Strider taking on his next challenge in his pursuit of being the perfect pitcher

When Spencer Strider went into last offseason, he asked himself a couple questions.

“How do I improve?”

“What’s the next step and what held me back from that?”

He discovered something meaningful.

“To me, it was getting deeper into games,” he said of his next step. “What held me back really wasn’t swing and miss, wasn’t strikeouts. It was walks, balls, getting strikeouts with too many pitches, or wasting pitches, not being in the strike zone. If I’m a guy that has such high swing and miss, why wouldn’t I get swings? That should be my goal, right?”

Recently, Strider became recommitted to this value. To achieve his full potential, he knows he must be himself.

Strider is a strikeout pitcher. And striking someone out requires, of course, at least three pitchers. So a pitcher who strikes out a lot of batters often balances that with going deep into games.

Can someone like Strider consistently go deep into games?

The evidence says yes. The numbers indicate this: This season, Strider got more swing and miss while decreasing his walks. And he went deeper into games. But he’s also gave up more runs, as his 3.81 ERA tells us.

“It’s interesting as to like, OK, you take a step forward and you encounter some new issues,” Strider said. “I think some of those are: Where in the zone is the best place to pitch?”

This might be Strider’s next challenge. How can he find the low-damage spots in the strike zone?

On Saturday, Strider set a new Braves franchise record for strikeouts in a season. He finished with a MLB-leading 281 strikeouts. In the process, he surpassed John Smoltz, the Hall of Famer who previously held Atlanta’s franchise record.

Smoltz thinks highly of Strider, who built himself into a strikeout pitcher. Smoltz thinks Strider can get even better.

“The reason I know he has levels he can get to is because right now, he’s being taught to throw it basically right down the middle,” Smoltz told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And when he learns that there’s a side of the plate that he can go to, and dominate on that side consistently, the league has no chance. And then he’ll be able to win when he doesn’t have his electric, eye-popping stuff, which you’re not gonna have every single time.”

Strider can understand Smoltz’s points. He knows he can continue to induce weak contact in the zone by finding the most favorable spots for pitchers to throw in the zone.

Since last season, Strider has talked about the balance between strikeouts and going deep into games. Piling up strikeouts drives up the pitch count, but striking out batters eliminates the opportunity for random outcomes because fewer balls are put into play.

“It’s a really tight line to walk,” Smoltz said. “I don’t know what the breakdown is, but let’s just guess-timate that you’re gonna have your best stuff 60 percent of your starts. So, 40 percent (of the time), you’re not gonna have your best stuff, which means you gotta pitch. And when he learns to do that, oh my goodness, it’s gonna be incredibly unfair for the rest of the league because he’s got that ability to take care of hitters in ways that nobody could know before. That just comes with experience, and he’s gonna gain a lot of experience.”

But Strider can probably strike out pitchers while still remaining efficient. Above all else, he can’t stray from his approach. Strider gave this example: You wouldn’t tell a sinkerballer to increase his flyball rate.

“I need guys to swing, I need swing and miss,” Strider said. “That’s just the way my stuff is. Maybe it won’t be that way in 20 years, I don’t know. But right now, strikes, swings, I need to attack, I need to be aggressive. But the caveat is, (I need those) in places that are low-damage, that are favorable to me. So continuing to find out where those are and how that changes with different approaches, the second time through a lineup, that kind of stuff.”

Smoltz said that Strider is far ahead of where him and his peers were in the 1990s. Strider knows his body so well. There’s more information and technology. Smoltz said Strider is the optimal pitcher for today’s game.

Strider relies on two pitches: A four-seam fastball and a slider. He has a changeup, but only throws it around 7% of the time. If he develops the changeup, he could reach new heights – though he’s incredible in his current form.

“Well, that’s the thing, right?” Smoltz said. “Because the information overrides feel and touch, they don’t give pitchers the opportunity to develop a third and fourth pitch. And when they see two dominant pitches, which he has, they tell them to throw the two dominant pitches. And he definitely is going to need that changeup to progress into a pitcher that will last well beyond the current trend of baseball pitchers right now, which is not even three and a half years (old). That’s going to allow him to (one), win a lot of baseball games, and (two), strike out a lot of batters. But the one thing about Spencer Strider: If he can go to that next level and pitch seven, they’re gonna win a ton of games.”

Strider is pursuing perfection. Pitching is difficult, and he’s hard on himself. Strider feels like there’s always something else to conquer.

It’s like Whack-A-Mole: Every time he checks off a box, something else pops up.

So now that he’s in the zone much more this season, his next task is to figure out the spots in the strike zone that’ll help him limit damage.

“I think that you’re always learning,” Strider said. “It’s never all going to be perfect. To me, as close as anybody’s ever been to perfect is just (Rangers ace) Jacob deGrom, in terms of getting deep into games, throwing a ton of strikes, going for swings, being aggressive, limiting walks. I don’t know that I’m capable of being him – I’d like to think I’m capable of being better. I look at him, I look at Gerrit Cole, those are the guys, I think, that have come as close as anyone to optimizing an elite pitching approach, in terms of what is gonna consistently give you a chance to win, is gonna work almost all the time. It’s those two guys.

“I think figuring out how to take a step toward that is my next goal. I think last year, my problem was being in the zone, and issues would happen when I wasn’t. Now this year, I’m in the zone, so issues are happening in the zone. That’s better, that’s an improvement from last year. But now, it’s, OK, let’s be in the zone in places that I avoid issues now.”

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