While Spencer Strider did not end up winning National League Rookie of the Year, his rookie campaign was nothing short of brilliant. Across 131.2 innings for the NL East-winning Braves, Strider pitched to a 2.67 ERA, striking out 202 batters. His FIP (1.83) and WHIP (0.995) were incomprehensible for a starter.
Looking forward to his second full season in the Majors, where should Strider end up in 2023?
Using the six models on FanGraphs, Strider has a fairly wide range of outcomes. The BAT has Strider in line for 167 innings and a healthy 12.4 K/9. The BAT also has Strider’s most aggressive ERA (3.05) and WAR (4.8).
On the other hand, ZiPS is much more conservative. ZiPS has Strider in line for 122.1 innings and just 2.7 WAR. ZiPS does have Strider making a few bullpen appearances – which likely won’t happen in 2023.
The baseline for Strider is striking out a little more than 12 batters per nine innings while posting an ERA just north of 3.00. How good is that?
In MLB history, there have been just 32 seasons in which a pitcher struck out 12.0 or more batters per nine with a minimum of 20 starts. When adding an ERA maximum (3.16), only 23 are on the list – including Strider’s 2022 season. This list includes Cy Young seasons from the likes of Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Justin Verlander, and Max Scherzer.
How Good Can Strider Be?
Strider was stellar in 2022 – he likely would have received some down-ballot Cy Young or MVP votes had he pitched more in September. However, his batted-ball metrics indicate he could be even better in 2023.
Take Strider’s ERA – 2.67. Among pitchers to make 20 starts in 2022, Strider ranked 17th in ERA. For context, Strider’s run prevention was a quarter of a run better than the likes of Joe Musgrove, Corbin Burnes, Luis Castillo, and Yu Darvish.
Strider’s xERA – based on the quality of contact he allows, his walk rate, and his strikeout rate – was 2.39 in 2022. Strider’s contemporaries here are relievers. Among pitchers who allowed 100 balls in play, Strider was 13th in xERA, sandwiched between Adam Ottavino and A.J. Minter – two relievers who had 2.06 ERAs.
Raising the minimum to 200 balls in play – 184 total pitchers – Strider ranks first in xERA. Hitters hit just .180 off Strider (third-best) and slugged .264 (best). The quality of contact indicates hitters should have hit .179 (second-best) with a .279 slugging percentage (best). Even when accounting for Strider’s league-average walk rate, only AL Cy Young Justin Verlander allowed a better wOBA.
To summarize, Strider’s high-end outcome would align with him being the best pitcher in baseball.
Reasons for Concern
Usually, something in the data jumps out as a sign of caution. For Strider, one could assume his stats were boosted by his 11 relief appearances. In some ways, this is fair. As a reliever, his ERA was 2.22 compared to a starter ERA of 2.77. On the other hand, Strider increased his strikeout rate (13.7 to 13.8) as a starter, and his WHIP decreased (1.027 to 0.988).
The key to the difference in the ERAs is Strider allowing zero home runs in 24 relief innings while he allowed seven in 107.1 starter innings. His HR/9 of 0.6 as a starter would have ranked among the best in the league.
Perhaps Strider broke down throughout the season?
Strider’s best month by ERA, WHIP, and K/9 came in September. His strikeout-to-walk ratio increased each month he spent as a starter in near-equal innings pitched. His ERA and WHIP also trended better as he made more appearances. In September, Strider struck out an absurd 44 batters out of 98 faced. He allowed one home run and walked just seven (2.5 BB/9).
Compared to the first half of the season, Strider trimmed 0.83 from his ERA and increased his strikeout-to-walk ratio by 2.07. In his last 10 starts, Strider recorded six quality starts, nine starts with two earned runs or fewer, and six starts with nine or more strikeouts. In his last seven starts, he baffled the Mets, Astros, Cardinals, and Phillies in one-run efforts.
Strider seemed to get better as the season went along, so the only thing standing in his way for 2023 is setting a new career-high for innings thrown. Since 2018, Strider has only thrown 317.2 innings across college, the minors, the Cape Cod League, and the Majors. He might not throw 200 innings yet, but it is safe to project around 150-160 innings.
The Next Step
Strider is a two-pitch pitcher, throwing either fastballs or sliders over 95% of the time. This is traditionally seen as a reliever mix. Starters work through the lineup two or three times, so Strider’s two-pitch mix could make life easier for hitters as the game progresses. Strider does have a changeup that he threw 4.8% of the time in 2022, and it could feature more in 2023. While it was his only pitch with a positive run value (bad for pitchers), hitters hit .136 against it, whiffing 47.5% of the time.
Adding a changeup will help Strider pitch deeper into games as he still has sequences that hitters have not seen. Honing the changeup will also give Strider another path to victory when he does not have his plus-plus stuff.
The key to Strider making the jump from rookie phenom to true ace is his ability to go deeper in games. Strider averaged just 16 outs per start. For Atlanta last season, both Max Fried and Kyle Wright averaged over 18 outs per start, saving an extra inning for the bullpen every time on the mound. Fried and Wright pitched through six innings in over 70% of their starts – Strider pitched six innings in just half of his starts.
Strider is among the favorites to win the NL Cy Young in 2023. FanDuel has Strider fifth behind former winners in Burnes, Sandy Alcantara, Verlander, and Scherzer at 10-to-1 to win the award. No Brave has won the Cy Young since Tom Glavine won the franchise’s sixth in eight years in 1998. Could Strider climb the mountain in 2023?
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