Spencer Strider didn’t allow a run (again) and called it ‘sloppy’

SARASOTA, Fla. — Spencer Strider did not bring his top form to the mound Sunday. He did, though, retain his high standards.

The Braves ace held the Orioles scoreless in a 4⅔-inning start to remain spotless this spring. In 18⅔ innings, his ERA is a pristine 0.00. And yet, he used the word “sloppy” to summarize his outing.

“I struggled to get things timed up, keep them timed up consistently,” Strider told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the locker room at Ed Smith Stadium.

He did fall behind several hitters, contributing to three walks. He threw a wild pitch. He was taken to the warning track at least once. He loaded the bases in the fourth. Told of Strider’s “sloppy” assessment, catcher Sean Murphy agreed.

“I don’t think that was as sharp as he can be, but he got through it,” Murphy told The AJC. “I think that’s part of spring training, right?”

Therein lies the brilliance of Strider as he tries to build on his breakthrough 2023 season. He was off his game and was still in control against the split-squad form of a team that won 101 games a year ago.

Despite the flaws, he mixed a fastball that reached 99 miles per hour and his slider to induce a steady dose of swing-and-miss and harmless foul balls. He gave up two hits, one a ground ball through the right side and the other an infield hit. In the top of the fourth, he fought back from a 2-0 count against 2023 AL Rookie of the Year Gunnar Henderson, striking him out with back-to-back sliders that Henderson whiffed on.

“I mean, they were nasty,” Murphy said of the sliders. “He put ‘em exactly where he wanted ‘em.”

But after that, Strider allowed a single and walk to load the bases. He then fell behind 3-1 to James McCann, prompting a mound visit from Murphy. The moment called for more urgency than normal for an exhibition game. McCann fouled off a fastball to get to 3-2 before he swung through a slider for the strikeout. (The Braves ultimately lost 8-2.)

“He put himself in some jams, he put himself in some bad counts, but he was able to get through it and put up zeroes,” Murphy said. “At the end of the day, that’s all we care about.”

Sort of. By Strider’s demanding standards, the shutout innings were secondary.

“It’s spring training, so I don’t put too much stock into outcomes, if any,” he said. “My focus is more on my timing and tempo and kind of where my focus was on the mound and my intent pitch to pitch, and I thought that was pretty sloppy.”

Sunday’s game will soon be forgotten. It was a spring-training game, and a split-squad one at that. But to hear Strider hold himself to such an exacting code — judging himself by his own standards apart from the results — was to understand the source of his greatness.

Leading the majors in strikeouts (with 281) and breaking John Smoltz’s single-season club record, as Strider did last season, don’t happen without a commitment to process.

After his start, he acknowledged that “in some ways, some of my stuff was better” than previous starts thus far this spring. But his command was not up to par, he added, nor his mechanics, the tempo of his delivery and his ability to stay in the moment.

“You want to treat every pitch like it’s its own,” Strider said. “It’s the most important one and you approach it independent of whatever the previous outcome was. Sometimes that’s harder than other times.”

As far as the most intriguing aspect of his spring — the addition of a curveball to his repertoire — it fit the tenor of Strider’s self-assessment. He experimented with it early but stuck with his fastball and slider, pitches that he threw 93% of the time last season, according to Baseball Savant. (His change-up accounted for the remaining 7%.)

“It’s still spring training, so I really want to get those things tuned up, and when they’re struggling, you’re trying to work on them,” he said.

He did take more encouragement from another element of his game. Strider decided to ramp up his offseason workout program “just because I’ve got to get better at everything,” he said, not that he’d previously been hanging out at the juice bar, pumping out a few sit-ups and calling it a day.

Working with Brad Scott, the team’s head strength and conditioning coach, Strider developed his strength, explosiveness and endurance.

He mentioned the changes in the pitch clock (two seconds were subtracted from the clock when runners are on base, from 20 to 18) and the prospect of games at Truist Park “on a Wednesday at noon and it’s 150 degrees” as motivation for his intensified regimen. It was easy to think of another unnamed larger objective that was probably at play, though.

After the Braves were eliminated in the NLDS by the Phillies last fall, Strider declared that, despite the overwhelming regular-season success, the team wasn’t doing enough.

“If we truly want to win a World Series, if that’s our goal, then we’re going to have to change something or add something, in the way we prepare and the way we focus,” he said.

On March 17, preparation and focus were on full display. On a day he wasn’t at his best, Strider still held his opponent scoreless in his 4⅔ innings. And he was rolling at the end, notching back-to-back swing-and-miss strikeouts to end his 43-pitch start.

“We said we wanted to make things as difficult as possible in the offseason so the season felt as easy as it could,” Strider said. “So far, I feel really good with where we’re at physically.”

And, given his own tendency to judge himself harshly, his saying that he feels “really good” is significant.

If Braves fans are looking for reason to believe that “World Series or bust” is more than an empty maxim, Spencer Strider on Sunday at Ed Smith Stadium, where he was at once sloppy and convincing, would be a good place to start.


Wednesday, Braves vs. Blue Jays, 1:05 p.m., BSSO, 1340, 103.7