Spencer Strider Is The Epitome Of Atlanta's "Less Is More" Approach To Pitching Development
Before Spencer Strider became a household name and one of the favorites (along with teammate Michael Harris) to win the 2022 National League Rookie of the Year award, he was busy making short work of the entire minor league system while paving the way as a shining example of Atlanta’s savvy scouting and consistent pitching development pipeline.
Strider didn’t come out of nowhere. He was a top-200 prospect out of high school in the 2017 draft class and boasted arm strength and a big fastball.
But he did fly under the radar as a college prospect in 2020, in part because of a Tommy John surgery that eliminated his 2019 season with Clemson and in part because of the Covid pandemic that wiped out most of 2020 as well—leaving Strider with just 63 total innings under his belt in college and unranked on our 2020 draft rankings.
The Braves never doubted his talent and signed him for $449,300 in the fourth round. The team planned to develop Strider as a starter and consistently maintained its belief in him succeeding in that role despite questions about a legitimate third pitch.
During the shortened 2020 season with Clemson, Strider threw his fastball/slider combination around 95% of the time and there were questions about his changeup. Instead of having Strider focus on developing that changeup or an infrequently used curveball, the Braves took the opposite approach. The team had him shelve his third and fourth pitches and instead focus on throwing a plus-plus fastball with great carry up in the zone, and pair his best secondary—a vertical slider—down in the zone.
He used that pitch mix to blitz through the minor leagues and went from Low-A Augusta to Triple-A Gwinnett in a single 2021 season—his first as a professional—and made his big league debut in a pair of appearances as a reliever. That shot him up to the No. 5 prospect on our 2022 Braves Top 30 list, but there was still skepticism that Strider’s two-pitch mix would allow him to start as a big leaguer.
Here is the final line of our scouting report at the time: “The Braves view Strider as a starter, although his two-pitch mix makes him a likely reliever in external evaluators’ eyes. He will begin 2022 in Triple-A Gwinnett’s rotation.”
Two things were wrong there. 1) Strider actually started with the big league team and remained there all season and 2) Strider was a terrific starter while continuing to pitch almost entirely off of two pitches.
Using FanGraphs pitch data, Strider either used his fastball or slider 94.7% of the time during his time as a starter. That two-pitch percentage (simply summing every pitcher’s two most frequently used pitches) was the third-highest mark among 124 big league starters in 2022 who threw at least 100 innings.
If you look at fastball usage, Strider tops the list—using his fastball 65.6% of the time.
Unsurprisingly, this list is dominated by many of the best fastballs in baseball. Strider’s ranks as the 16th-best according to FanGraphs pitch value (among starters with 100-plus innings), and it checks in as the No. 5 best four-seam fastball according to Baseball Savant.
Of the 124 starters who met the previously mentioned qualifications, only Hunter Greene throws a harder average fastball than Strider. But on top of tremendous pure velocity, Strider’s fastball performs well thanks to deception in his delivery, as well as a flat approach angle and 18.1 inches of induced vertical break. It’s an elite pitch, and has a legitimate argument as the best four-seam fastball in baseball.
But Strider has also developed his slider into a legitimate weapon as well: the pitch ranked as the 15th-best slider (among starters with 100-plus innings) according to FanGraphs, and Baseball Savant has it 51st among 520 total.
Which brings us back to the Braves pitching philosophy: throw your best pitches more often. Strider has two premium pitches and has found success—both in the bullpen and as a starter—by almost never using his changeup (5.3% usage) and entirely forgetting the old curveball he previously threw.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to start seeing many more starting pitchers living on just a two-pitch mix. It is still rare to have a pitcher who possesses the requisite pure stuff and control in order to make it work and Strider himself still needs to improve turning a lineup over a third time (.657 OPS third time through vs. .514 OPS first time and .482 second time).
But it does show a path for pitchers to start who don’t have the complete three- or four-pitch arsenal that is commonly cited as a necessary prerequisite for the job. And it’s also an example of why sometimes, it might just be better to double down on what you’re good at and perfect those pitches, instead of spending precious developmental time on an offering that doesn’t have the same promise.
The Braves seem to be going down that path with a number of prospects: RHP AJ Smith-Shawver has a pair of potential 70s in his fastball and slider, as well as a fringy changeup. In 2022 he overwhelmingly relied on his fastball and slider.
RHP Owen Murphy stood out as an amateur for his natural ability to spin multiple breaking balls and the Braves are likely to scrap his changeup initially to instead focus on his fastball/slider/curveball trio.
RHP Darius Vines has developed one of the better changeups in the system, and had more struggles with his curveball that was his go-to pitch as an amateur—at some point in the 2022 season the Braves had him simply stop throwing the curveball and in counts where he wanted to, he would throw a slider instead.
RHP Blake Burkhalter had a strong debut, and while his changeup is ahead of where Strider’s was at the same time, he’s another candidate for a pitcher who could instead focus on a very good fastball and refining a hard cutter into more of a legitimate slider.
This isn’t an approach that would work for everyone. The successful MLB starters who rely almost exclusively on two pitches are ones who generally have two exceptional pitches. But in a system that has shown it can develop pitchers to get close to their ceiling, it’s an approach that is working for the Braves.