In the umpteenth example of “you can never have enough pitching,” the Braves have been through a whirlwind of rotation concerns over the last three months. Heading into Spring Training, Atlanta seemingly had one of the better top four (Max Fried, Spencer Strider, Charlie Morton, Kyle Wright) alignments in the sport, with a plethora of interesting arms battling for the fifth starter’s role. Former rotation stalwart Ian Anderson was trying to bounce back from a rough 2022 season, Michael Soroka was continuing his comeback from a pair of Achilles tears, and Bryce Elder was looking to build on a quality 2022 rookie season.
As it turned out, the Braves ended up going with none of these fifth starter options, as rookies Dylan Dodd and Jared Shuster ended up being the top candidates. Anderson and Elder both struggled in Spring Training and the Braves opted to take it a bit slower with Soroka’s recovery, opening the door for Shuster and Dodd.
However, injuries have shaken things up considerably since Opening Day. Wright began the season on the 15-day injured list due to shoulder soreness, but after returning and making five starts, Wright was again sidelined with shoulder issues and now won’t be available until the first week of July (at the earliest) due to his placement on the 60-day IL. Fried has also made only five starts due to an early-season hamstring strain and now his current IL stint due to a forearm strain, and is also tentatively expected to be out of action until early July. Further down the depth chart, Anderson will miss the entire 2023 campaign due to Tommy John surgery, while Kolby Allard has yet to pitch at all due to a Grade 2 oblique strain suffered in Spring Training.
Between these injury absences and the fact that Shuster and Dodd haven’t pitched well, the Braves suddenly went from having a borderline surplus of pitching depth to a possible shortage. This puts even more pressure on the remaining arms, and Strider is looking like a Cy Young Award candidate while the veteran Morton has been his typically solid self. However, the surprise of the group has been Elder, as through 10 starts and 58 1/3 innings in 2023, Elder’s minuscule 2.01 ERA leads the National League.
It isn’t like Elder has exactly come out of nowhere, as it wasn’t much beyond a year ago that Elder made his MLB debut in more or less in this same role as an early-season injury fill-in. Between those starts, other spot duty, and then a larger role later in the year as a replacement for Anderson and Jake Odorizzi, Elder ended up posting a 3.17 ERA over 54 innings in 2022.
Of the four players taken by Atlanta in the pandemic-shortened five-round 2020 draft, three (Elder, Strider, Shuster) have remarkably already reached the big leagues. Elder was the club’s fifth round pick, and his first pro season saw him go from high-A to Triple-A ball in 2021. Due to his quick path to the majors, Elder still has only 248 2/3 minor league frames under his belt, and he has a 3.55 ERA in the minors due in large part to ground-ball rates that have regularly topped 55%.
That has been Elder’s same recipe in the majors, as he has a 56.5% grounder rate in 2023. A .296 BABIP doesn’t indicate any real amount of batted-ball luck, though Elder has been fortunate that his grounder-heavy arsenal hasn’t been hampered by the below-average defensive marks that Atlanta’s infield regulars have posted over two months of the season.
Elder is neither a hard thrower (89.8mph fastball) or a big strikeout pitcher, with a modest 21.1% strikeout rate over his brief MLB career. Without many strikeouts and a lot of hard contact allowed, Elder’s ability to keep the ball on the ground has been all the more critical, as batters’ hard contact hasn’t translated into much damage. His 6.8% walk rate this season is solidly above average, and a nice improvement from his mediocre 10.1BB% in 2022.
The walk rate is a rare flash of red on an overall uninspiring Statcast card for Elder, which probably indicates that some regression is inevitable. His .295 wOBA is sigifnicantly under his .329 xwOBA, and such fielding-independent metrics as xFIP (3.58) and SIERA (3.77) both project his ERA to be well over his 2.01 mark. Still, an ERA in the 3.58-3.77 range is still pretty good, especially for a pitcher Atlanta ultimately hopes could be a fifth starter once everyone is healthy. Your average fifth starter also doesn’t normally have an elite-level pitch, which is how Elder’s slider has performed to date this season.
Between Elder’s success, Shuster’s improved results since his return from the minors, and Soroka’s impending return to the big leagues, things are looking up for Atlanta’s rotation. With at least over a month to go until Fried and Wright’s returns, it’s still far too early to say that the Braves are out of danger just yet, but missing key hurlers is less of a problem when a promising young arm like Elder steps up with a front-of-the-rotation performance.