With Max Fried hurt, Spencer Strider is the ace Braves need

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

WASHINGTON — Braves lefty Max Fried finished second in voting for the NL Cy Young Award in 2022 and fifth in 2020. Teammate Spencer Strider was excellent over 20 starts in 2022, but those are the only 20 starts of his MLB career. Yet before opening day, bookmakers were giving Strider shorter odds than Fried to win Cy Young this season.

Apparently, the betting markets think Strider’s first season was no fluke and expect that he’ll be even better in 2023. It’s hard to argue with that conclusion because Strider is so talented. The Nationals should have no objections after Strider shut them down on Saturday.

The start of 2023 for Strider looked much the same as most of 2022. He held the Nationals scoreless over six innings on three hits with nine strikeouts.

“That was a perfect outing for him,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said after the 7-1 victory at Nationals Park. “The innings, the pitches, all of that. You couldn’t draw it up any better with what he needed to experience in his first start of a long season.”

It was a long start for Strider, who threw 96 pitches. Only two MLB players had a higher pitch count on the first day of the season. Usually, pitchers gradually build up the number of pitches early in the season. The Braves let Strider go long right away and the results were very good.

Some might dock Strider a half-point for the three walks or grade him on a curve because Washington’s lineup is so bad. I’m boosting Strider’s score because he put in a long day of work in his first outing and just now hit 140 innings in the majors.

“Definitely some things to work on, and some positive things,” Strider said. “There are going to be more ups, more downs, and plenty of time to improve.”

The room for improvement is what’s exciting about Strider. He posted a 2.67 ERA in 2022 with 202 strikeouts over 131 2/3 innings. What’s the ceiling for a pitcher who throws 98-mph fastballs with big drops and 86-mph sliders with bite? What might Strider do once he refines his third pitch, the changeup?

Apparently, it won’t take much time to find out. Strider was locked in from the very beginning of his first official start of 2023. He retired the Nationals in order in the first two innings while recording five strikeouts.

“From the second he started throwing, you could tell he had his good stuff,” Braves first baseman Matt Olson said. “He’s always going to be a hell of a competitor and when he’s got his ‘A’ stuff it’s tough sledding for the other side.”

Walks were Strider’s only real weakness in 2022. His 8.5% walk percentage was a tick higher than the league average of 8.2%. That’s not a big problem when he strikes out so many batters. The runners who reached base against Strider in 2022 were stranded 74% of the time. That’s higher than all but 61 MLB pitchers with at least 130 innings, and just 16 of them bested Strider’s 2.67 ERA.

Against the Nats, Strider walked three batters and stranded six. He walked Victor Robles in the third inning, then induced a double play that left Lane Thomas on base. In the fourth inning, Strider walked Dominic Smith and Corey Dickerson. He got out of that jam by retiring Jeimer Candelario on a weak fly ball.

Strider didn’t walk a batter over his final two innings. He sat down three Nationals in a row after Thomas led off the bottom of the fifth with a single. Strider struck out Dickerson on his final pitch to leave Keibert Ruiz stranded at first base.

“I think it was more me,” Strider said of his mid-outing hiccups.

The Nationals had four left-handed batters and two switch-hitters in the lineup. Strider said he fell in a “lull” when facing so many hitters from the left side, missing pitches to the outside.

“Lefty after lefty, sometimes if I don’t snap out of it I’ll end up throwing all the balls to my arm side and never get back on line,” Strider said. “(Catcher Travis d’Arnaud) came out, we both said the same thing and we were fine from there.”

So, staying focused against right-handers is one way Strider can get better. Polishing his changeup is another. Strider threw only 109 sliders among 2,277 total pitches. He threw six changeups against the Nats. Five of them were strikes. That included Strider’s final pitch to Dickerson, who swung over the pitch as it dropped into d’Arnaud’s glove.

Strider punctuated that strikeout with a fist pump.

“I worked on it a lot,” Strider said of the changeup. “I don’t ever expect to really throw it a ton, so I think how we used it was perfect.”

With Fried headed to the injured list soon, Strider is at the top of Atlanta’s rotation. He might still be there even when Fried returns. Fried is the more accomplished pitcher. Strider’s seemingly unlimited potential is why he’s the better bet to win the Cy Young Award.